The MVP case for Anthony Davis quickly dissolves into a lament of the New Orleans Pelicans’ predicament over the past year, one coach Alvin Gentry has made often throughout the back end of another season on the outside of the Western Conference playoff field.
“If we didn’t get off to a tough start and our record was better, I think we’d be hearing a lot of conversation about him for MVP,” Gentry said in late January.
If there were any room to spare these days in between talk of the current foursome of front-runners, that conversation would be pretty straightforward: Davis, already a consistent presence on the league’s statistical leaderboards, has had his most productive season to date.
In addition to playing more than 70 games for the first time -- long the bane of his otherwise sterling case for superstardom -- the Pelicans' big man has beat or equaled career marks in almost every per-game category, including points (28.0), rebounds (11.8), minutes (36.1), field goal attempts (20.3) and free throw attempts (8.6), while sitting just behind Kawhi Leonard for third in the NBA in player efficiency rating (27.6).
He also quietly re-established his slumping value on defense after a 2015-16 season dogged by uneven effort on that end, with a top-10 rating in defensive real plus-minus and the second-most blocks on a per-game basis while serving as the fulcrum for the Pelicans’ 20-place climb in overall efficiency.
In Davis lore, his fifth season will be an important one, as it marks the point when he made the leap from a shot-blocking, alley-oop-finishing wunderkind to the midrange-shooting wing/center hybrid he has become under Gentry. After years of dreaming up all sorts of future iterations of Davis, we now have a clear idea of the player who, health willing, figures to be a fixture in the NBA’s upper echelon for the next decade.
But in the big picture, it’s still the fourth losing season out of five, and second straight since he placed fifth in voting for the 2014-15 MVP award. And while wins aren’t everything in the MVP discussion, no matter what James Harden says, a winning season is indeed a prerequisite.
The teams of MVP winners have won, on average, 61.5 games. And while Russell Westbrook, the current favorite per ESPN Forecast, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have just 47 with one game left to play, they’ll finish with the No. 6 seed in the West, which ties the lowest playoff position for an MVP, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
That’s the price of admission for “in the conversation” status, a fact not lost on Davis.
“I want to win,” he said recently. “I want to be playing in the postseason more than just one time. That’s something that I really care about.”
To that end, trading for DeMarcus Cousins presents the Pelicans with their highest ceiling of the Davis era.
The Pelicans were just 10-11 before shutting Cousins down for their final four games, with a net rating (plus-1.9) that places them 13th in the league (the same place, coincidentally, as in Davis’ lone playoff season). Successfully navigate a critical offseason, and a playoff bid, perhaps even home-court advantage in the first round, becomes a very real possibility.
Such upswing could indirectly stagnate Davis’ upward trajectory toward an MVP that two years ago seemed inevitable. It’s easy to see any team success next season being interpreted as a case for Cousins, the experimental variable. And while Davis has continued to be the engine for the Pelicans even after the Cousins deal -- he has actually scored slightly more and been slightly more efficiently in that span -- the force of Cousins, both in personality and playing style, commands attention in a way that Davis’ occasional bursts of athleticism amid a water torture of midrange jumpers doesn’t.
But if early returns from this year’s awards season are any indication, Davis is still likely to receive his deserved plaudits, even with a teammate who has played in the same All-Star Game by his side for the first time in his career. For instance, ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton has Davis slotted as the center on his second All-NBA team and left Cousins off his 15-man roster altogether.
If he rises to the first team, as he has on some ballots, it would mark the second time he has done so before his age-24 season, a feat shared by just 12 other players, according to ESPN Stats & Info research, all of whom are or are expected to be in the Hall of Fame. (The list: Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant made three first teams, while Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Ed MaCauley, Tracy McGrady, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas made two each.)
That’s not a harbinger of a future Maurice Podoloff trophy, but it is another strong signal for Davis’ future candidacy -- as long as the last, most important part of his case comes with it.