No one would blame you if you haven’t checked in on the New Orleans Pelicans as they conclude their sixth losing season in eight years, but, yes, Anthony Davis is still playing … most of the time. The Pariah-can is being held to a minutes limit and out of fourth quarters, one leg of back-to-backs, and sometimes whole games just because. When he does take the court, he’s remained a monster, statistically: Since returning from trade limbo on February 8, Davis is averaging numbers on a per-36-minute basis that only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has ever touched. Hurt feelings and bubble-wrapping a precious asset weren’t the only reasons the Pels wanted to shut Davis down completely; at full capacity, he’s virtually tank-proof.
Functionally, though, Davis’s participation has been closer to a Peter Gibbons work shift. Underneath the impressive individual numbers in his 14 games post-insurrection you’ll find a net rating of just below zero—a tidy bit of symbolism for a player who is there but not present. More telling is that the Pelicans have been better when Jrue Holiday is on the court and Davis is not, which is a sharp reversal in the numbers that have paced the franchise since the 2016-17 season. Davis is clearly a brilliant player—the best New Orleans has ever had and perhaps ever will. But it’s no secret that the team has looked better without him of late; the only time the six-time All-Star took the floor during a thrilling 22-2 run to topple the Jazz in Utah two weeks ago was when the coaching staff rented out his long limbs to guard the inbounds pass on the final possession. Since his trade demand went public in late January, the Pelicans are 5-9 in games Davis “plays” and 4-5 in games he doesn’t.
The end of Davis’s Pelicans career was never going to be graceful once he hit the eject button, but moving on from a perennial MVP candidate wasn’t supposed to be this easy, either. Year after year we wailed that Anthony Davis Needs More Help, and yet, a few timely wins and some hard-nosed play and all of a sudden it’s three cheers for the “Jrue Krewe.” There are far more questions than answers when considering how the franchise pivots to a future without a top-10 player in the middle of everything, and there will certainly be far more losses. But the fan base has appeared more galvanized by rebuking Davis than it ever did while embracing him. For a player hyperaware of his place in the big picture, that has to matter.
The Davis affair taps into several of the league’s hot-button issues—player power, market size, and contract structures. However, at its core, this is a war between who Davis is and who he wants to be. You have a generational talent who hasn’t enjoyed the team success his play should reap—and has reaped in the past—and someone who has been told, incessantly, that he’s too good to remain dutiful. He sees himself as the best player in the league, after all—why shouldn’t he have everything that comes along with it? The spoils are all there for the taking, with one request from his agent. In fact, several of his All-Star peers have already sketched out the blueprint: Inform your original team that it’s over a year or two before it’s actually over, and make it seem like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them to get something in return. It worked for Carmelo Anthony nearly a decade ago, and it’s worked more recently for Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George. When Davis discussed his decision on a recent episode of The Shop, LeBron James’s roundtable discussion show, he described it more like a rite of passage:
“All the media coverage [is] around me, and now I’m getting a chance to take over my career and say what I want to say and do what I want to do,” Davis said. “So now you see everybody [saying], ‘All right, I see AD changing.’ Everybody’s telling me, ‘You’re growing up. It’s about time to take care of your business, take care of your career.’ So now, as a player, as the CEO of my own business, I’ve got the power. I’m doing what I want to do and not what somebody tells me to do.”
Davis is not wrong for wanting something more—the Pelicans, lest we forget, failed him. Whether what he desires coheres with reality is another story. For all the expectation that Davis would be a brand name—including from, say, a national website that sent a writer to cover him full time—his résumé has never quite fit. Davis is no Personality—that much was made clear when he used All-Star Weekend as an opportunity to see how many feet he could fit in his mouth. And his game? The blocks and alley-oop dunks and one-man fast breaks are legitimate thrills, but the shot-to-shot experience is much closer to Tim Duncan. You admire Davis, like a sculpture in a museum, more than you obsess over him. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to drum up scorn for Davis rather than full-throated support—the former is purely visceral; reaching the latter requires far more nuance. DeMarcus Cousins, by contrast, crashed onto the scene like a monster truck rally; a week after being traded to New Orleans two years ago, the erstwhile Pelicans big man showed up on top of a Mardi Gras float with a pair of panties on his head and a bottle of Hennessy in his hand. What’s not to love?
This growing disconnect between reality and expectation matters—not because it’s important that Davis’s brand appeal continues to crush it with motor oil consumers, but because the disconnect is clearly a guiding force behind his career decisions at the moment. That career, it bears remembering, was placed on a Hall of Fame track as far back as Davis’s third season, and hadn’t deviated up until this season, his seventh. Yet as we’ve seen before in the NBA, chasing an idea of oneself can undercut a promising career just as easily as it can propel it. Challenging LeBron James for best player in the world seemed at one point inevitable for Davis; but take a long look at Davis’s trajectory in the aftermath of angling to join James’s Lakers and it’s beginning to veer closer to Melo’s.
Step away from the take furnace and consider that the ignominious conclusion of Melo’s career has muddled all the good that came before it. Like Davis, Anthony entered the NBA riding the high of a decorated single season in college and achieved immediate individual success; unlike Davis—or LeBron, even—Anthony also had immediate team success. By age 24, Anthony was the best player on a team two wins shy of the NBA Finals and, seemingly, a legitimate challenger to James’s crown. Then his path deviated. In the summer of 2010, three of his top draft classmates assembled in Miami; months later, Anthony forced his way to New York via trade demand, gutting his new team’s roster instead of waiting out the season to sign with the Knicks outright the following summer. The individual production persisted, though always in shadow of unavoidable caveats—including an unwillingness to play up a position, despite clear evidence of its benefits. Eventually, Melo’s pockets were stuffed with cash but his promise went unfulfilled.
In 2014, with the Knicks crumbling around him, ESPN the Magazine published a feature story focused on Anthony’s budding tech interests. It opens with the Knicks star apologizing to an image consultant and a branding expert because “a CEO should never be late.” The first section ends with the following quote from Anthony: “What I really want is a bulletproof legacy,” he says. “How can I be known for being a visionary, for being truly great?”
Davis is already good enough that nothing other than his body can deny him a legacy in basketball. Davis is not only a statistical giant, he’s the model for the future of his position; Anthony signaled an end to an archetype on the wing, but big men look more and more like AD each season. Still, there’s an unmistakable tinge of desperation to the way both Davis and Anthony talk about mattering in the grand scheme of it all. Maybe that’s because Davis is the most successful player of a generation that grew up in an NBA with Anthony’s fingerprints all over it. Harrison Barnes, a member of Davis’s 2012 draft class, was the first college player to speak candidly about his career in terms of a brand; Davis himself trademarked his prominent brow, his lone signifier to basketball fans at large at the time, shortly after he left Kentucky. The generation of players now taking over the league has been exercising control in one way or another ever since they got here; now we are seeing how far they’re willing to go to grasp it at the highest levels—no matter how misguided the attempts may be.