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Are We Sure … That the 2018-19 Pelicans Will Be Worse?

New Orleans’s offseason doesn’t jump off the page, but it might not matter. This could be the year Anthony Davis will enter the discussion about best player in the NBA, and the Pelicans will go as far as their superstar takes them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

The biggest reason for optimism in New Orleans isn’t its offseason moves. In a vacuum, replacing DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo with Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, and Jahlil Okafor won’t threaten the balance of power in the West. But the Pelicans should be better next season, because Anthony Davis will be better. Davis, a 25-year-old heading into his seventh season in the NBA, is just now entering his prime. LeBron James, at 34 and in his 16th season, is exiting his. This could be the season when Davis becomes the best player in the league.

Davis went to another level after Cousins tore his Achilles in January. He averaged 30.2 points on 51.4 percent shooting, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals, and 3.2 blocks in the last 33 games of the season. Instead of falling out of the playoffs without Cousins, the Pelicans got better. New Orleans had a net rating of plus-10.7 in the 576 minutes that Davis and Nikola Mirotic, whom the team acquired before the trade deadline, played together. The Pels’ offensive rating (112.4) would have been no. 1 in the league over the whole season. Their defensive rating (101.7) would have been no. 3.

Trading for Mirotic allowed Davis to play center in smaller and faster lineups that fit how head coach Alvin Gentry wants to play. Those lineups were unleashed in the playoffs against the Blazers, when Gentry moved Davis to center full time. Portland had no answer for Davis, and the higher-seeded team was swept out of the first round. Davis averaged 33 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.8 blocks, and 1.8 steals in the series. He scored 47 points to close out the Blazers in Game 4. He dominated them at the rim on offense, and his ability to step out on the perimeter on defense neutralized Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the pick-and-roll.

Reputations in the NBA are made in the postseason, and Davis has made the playoffs only twice in six seasons. He lost to the Warriors both times, which has overshadowed just how dominant he can be. Imagine if the Pelicans had been on the other side of the West bracket last season. Davis could have done the same things to the Rockets that he did to the Blazers. He would have been too much for Clint Capela to handle, and he has the length and foot speed to at least force James Harden and Chris Paul into tougher shots off the dribble.

For as well as Davis played in the playoffs, he still has room to get better. He didn’t play with the ball in his hands all that much last season: He was no. 28 in the league in number of touches per game (71.7), behind teammates Cousins (89.4) and Jrue Holiday (77.1), and only slightly ahead of Rondo (69.3). He served more as a finisher than a creator in the Pelicans offense. Only 7.6 percent of his offensive possessions came on isolations last season. He was in the 97th percentile of scorers as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, as opposed to the roll man, in an admittedly small sample size of 27 possessions.

Davis is still scratching the surface of what he can do as a primary option. He was a point guard before an 8-inch growth spurt in high school turned him into the top recruit in the country. His jumper is almost automatic, and he can put the ball on the floor for one or two steps and get anywhere he wants to go. There isn’t a player who can guard him.

Davis will need to assume more of a playmaking role next season. Payton, like Rondo, is a poor shooter for a point guard, and he doesn’t have the same genius-level floor vision. And while Randle has some similarities with Cousins in terms of his ability to clean the defensive glass and lead the break himself, he’s not the same type of 3-point threat in the half court. Randle will play closer to the basket than Cousins did, which will push Davis to the perimeter. Davis will need to master the quick interior pass to Randle, since Randle’s defender will likely help off him in order to put a second body on Davis.

Everything is set up for Davis to make an MVP run next season. He’s the rare player who could win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, something only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have done in the same season. Davis blocked more shots than Rudy Gobert, last season’s DPOY, and opponents shot a lower percentage at the rim against him. He’s also more mobile than Gobert, whose inability to contain smaller players at the 3-point line killed the Jazz against the Rockets in the playoffs. Davis can defend the entire floor. The Pelicans went from a defensive rating of 103.4 in his 2,727 minutes on the court to 110.2 in 1,264 minutes off it.

The key for Davis is staying healthy. He has accumulated nicks and bruises his entire career; his 75 games last season were tied for a career high. New Orleans can’t afford many injuries next season, since there aren’t many proven options outside its top seven or eight players. The Pelicans may need younger players like Frank Jackson, Cheick Diallo, and Troy Williams—none of whom were first-round picks—to step up.

The 2018-19 squad will be one of the younger teams that Davis has been on. The Pelicans didn’t feel comfortable bottoming out after drafting him in 2012, so they traded their first-round picks over the past six years for Holiday, Omer Asik, Cousins, and Mirotic. Davis has always been one of the younger guys on the roster, which has prevented him from taking on a vocal leadership role. Now, at the age of 25, he’ll be counted on to lead guys like Randle (23) and Payton (24), both of whom are still figuring out their places in the NBA.

The Pelicans will be Davis’s team next season in a way they never have been. Big men take longer to develop than guards, and Davis, if he stays healthy, will be better between the ages of 26 and 30 than he was from 20 to 25. Gentry may keep him at the 4 in the regular season to save wear and tear on his body, but the coach will move his superstar to the 5 in the playoffs, where he is essentially unstoppable. No one wants to see Anthony Davis in a seven-game series. New Orleans has two more shots with him before he can hit free agency in 2020. The NBA could be his league by then.