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The Rise of Anthony Davis

When Boogie Cousins went down, the Pelicans looked cooked. But then The Brow took over, and is now quickly establishing himself as one of the most impactful players in recent NBA history. Here’s how.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“[Anthony] Davis is not LeBron. He’s not Tim [Duncan]. But they were young once and Tim had four years of college.”

Somebody made the mistake of uttering that out loud in May 2012, right after New Orleans fans struck gold by winning the Anthony Davis lottery. This wasn’t a talking head on ESPN, or an anonymous general manager throwing stink on the pick. Who was it?

Monty Williams … the head coach of the New Orleans Hornets!!!

Was that an all-time horrendous take or an all-time savvy underselling of a monster asset? We’ll never know. Nearly six years later, Williams works for San Antonio and Davis is blow-torching the league like no power forward we’ve seen since … (hold on, I’m racking my brain) … (going on Basketball-Reference) … (throwing various search terms in the Play Index) … (I give up).

The catalyst for the blow-torching happened five Fridays ago, on January 26, when Boogie Cousins’s Achilles tendon snapped, launching the latest episode of the depressing Netflix series Anthony Davis Is F*cked. Celtics fans spent the weekend flooding the Trade Machine with Davis mega-deals. Lakers fans jumped on message boards wondering whether they could steal him for Ingram, Lonzo, and Randle. Everyone else wrote off yet another snakebitten Anthony Davis season.

And then, something not so weird happened. One of the most talented big men in recent NBA history basically announced, “I’m not going down like this.”

Davis replaced Boogie at center, a spot that the Brow resisted for years, to the frustration of nearly everyone who (rightfully) wondered why THE quintessential small-ball pace-and-space 5 didn’t want to play there. He averaged a 33–13 over his next 13 games, peaking with a 53–18 against Phoenix, a 45–17 against Miami, and a 42–15 against the Lakers. Even better, he has grabbed the biggest rebounds and made the biggest shots during an improbable seven-game (and counting) win streak. The Pelicans are thriving because they have a future Hall of Famer ripping through the league at the peak of his powers.

I mentioned on Monday’s Ringer NBA Show that if the NBA created a stat called “Holy Fucking Shit Games” to commemorate victories fueled by one player utterly eviscerating his opponent, Davis would have the highest number this season. Multiple listeners suggested Basketball-Reference’s game score as a way to figure it out. After some trial and error, I made 36.0 the cutoff, with the wrinkle that it had to be a WINNING evisceration. Only 36 HFS Games qualified. Your current leaders:

Anthony Davis, 7
James Harden, 5
Stephen Curry, 3

Nobody else has more than two. I kept digging. Basketball-Reference keeps track of every game score since the 1983–84 season, also known as The Basketball Jesus’s First MVP Season. You won’t believe this, but Michael Jordan holds the “Most HFS Games in One Year” record. The rest of our leaders:

15 — Michael Jordan (1988)
11 — Michael Jordan (1987)
10 — David Robinson (1994)
9 — Charles Barkley (1989)
9 — Michael Jordan (1990, 1993)
8 — Kobe Bryant (2007)
7 — Larry Bird (1985, 1987)
7 — Patrick Ewing (1990)
7 — LeBron James (2010)
7 — Stephen Curry (2016)
7 — Anthony Davis (2018)

Quick tangent: I enjoyed this admittedly random list because (a) it cements MJ’s already unassailable GOAT résumé (sorry, LeBron); (b) gives Larry Legend a win over Magic (let’s gooooooo!); (c) ignores The Mail Fraud, Karl Malone (read my book for my details); (d) pays proper homage to ’89 Barkley (who truly missed his calling as a League Pass/Basketball Twitter God), ’90 Ewing (sneaky great), ’94 Robinson (a fantasy hoops behemoth) and ’16 Curry (immortal for those first 25 games); and (e) provides a little historical perspective to Davis’s season. His night-to-night ceiling ranks higher than any power forward since Barkley’s Philly run. It’s higher than 2007 Dirk, 2004 KG, 2001 C-Webb, or any Duncan season — and by the way, Duncan is the greatest power forward ever.

