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Is Anthony Davis the Most Squandered Superstar in NBA History?

An All-NBA first-teamer is a terrible thing to waste. We figured out just how low the Pelicans big man ranks among stars in bad situations. (Spoiler: pretty low!)

Anthony Davis Elias Stein/Getty Images

The highlight of Anthony Davis’s Pelicans career is a first-round playoff series win. That’s it, that’s the whole thing, and if Davis gets his wish and is traded from New Orleans soon, the Pelicans’ rampage through Portland last season will remain the apex of his first NBA stop.

In only one other season with Davis did the Pelicans even finish with a winning record; in no other season did they win a single playoff game. And with Davis currently hurt and New Orleans mired with a 23-29 record, 5.5 games out of the West’s no. 8 spot, neither stat seems likely to change.

Imagine learning that uninspiring future directly after the 2012 draft lottery, when the then-Hornets held just the fourth-best odds but nabbed the winning combination to claim Davis. New Orleans landed the best basketball prospect since LeBron James; the 7-59 then-Bobcats (now Hornets; it’s confusing) landed Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a lackluster consolation prize. Yet since that seemingly fateful night, New Orleans ranks 21st in the NBA with a 44.3 winning percentage. Charlotte ranks 20th at 44.5 percent.

It’s hard to fault Davis for his team’s persistent struggles. The Brow has been named to three All-NBA first teams and, since he was drafted, ranks third in PER and in the top 10 in points, rebounds, and blocks per game. Even New Orleans’s playoff failures aren’t cause to blame its star—if Davis had played enough games to qualify, he’d rank second on Basketball-Reference’s career leaderboard in playoff points per game, his 30.5 average slotting behind only Michael Jordan’s 33.4. And that’s with nine of Davis’s 13 playoff games coming against the Warriors in title seasons.

That all leads to a somber but, given this week’s developments, pressing question: Has Davis been wasted more than any previous superstar in league history? There’s no definitive answer—B-Ref doesn’t calculate a “wasted” score on its player pages—but we can try to tackle the idea through a few different lenses.

First, we could look at championships; Davis hasn’t won one in New Orleans, but he’s far from alone in that respect. In NBA history, 69 players have been named to multiple All-NBA first teams with the same franchise. That counts multiple teams for a few players, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Bucks and Lakers, LeBron James with the Cavaliers and Heat, and Moses Malone with the Rockets and 76ers, among others. Those 69 players unsurprisingly experienced tremendous team success on average, but there are only so many titles to go around; only 37 of them won a championship with the team in question. (Gary Payton’s win with the Heat doesn’t count, for instance, because he was a first-teamer for Seattle, not Miami.) Many of the winners required a second—or third, or more, because the Red Auerbach Celtics were stacked—multi-time first-teamer to earn a ring.

That’s not to say that a team doesn’t need at least one superstar to win. Dating back to 1979-80, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league, only two champions didn’t depend on a multi-time first-teamer: the 2003-04 Pistons and the 2007-08 Celtics, who qualify only on a technicality because Kevin Garnett made three All-NBA first teams with Minnesota but just one in Boston. Rather, employing such a player is basically a necessary but not sufficient condition to win a title.

So if not championships, we can try looking at playoff success more broadly. Here, Davis rates low, but not quite at the bottom. Four of the 69 players didn’t win any playoff series with their teams in question: Pete Maravich, who never reached the playoffs with the Jazz; Tiny Archibald, who lost his only series with the Kings; and Tracy McGrady and Dave Bing, who went 0-for-3 in first rounds with the Magic and Pistons, respectively.

Five other players, meanwhile, tie Davis’s one series win in New Orleans. Jason Kidd won a single series in Phoenix; ditto Jerry Lucas in Cincinnati, Spencer Haywood in Seattle, and David Thompson in Denver. The Indianapolis Olympians’ Alex Groza made two All-NBA first teams in two seasons, won a playoff series against a team named the Sheboygan Red Skins, and was banned from the league for life because of his involvement in a point-shaving scandal in college.

