I'm on record saying that I expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to be the most valuable player in fantasy basketball this season. However, I also expect Anthony Davis to put on a show this season that would have made him one of the top fantasy options in recent years. When generating the fantasy projections used on ESPN, I looked at Davis' recent history and projected numbers that fit his individual trends. But for today, let's look at some historic trends that could also offer some insight into what to expect from Davis this season.
Last spring, I made the case that Davis' game as a pro has been an almost perfect meld of the games of David Robinson and Dirk Nowitzki. My argument included scouting reports, anecdotes back to high school and advanced analytics, such as those provided by Second Spectrum. However, most pertinent for a fantasy basketball column, I also compared the box-score trends for those three stars during their first five seasons as All-Stars.
Today, let's start with those two comparison charts. First, their scoring efficiencies:
Next, their volume-based box-score production per 100 possessions during those five seasons:
As I pointed out before, Davis' numbers by both efficiency and volume look like an almost perfect merger of Robinson's and Nowitzki's during those five-season windows with a few small exceptions (e.g., Davis has the highest scoring rate and lowest assist rate). I also pointed out that in the following season, both Robinson (1994-95) and Nowitzki (2006-07) would go on to win the NBA MVP award.
But again, this is a fantasy basketball article. There isn't a fantasy basketball category for MVP, so that isn't of utmost importance here, outside of the fact that an MVP season suggests that this is a player you'd want on your fantasy team. Of more interest today, then, is to utilize this comparison tool to suggest what type of box-score numbers we might expect out of Davis this season.
So, to that end, let's move away from the five-year comps, and instead look specifically at those MVP seasons for Robinson and Nowitzki. If Davis is really a "perfect meld" of those two legends, then his numbers for the 2018-19 season should look like a mix between Robinson's 1994-95 and Nowitzki's 2006-07 season.
During the 1994-95 season, Robinson averaged 36.9 points per 100 possessions (53.0 FG%, 77.4 FT%), 0.1 3P100, 14.5 RP100, 3.9 AP100, 4.3 BP100, 2.2 SP100 and 3.8 TOP100.
During the 2006-07 season, Nowitzki averaged 36.4 PP100 (50.2 FG%, 90.4 FT%), 1.4 3P100, 13.2 RP100, 5.0 AP100, 1.2 BP100, 1.0 SP100 and 3.2 TOP100.
Following the same patterns as in the five-year charts above, one might then project that this season Davis should average about 38.4 PP100 (52.0 FG%, 82.4 FT%), 0.5 3P100, 14.0 RP100, 3.1 AP100, 3.0 BP100, 1.6 SP100 and 3.2 TOP100.
A few interesting patterns, both from the numbers and from the circumstances. First, note that Robinson's rebound and block numbers were down in that MVP season compared to his five-year averages. This was at least in part because the Spurs brought in another dominant rebounder, Dennis Rodman, to play next to him. Similarly, last season the Pelicans had newly acquired big DeMarcus Cousins, and this season, they have Julius Randle in the fold to play next to Davis. Both likely depress Davis' rebounds to a similar extent to what Rodman did to Robinson.
Another pattern of interest is that both Robinson and Nowitzki produced higher scoring rates in their MVP seasons than in the previous five-season average. This also fits with the path that Davis has been on, as he ramped up his scoring dramatically at the end of last season after Cousins went down and sustained that higher volume through the Pelicans' surprising run during the playoffs. Most likely, Davis will continue his elevated scoring this season, again matching the Robinson and Nowitzki template.
As the final step in our thought exercise, let's run the per-100 numbers we estimated for Davis through the filter of the New Orleans Pelicans playing last season at a pace of 100.5 possessions per game with Davis averaging 36.4 MPG.
This gives us our Robinson/Nowitzki estimate for Davis' 2018-19 projection as: 29.3 PPG (52.0 FG%, 82.4 FT%), 0.4 3PG, 10.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.3 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 2.4 TOPG
Let's compare with the actual Davis projection I did last month: 29.9 PPG (51.9 FG%, 81.2 FT%), 0.7 3PG, 12.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.9 BPG, 1.8 SPG, 2.3 TOPG
It is eerie how similar those projections are, considering that one was generated purely from Davis' history and the other completely from two entirely different players. But sometimes history works with us and helps give us perspective on the present and the future.
We've never watched another peak Anthony Davis in the NBA before this one ... but we did see peak David Robinson and we did see peak Dirk Nowitzki. And based on that, maybe we might have some idea of what 2018-19 Davis might just look like.