To be fair, Duncan ramped it up in the playoffs, something we obviously haven’t seen from Davis yet. (He hasn’t won a playoff game yet, even if he played heroically in a four-game sweep to the 2015 Warriors.) It’s tougher to shine in the postseason because of the competition and stakes, so I lowered the playoff game score threshold to 32, counted victories only and crunched those numbers again:

7 — Michael Jordan, 1989
6 — Michael Jordan, 1990
5 — Shaquille O’Neal, 2000
5 — Allen Iverson, 2001
5 — LeBron James, 2017
4 — Larry Bird, 1986
4 — Michael Jordan, 1992
4 — Charles Barkley, 1993
4 — Tim Duncan, 2003
4 — LeBron James, 2009

That’s a killer list! I cheated with Duncan’s number — he finished with three in 2003 because his unforgettable Game 6 against New Jersey (21–20–10 with 98 blocks) fetched only a 25.9 game score, which I took as a personal affront. It’s only the greatest game of his entire goddamned career. Hakeem’s iconic demolition of Malone, Barkley, Robinson and Shaq — in order — during the ’95 playoffs was similarly undervalued. When you throw up a 33–10–5 with three blocks in 22 playoff games against your four biggest Hall of Fame rivals, and you drag a decided underdog to the NBA Fucking Title, you should probably earn more than three winning 32-plus game scores. (Come on, game score, get your shit together.)

Duncan remains the gold standard for power forwards — best all-around player, best teammate, most consistent, second-most durable, best big-game player, fewest holes in his game. But Davis’s night-to-night ceiling drifts higher for a lucky reason (his era offers a faster pace, better spacing and fewer defenders clogging the paint) and a simple DNA reason (Duncan never cared about stats, one of the many reasons we loved him so much). Duncan had only five 40–10 regular-season games and four in the playoffs. Davis has already submitted 21 and counting in New Orleans. He savors kicking the shit out of teams in a way that Duncan never did.

They called Duncan “The Big Fundamental” for a reason. He did everything correctly and played some of the finest team basketball ever, finishing as the rightful heir to Russell and Walton and Bird. When David Robinson’s body broke down and Duncan carried the Spurs offensively in 2002 and 2003 — an era now remembered as PEAK FUCKING TIM DUNCAN — it always seemed like Duncan was doing it begrudgingly. He never wanted to carry a movie like Tom Cruise. He wanted to be Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What’s cool about Davis, among many things, is that he wants to be both. Davis embraced Boogie’s injury as an unfortunate gateway to remind everyone that — during an especially entertaining season that we spent celebrating younger stars like Giannis, Embiid, Porzingis, Booker, Simmons, and even Kyrie — Davis owns the most polished array of skills of any 25-and-under star. In any given five-play stretch, he could conceivably post up Dirk-style from 16 feet, easily back someone down from the low block, swish a 25-foot 3, execute a deadly high screen with Jrue Holiday and grab an impossible rebound in traffic for a second-chance dunk. And he can protect the rim and run the floor at the highest levels. Other than that he’s useless.

Like so many other all-timers, Davis possesses one calling card that’s unique to him and him only: comically, freakishly long arms that look like Kevin McHale crossed with Freddy Krueger crossed with God knows what. They look like they were CGI’ed onto his body. And now that he’s (finally) playing closer to the rim, it’s effectively impossible to keep those flailing mega-appendages away from the basket.

Other than Giannis, no current star has a more rapid explosion from “He’s not anywhere near the basket” to “Wait, he’s dunking???” Other than LeBron, no bigger player makes more “No freaking way” shots in traffic at weird angles. And nobody is more unstoppable within 5 feet of the rim, especially on offensive rebounds, when Davis solves being boxed out by twisting his body sideways, almost like someone sliding through a fence, then lunging around his opponent and magically whipping out those Freddy Krueger arms. Time and time again, Davis grabs rebounds or rams home follow-up dunks that seem physically impossible. If you told me that his spine could bend at 45-degree angles, I’d believe it. There’s a “Holy Shit” factor to the Anthony Davis viewing experience that Duncan just never had.

And look, we’re treading on sacred ground here. I get it. The eight greatest players ever are Jordan, Russell, LeBron, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Wilt and Duncan in that order; from there, it drops to the Kobe-West-Oscar-Hakeem-Shaq-Moses group. If you created a power forward from scratch, you’d create Duncan. I don’t relish comparing anyone to him. But Davis has been thrilling enough, and dominant in such an unusual way, that we can’t avoid it anymore. His two-way A-game is as good as any power forward’s A-game since Duncan.

That means Monty Williams was wrong. Because the following things are absolutely true about Anthony Davis:

• He’s emerged as a stealth 2018 MVP pick, the against-the-grain vote for anyone who wants to talk themselves out of James Harden. (I don’t recommend this, by the way.)

• His ceiling has been raised to “Top 25 All Time.” (Whether he gets there … we’ll see.)