But two additional strikes count against Davis by this method of comparison. First, Davis has spent more seasons in New Orleans than most of those other players spent with their respective teams. Second, at least Kidd and McGrady and Co. were making the playoffs most years; they were just losing when they got there. Davis has made only two playoff trips in six seasons to date. It should turn to two-in-seven soon, as Davis is injured and his team has just a 25 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.

So with those contextual factors in mind, we can look at perhaps the simplest and most expansive measure of team performance: regular-season winning percentage. On average, the 69 players have collected a regular-season winning percentage just north of 60 percent, and only nine of the 69 amassed a losing record. The 10 best, for curious minds, are as follows (Kareem on the Bucks was 11th, and Kareem on the Lakers was 12th):

Top 10

Player Team First Team All-NBA Nods Winning % Avg. Wins in 82 Games
Player Team First Team All-NBA Nods Winning % Avg. Wins in 82 Games
Wilt Chamberlain 76ers 3 72.9% 60
Magic Johnson Lakers 9 72.4% 59
LeBron James Heat 4 71.8% 59
Kawhi Leonard Spurs 2 71.7% 59
Scottie Pippen Bulls 3 71.2% 58
Tim Duncan Spurs 10 71.0% 58
Bill Russell Celtics 3 70.5% 58
Larry Bird Celtics 9 70.5% 58
Moses Malone 76ers 2 69.8% 57
Shaquille O'Neal Lakers 6 69.7% 57

But Davis appears near the end of the opposite list: the 10 worst records for teams that sported a multi-time All-NBA first-teamer. Behold the tragedy of squandered potential:

Bottom 10

Player Team First Team All-NBA Nods Winning % Avg. Wins in 82 Games
Player Team First Team All-NBA Nods Winning % Avg. Wins in 82 Games
Pete Maravich Jazz 2 39.3% 32
Bernard King Knicks 2 39.5% 32
Tiny Archibald Royals/Kings 3 42.1% 34
Anthony Davis Hornets/Pelicans 3 44.3% 36
Neil Johnston Warriors 4 45.5% 37
Dave Bing Pistons 2 45.6% 37
Tracy McGrady Magic 2 45.7% 38
Spencer Haywood SuperSonics 2 46.3% 38
Allen Iverson 76ers 3 48.8% 40
Moses Malone Rockets 2 50.8% 42

The Pelicans with Davis rank 66th out of 69 in regular-season winning percentage. That’s not particularly a function of the team collapsing when he doesn’t play, either: The Pelicans would still appear on this bottom-10 chart, with a 46.8 percent win rate, if you counted only games in which he suited up. The players behind Davis, meanwhile, all have reasonable excuses for their stumbles: Maravich played for an expansion team, also incidentally in New Orleans; King’s run with the Knicks included a full season he missed due to injury, thus tanking his overall record in New York; and Archibald played for a franchise in frequent flux, as his team rebranded from the Cincinnati Royals to the Kansas City–Omaha Kings to the Kansas City Kings just in the time he was there.

Malone’s presence on both lists, best and worst, suggests that Davis isn’t doomed to languish forever on sub-contending teams. Perhaps future success will come—just not, it seems, in New Orleans. It’s reductive to conclude that New Orleans wasted Davis entirely; for his fans, wins and playoff moments are just part of a broader experiential package, alongside the sheer thrill of watching a unicorn do magic for the better part of a decade. The Smoothie King Center’s crowds surely enjoyed Davis’s nightly exploits, just as the nascent Jazz fans enjoyed Maravich’s singular flair, and Knicks fans enjoyed King’s outbursts at Madison Square Garden, and Orlando’s and Philadelphia’s fans enjoyed McGrady and Iverson torching defenses at the start of the century.

But the Pelicans surely possessed much grander designs—on division titles, on postseason triumphs, on new banners for the arena rafters every year—when they won the lottery seven springs ago. Davis has performed exactly as advertised—but the franchise hasn’t kept pace with its star, and wasted his brilliance more than almost any other in league history in the process.