Anthony Davis may not be the odds-on favorite to take home this year’s Most Valuable Player in the NBA award (that would be LeBron James), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t his to lose.
Entering his seventh NBA season – all with the New Orleans Pelicans – Davis is poised to expand upon his already profound basketball skill set and reach a level that will cement his stature as an undeniable top-5 NBA megastar.
The stars have aligned for Davis to take home his first – of hopefully several – MVP honors, and the beginning of that alignment dates back to one unfortunate day in late January.
DeMarcus Cousins was the first star to line up. After he tore his Achilles against the Houston Rockets that fateful night, it was thought to be the end of the Pelicans positive start to the season. Sitting with a record of 26-21, the Pelicans were well in the hunt for a playoff race and the team had never looked more fluid and cohesive than it did in the weeks leading up to the injury. The Brow-Boogie connection was finally starting to heat up right before it was dipped into a half-frozen lake.
But we know how that story ended. Davis would go on a historically great run to end the regular season. In the 33 regular season games following Cousins departure, Davis averaged 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals, and 3.2 blocks per game, including 51.4 percent shooting from the field. The list of players who have averaged a stat line of at least 30/11/2/2/3 for an entire season is a blank sheet. In nine playoff games, Davis was equally as remarkable.
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) September 26, 2018
It was a tough pill to swallow, but the Pelicans dream of a twin-tower system featuring Cousins and Davis just isn’t what the modern NBA called for. It’s why when the Pellies traded for Nikola Miortic – a floor-spacing big who can snipe any look from the perimeter – the team took their play to another level, most noticeably Davis. Star number two had aligned itself.
Anthony Davis surrounded by four shooters is an unstoppable offensive scheme. He’s built to play in a 5-out offense. Unfortunately, being paired with Cousins – someone who needs the ball just as much as Davis does – detracted from that. The injury to Boogie was tragic, but it unearthed a fast-paced and downright lethal offensive attack as a result.
Read those averages Davis recorded during the second half of the season one more time. That’s an MVP stat line, no arguing that. A repeat of that this year would alone have him in the top two or three for voting, no matter how the Pelicans do as a team.
Anthony Davis, asked about the goal he mentioned on Media Day of becoming the most dominant player in #NBA: “I think I’m very close. I think I am the most dominant player, but it’s my job to try to convince you guys (in the media).”
— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) September 26, 2018
But there lies another aspect of the award. Players on “bad” teams don’t take home the MVP, even if they are the most deserved of it. Russell Westbrook is the only player in the last 30 seasons to win an MVP award without his respective team finishing as a top-three seed in their conference (the Thunder finished sixth in the West and Westbrook had to average a triple-double for an entire season just to have a shot. And even then the award still should have gone to James Harden).
The Pelicans ended up winning 48 games last year, but that was only good enough for the six-seed in an ultra-competitive Western Conference. Despite that, Davis still finished third in the voting.
Would another three or four victories – breaking that 50-win threshold – be enough for the voters to give Davis the edge? It quite possibly could – especially if it leads to a top three or four seed – but there are also some other variables involved that could work in his favor.
For starters, LeBron James – the odds-on favorite – and Kevin Durant (who has the sixth highest odds) probably aren’t going to win the award, despite being the two best players on the planet and being favored by NBA General Managers. A bonus for Davis and more stars falling into place.
James will take a page out of his 2017-18 playbook and look to save himself for when the games matter most (i.e. the playoffs). His predetermined lack of effort on defense will hurt his chances significantly, although it’s not something that he appears too concerned about at this stage in his career. Durant is simply surrounded by too much star power to take home the award. A significant injury to Steph Curry is the only way he’d have a legitimate chance.
Voters aren’t going to be partial to James Harden, either, after reluctantly giving him the award he should have won the season prior. We still don’t know what version of Kawhi Leonard is going to show up in Toronto (at the minimum, I’d expect an All-NBA second-team type of season).
The MVP award, realistically, isn’t given to the truly most valuable player each season, anyway. If that were the case, there’s an argument that LeBron should have won it the last seven seasons. No one has meant more to their team over the course of the last decade than James (this is particularly true about his most recent season in Cleveland), yet he’s only won the award four times. More often than not, the award is somewhat of a popularity contest. It’s why Derrick Rose won the award in 2011 and Westbrook in 2017 (and Steve Nash in 2005…). You don’t have to be the most valuable player by pure definition, but you do have to be flamboyant in how you lead your team as their best player. Davis is going to need multiple 50-point games. Maybe a couple triple-doubles here and there. If he records a quadruple-double with blocks you might as well go ahead and ship the award straight to his house (He would be the fourth player in NBA history to pull off such a feat. Davis did record 10 blocks in a game against the Utah Jazz last season).
All of this information leaves us with two viable options for this year’s MVP as we look at things right now: Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Antetokounmpo will have more than a fighting chance against Davis. The Bucks finally have a competent head coach in Mike Budenholzer who will do everything in his power to run the team’s offense through the Greek Freak with plenty of shooters surrounding him. The Bucks can win 50 games in the Eastern Conference at a much easier pace than the Pelicans can out West.
Antetokounmpo is the likeliest challenger to Davis’ MVP run.
However, the award is still Davis’ to lose.
Davis is still fresh on the minds of voters and without Cousins, if Davis doesn’t win the award, it won’t be because of a lack of opportunities. In all likelihood, it would be because of injuries (although Davis has played 75 regular season games each of the last two seasons).
Davis is going to be the “do-it-all” man for the Pels, on both sides of the ball. But there are some areas he’s going to need to improve/clean up this season in order to truly separate himself from the pack.
The first aspect is more of an observation. How will Davis handle being the overwhelming focus of opposing defenses for an entire season? Teams have had an entire offseason now to prepare for Davis. There isn’t another near seven-foot All-Star by his side. He’s been the main focus in previous seasons, this shouldn’t be something new to him, but he’s never been this good. Teams are going to throw every little trick and tactic they can to do anything they can to trip him up. Luckily, the addition of Julius Randle will give Davis another secondary scoring option alongside him. One that can allow Davis to play inside and outside. The same thing goes for Mirotic, who will open up driving lanes for Davis. And who can forget All-NBA first team defensive player Jrue Holiday, who played like an All-Star in the playoffs (and quite honestly, for most of the regular season, too). Those are three great sidekicks that can alleviate some pressure from Davis. His team may not be as good on paper as it was last season, but this year’s version of the Pellies might be better suited around Davis. The stars are all in place.
No more Boogie means Davis can’t rely on his superstar counterpart as much as he could have and having to do so for an entire season could prove to be exhausting. But no more Boogie also means that Davis is in complete control. He can dictate the offense at all times, everything will flow through him. He has teammates that can cover up any tiny deficiency you might be able to find in his game.
Davis shot 34 percent from three last season on only 2.2 attempts per game, which ranked him in the 36th percentile among just big men, according to Cleaning the Glass. For comparison, Cousins shot 35.4 percent on 6.1 attempts per game. Now Davis shouldn’t take anywhere near six threes a game. The only reason Cousins did so was simply because he often preferred to settle for jumpers instead of attacking off the dribble. Davis isn’t one to settle for a three – although he did tend to settle for mid-range jumpers, something that he needs to ween out of his playbook a bit, but not completely eliminate. Being confident in taking maybe one or two more threes per game is only going to open up the floor even more for him. Keeping defenders honest when guarding him on the perimeter just makes him that more of a threat to attack off the dribble.
He’s so close to becoming a complete player, one that has no glaring weaknesses in his game. This season is the year he cleans everything up and surfaces as a future NBA great. The stars have finally aligned for the long-awaited superstar.