• He’s been our most reliable bet, night after night after night, to watch an HFS Game on League Pass in 2018. (And no, Harden can’t believe this paragraph.)

• He’s officially one of the league’s three signature no. 1 picks of the past 25 years. It’s LeBron, Duncan and Davis, in that order.

I thought 2002–03 Duncan was the best power forward I ever watched. I’m not so sure anymore. Davis might be Duncan with worse luck. He’s Duncan with a clueless front office, forgettable coaches, inferior teammates, and a slew of annoying injuries. He’s Duncan without Robinson and Popovich. He’s Duncan with Curry’s Warriors, Apex LeBron, and the most loaded league in 25 years coming at him every night. He’s the worst-case scenario for Duncan’s career if Duncan had landed on, say, the 1997 Denver Nuggets. He’s Duncan crossed with The Conjuring.

Of course, Davis hasn’t shown the same durability as LeBron or Duncan, which is why certain idiot Boston fans (like, um, me) were arguing in December, “I wouldn’t trade Tatum and Horford and all of our picks for Davis. It’s too risky!” I know, that seems like lunacy now. But in 2018, there are eight rules about the NBA, and only eight.

1. Anytime two NBA players start feuding, there’s a 99 percent chance it’s over women or cards.

2. Don’t trade with Danny Ainge.

3. Always trade with Sacramento, Orlando or any team owned by an uninterested Russian billionaire.

4. Just because you have a bunch of salary cap space this summer doesn’t mean you have to spend it.

5. If Artest Melee 2.0 ever happens, it’s a mortal lock that Marc Davis will be the lead ref.

6. The best way to determine someone’s basketball IQ is to ask how they feel about Russell Westbrook.

7. If there’s ever a nuclear war and America blows up, the only two NBA employees who will definitely survive are Chris Wallace and Bryan Colangelo.

8. Don’t mortgage your future and/or ruin your cap flexibility on a known injury risk, no matter how good they are.

Chris Webber. Penny Hardaway. Danny Manning. Elton Brand. Bill Walton. Grant Hill. Derrick Rose. Blake Griffin. Antonio McDyess. Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Larry Johnson. Eddy Curry. Amar’e Stoudemire. Gilbert Arenas. Brandon Roy. Andrew Bynum. Baron Davis. There’s only one recent success: Phoenix ignoring the red flags with Steve Nash’s back and overpaying to steal him from Dallas. You knew it was a huge gamble because Mark Cuban basically said at the time, “Wow, that’s too rich for my blood!” But it worked. Normally, it never works.

Davis doesn’t belong in the previous paragraph — yet — but his bizarre injury history caused The Ringer’s Justin Verrier (who once covered Davis in New Orleans) to worry about it just three months ago. Was he fragile or unlucky? How does a perennial All-Star miss over 20 percent of a six-year career without suffering a major injury? When the injury bug wasn’t biting Davis, it was nailing his best teammates: Cousins, Holiday (missed 122 games in his first four Pelicans seasons), Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (both better in Houston), even Omer Asik (whom they never should have overpaid in the first place). Could we blame the Pelicans? Was something wrong with their medical staff?

Fact: New Orleans has been the league’s biggest non–Donald Sterling shit show this decade. Remember when the NBA couldn’t find a 30th owner and the league had to TAKE OVER New Orleans???? That led to one of David Stern’s darkest moments (the aborted Chris Paul trade), then Stern’s greatest hopefully inadvertent makeup call (New Orleans winning the lottery soon after ancient Saints owner Tom Benson agreed to purchase New Orleans’s NBA team, only with the excitement of someone half-heartedly grabbing a bag of Sour Patch Kids in a Best Buy checkout line).

New Orleans wasted Davis’s first few years by ignoring Cleveland’s mistakes from the first LeBron era, when the Cavs destroyed their cap by recklessly building an instant-contender-on-paper to keep LeBron around (and ended up losing him anyway). Even crazier, Sam Presti had already shown New Orleans the right model! He drafted Kevin Durant in 2007, swapped Ray Allen for the rights to Jeff Green, then kept building through the lottery: Two more top-five picks yielded Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and suddenly, Oklahoma City was set up perfectly for the next 15 years with three future MVPs.

(Hold on, I’m just gonna leave that hanging there for an extra second.)

(One more second.)

(OK, we’re good.)

