Anthony Davis' Absence Proving Critical Importance to New Orleans Pelicans
http://blackandgold.com/images/pixel.gifAnthony Davis has proved that he's among the NBA's most talented players this season, but it's his time off the court that has revealed just how much he means to the New Orleans Pelicans.
It feels like the Brow has been missing for forever, only because the highlight-reel blocks and arms that seemed to stretch across the entire baseline had become such a constant part of the 2013-14 season in New Orleans. There wasn't a night the Pelicans played that didn't feature an awe-inspiring moment from Davis.
Since Davis was lost to a hand injury on Dec. 1 against the New York Knicks, the Pelicans have avoided going completely off the rails. However, refusing to fold like a tent isn't good enough for a team that came into the season with high expectations.
The Pelicans are devoid of shot-blocking talent behind Davis. Their big man is averaging 3.9 blocks per game, but in his absence, the Pelicans have averaged 4.75 blocks per game—as a team. That's a precipitous drop-off.
Counting blocks isn't necessarily an indication that the Pelicans defense has gotten worse. In fact, it's often a misleading number. Deandre Jordan is always one of the league leaders in blocks per game, but he's prone to overselling in order to chase big blocks that aren't necessarily there.
Perhaps a bigger sign of Davis' loss is the number of free-throw attempts by the Pelicans' opponents. When Davis is roaming in the paint, the threat of his leaping ability and pristine timing is enough to steer potential drivers away from the rim.
Seriously, who wants to come down the lane to meet this?
An important marker for free-throw "defense" is the 25-attempt mark. It's the average number given up by the Pelicans this season, and it's the dividing line between the 10 lowest ranking teams and the rest of the NBA.
Without Davis on the court, opponents attempted 25 or more free throws against the Pelicans in three of their first four games. In the four games immediately preceding his injury, no New Orleans opponents reached 25 foul shots.
Most of the NBA's other bottom-dwellers when it comes to sending other teams to the line have a serious void inside. From Miami's wing-heavy outfit to the Tyson Chandler-less Knicks, almost every team listed is either reliant on a high-octane offense or is is just plain bad.
Even with Davis, the Pelicans have allowed too many players to get into the lane and draw fouls. When you're surrendering the most efficient shot in basketball at a high rate, it's going to be tough to get wins, regardless of the opponent.
The Pelicans haven't quite been running their offense through Davis this season, but that's because they don't necessarily have to.
Davis has excelled in several key areas offensively this season, but the most jarring number is his impact in transition. While you'd expect one of the league's high-flying wings—like LeBron James or Kevin Durant—to lead the league in transition efficiency, Davis has reigned supreme.
According to MySynergySports.com (subscription required), Davis is averaging 1.64 points per possession on transition opportunities. Watching him play, it's pretty obvious why he's so good on the break. Not only is he a freak athlete, but Davis also busts his butt to get down the floor and get in a good position to make a play.
Davis isn't ahead of the league's best finishers by a slim margin. He's head and shoulders above some of his peers, literally and figuratively.
Davis' other outlet for his out-of-this-world athleticism is on the pick-and-roll, where he has transformed into the league's best roll man. MySynergySports.com charts him at 1.35 points per possession, which also tops the rankings.
Plays like this are simply unguardable:
So, how much has the loss of Davis' two elite skills hurt the Pelicans while he has been out? Two overtime games during his absence complicate matters, but if we look at scoring during regulation time, the Pelicans have failed to reach their average of 103.4 points even once without Davis in the lineup.
Beyond Davis' ruthless efficiency, not having him in the lineup is a huge hindrance for the team's young guards. Think of Davis as a safety valve. When someone like Jrue Holiday gets trapped on a pick-and-roll, he can throw the ball up for grabs and ask his long, athletic partner to go get it. To use a football analogy, Davis' "catch radius" is second to none.
Coming up short of their scoring average against teams like Oklahoma City and Chicago is one thing. Both of those opponents present unique challenges for opposing offenses. But to fail to eclipse the century mark in 48 minutes against teams like Dallas and Detroit is puzzling considering the offensive talent at Monty Williams' disposal.
If there's a silver lining to losing an All-Star candidate and franchise centerpiece to injury, it's seeing the team's complementary players prove they can fill some of the void.
At the center of that conversation is Ryan Anderson, who has given the Pelicans a huge boost since returning from injury in mid-November. Anderson has taken over the team's scoring lead since re-entering the lineup, showing the extra dimension that he brings to the Pelicans almost immediately.
Jrue Holiday's play has also been trending upward as of late, with the UCLA product playing some of his most efficient basketball of the season. Though his turnover numbers (3.5 per game) have remained the same, he has scored 20.5 points and dished 8.5 assists with 51 percent shooting in Davis' absence, all upticks from his season averages.
An easy explanation would be to say that that Holiday's boosts have come from increased opportunities without the team's best player in tow, but his efficiency increasing says otherwise. That could be a sign of the team's many talents finally gelling.
The overall picture, however, indicates that this is a better team with Davis in the lineup than without him. If the basketball gods are just, his return will come sooner rather than later, so the world can once again bask in the glory of the Unibrow.
*All stats current as of Dec. 12, 2013
Kyle Neubeck is a Featured Columnist covering the New Orleans Pelicans. He can be reached on Twitter @Neubeck_NBA
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