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In the Absence of Anthony Davis

The Pelicans big man may have the ideal body to thrive in today’s NBA, but do constant injury issues, like the muscle strain he suffered this weekend, obscure a portrait of greatness?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Anthony Davis’s wingspan is 6 inches longer than his 6-foot-10 (or whatever) frame. His long stride can whisk him from the 3-point arc to the basket in just two steps, and his flexibility and/or quick-twitch something or other allows him to pull up, burst down the lane, and hook shots on the move with the fluidity of your favorite scoring wing. Even the pipe-cleaner limbs that magically sprouted from a bespectacled high school guard have bulked up to McBainian levels, which helped keep him on the court for a career-high 75 games last season. If Giannis Antetokounmpo’s still-developing body is the NBA ideal, Davis, just two years his senior, is the closest we have to the fully realized version.

Through the Pelicans’ first 23 games, Davis has played like he’s finally figured out all the buttons of his luxury-SUV physique. As Antetokounmpo grows into his jumper, Davis has shot the 3-ball at a slightly better success rate than Khris Middleton, all while finishing in the paint better than Clint Capela. Davis’s true shooting percentage ranks fourth among players with a steady diet of possessions, and while his prodigious block rate has taken a tiny dip, he has started getting teammates involved with his passing, not just by drawing double teams.

Skinny Boogie’s special brand of fuck-outta-hereness has injected a snarl into this listless franchise. If you noticed the Pelicans’ steady climb to Western Conference respectability this season, it’s likely a result of some explosion by DeMarcus Cousins, whether it be on an official or a box score. But Davis remains the engine for their success. The 24-year-old has not only been better than his frontcourt colleague (except when it comes to film criticism), he has been the best version of himself, which was already among the best in modern history. The only thing stopping Davis from a greatness unencumbered by the usual qualifiers for young up-and-comers is his own body.

With the Pelicans up four early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s game in Utah, and the “in the MVP conversation” case for their star receiving more fuel with his 15th double-double on the season, Davis’s body gave out on him. Though there was no sign of an inciting incident other than a light quiver of his left leg, Davis collapsed along the baseline, clutching his inner left thigh.

Any slight wince or reach for a limb from Davis is met with anxiety, and given the anguish he displayed on the floor in Utah, the fear was that this would be the big one. Davis had to be placed into a wheelchair to leave the floor. The next day, in Portland, he was spotted on crutches. On Sunday, the diagnosis finally came in … and it wasn’t all that bad: Davis suffered a left adductor strain, the Pelicans say. He will miss Monday’s game against the Warriors, his second straight and third overall this season, but is considered day-to-day for the “near future.” New Orleans’s sigh of relief over good news — a rarity in recent years — is palpable, yet the reprieve is also a reminder of the razor-thin margin of error for a franchise with “playoff expectations” practically tattooed onto their principals’ forearms.

Monday will mark the 78th game that Davis, now in his sixth season, has missed, or 18 percent of his career. Davis has had only one major surgery to date — an ultrasonic debridement of his left knee, which cost him the final 14 games of an already-lost 2015–16 season — but the minor ones add up. There was a concussion and some sprains. A few contusions and a few bruises. Some soreness and infections, spasms, and hip pointers. Even last season, when Davis cracked the 70-games plateau for the first time, he was forced out for at least a portion of 12 of them.

The consistent churn of injury updates has become the cruel joke of Davis’s career: The same body that elicits such wonder and possibility may also be what’s holding him back. And without the natural charisma and showmanship of Joel Embiid, or even Cousins, to divert the conversation, the narrative surrounding when he can play, rather than how he plays, has become the dominant one.

This is not a story of lost promise. Yet an extreme case, like, say, Greg Oden, is almost easier to process. When Davis plays, he is amazing — the Pelicans are 15.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court than when he is off it. But can he be considered great in a culture that conflates availability with skill? (Last season’s Rookie of the Year voting would indicate otherwise.)

It feels a bit gross to even engage in this line of thinking. Attributing an injury history this extensive to mere dumb luck skews too fatalistic, yet outright criticism of Davis is bordering on skullduggery. Perhaps an organization at the forefront of health and maintenance like the Spurs could better manage how and when Davis is deployed, but you also can’t ignore the physical transformation Davis has undergone, or the extra precautions the Pelicans have taken since the beginning of last season; Davis’s spike in in-game disappearances had as much to do with getting MRIs to identify the issue early as anything, and the franchise’s explanation for the drawn-out nature of Monday’s MRI reveal is centered on extreme prudence.

At the same time, the persistent will-he-or-won’t-he dance required from everyone in his orbit can be exhausting. Davis’s rise to prominence three years ago, back when the NBA unicorn was pure fantasy, was fueled by a string of “He did what?!” performances. These days, being a fan of Davis can feel more like a chore.