Instead, New Orleans borrowed Cleveland’s #WEGOTTAWINNOW hashtag, flipping two lottery picks for Jrue Holiday in 2013, then lottery pick Buddy Hield and a second lottery pick for Boogie Cousins in February ’17. It’s almost like they had an owner in his 80s who wanted to win right away or something. They badly overpaid bench guys (Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore), made shortsighted trades (Robin Lopez for Tyreke Evans) and quit on young assets too soon (Austin Rivers, Al-Farouq Aminu). Before last month’s deadline, they sent Asik’s contract and another first-rounder to Chicago for Nikola Mirotic, yet another win-now Pelicans deal that seemed suicidal.

But — I hope you’re sitting down — this one worked out! Even if Mirotic can’t match Boogie’s statistical impact, these Pelicans make sense with Mirotic spacing the floor and Davis creeping closer to the rim. It helps whenever Rajon Rondo does a half-decent impression of National TV Rondo, and it’s definitely helped that Holiday stayed healthy and thrived after a terrifying $126 million extension that, given New Orleans’s recent history, felt like watching someone double down with a 6 against an ace. Does this sudden optimism about the Pelicans worry me that we’re headed for the biggest Smoothie King Center calamity since Will Ferrell’s half-court shot in Daddy’s Home?

Of course! But after prevailing in San Antonio on Wednesday, the Pelicans improbably climbed to a 5-seed in the goofy Western Conference. Davis sealed that victory with a patently absurd offensive rebound, in traffic, that only the likes of Young Moses and Young Hakeem could have snared. Even for the best unexpected League Pass moments, this was a relatively astonishing moment. Here, look.

Meanwhile, Charlotte is heading for another rebuild, even if it’s not as bleak as the heinous 2012 team that won seven games and closed the season with a 23-game losing streak. Despite a 25 percent shot at The Brow, Charlotte fell to second and settled for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — a defensible choice, but someone whose ceiling paled in comparison to Davis’s skyscraper potential. When New Orleans reinvented itself as the Pelicans in 2014, Charlotte became … (gulp)… the Hornets again. The Davis lottery had been one of the happiest Hornets moments; now, it’s the unhappiest, which is saying something for a franchise that has spent top-10 lottery picks on Adam Morrison, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, D.J. Augustin, Brandan Wright, Noah Vonleh AND Kidd-Gilchrist since 2006.

How sobering is the Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist chasm? If we created a historical scale of “biggest drop-offs” from the first overall pick to the second pick, for accuracy’s sake, we’d have to cross off any draft where the second team unequivocally screwed up. That rules out these four drafts …

1979: Magic Johnson, then David Greenwood (over Sidney Moncrief)
1984: Hakeem Olajuwon, then Sam Bowie (over Michael Jordan)
1993: Chris Webber, then Shawn Bradley (over Penny Hardaway)
2003: LeBron James, then Darko Milicic (over Carmelo Anthony)

… and leaves us with the following All-Time NBA Top-of-the-Draft Drop-off scale.

0 = Oscar Robertson to Jerry West (1960)
1 = Elvin Hayes to Wes Unseld (1968)
2 = James Worthy to Terry Cummings (1982)
3 = Bob Lanier to Rudy Tomjanovich (1970)
4 = Allen Iverson to Marcus Camby (1996)
5 = Dwight Howard to Emeka Okafor (2004)
6 = Shaquille O’Neal to Alonzo Mourning (1992)
7 = Kyrie Irving to Derrick Williams (2011)
7.5 = Bill Walton to Marvin Barnes (1974)
8 = David Robinson to Armen Gilliam (1987)
8.5 Patrick Ewing to Wayman Tisdale (1985)
9 = Tim Duncan to Keith Van Horn (1997)
10 = Lew Alcindor to Neal Walk (1969)

Assuming Davis stays healthy, where will Davis over Kidd-Gilchrist eventually rank? 9? 9.5? It’s a borderline tragedy for Charlotte fans. It’s a franchise-saving development for New Orleans fans. And for everyone else, it’s just plain wonderful. Here comes Anthony Davis, the kick-ass no. 1 overall pick we always wanted him to be.

It’s the reason eight hopeless franchises started sabotaging 2018 games with two months to play. It’s the reason we argue about lottery reform every winter. It’s the reason we’ll never concede that ping-pong balls are overrated, that the draft remains an absolute crapshoot, that every single June — without fail — things like “Fultz for Tatum and a pick,” “Ntilikina over Mitchell” and “26 guys over Kuzma” keep happening. We love pretending to understand the NBA draft. We don’t. But every time LeBron or Duncan or Davis shows up, man, does it look easy.