Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

81% of Anthony Davis looks like this

After 2014-15, Anthony Davis’s pro hoop trajectory climbed into rare company. His traditional big man stats (points, rebounds, blocks) gained him admittance into a stratosphere known to few at the pro level: +24ppg, +10rpg, +2.5bpg. Only Shaquille O’Neal accomplished the same as a 21-year-old. For players 25 or younger, only Shaq, David Robinson, and Bob McAdoo pulled it off. If we expand the list to remove any age constraints, the list is still less than 30 total seasons and just eight players in league history. Anthony Davis won’t turn 23 until March of 2016 and yet, as some critics take aim at Michael Jordan’s career, I too have a prickle of concern in my gut about the durability of young Mr. Davis.

It’s not hyperbolic exaggeration to say Davis’s early career has the markings of an inevitable first-ballot Hall of Famer. His first three seasons have been that good. But somewhere in that mixing pot of historical greatness is the mildly concerning truth that Davis has yet to exceed 70 games in a single season. He’s never encountered the catastrophic injuries that wracked Greg Oden or Joel Embiid. Rather, he’s been sidelined by one little injury after another.

If we consider the players in the 24/10/2.5 club as some sort of bright and shiny baseline to compare against Davis from a purely durability view, we get the following breakout across each player’s first three seasons:

Anthony Davis and shiny baselines - stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Anthony Davis and shiny baselines – stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

It is certainly isn’t an apples to apples comparison, particularly since primary data linking the players (24/10/2.5) occurred for most guys at a different point in their careers. The other difference is player age though there’s not much we can do about that. Of the eight players on the list, David Robinson (26) was the oldest after three years while Davis (21) is the youngest. And given Davis’s lithe frame (particularly as a 19-year-old rookie), it’s fair to wonder if age and physical maturation have factored into his semi-fragility.

Olajuwon (knee injury in 1986) and Robinson (thumb surgery in 1992) both had 68-game seasons in their first three years, but Hakeem appeared in all 82 his first year while the Admiral hadn’t missed a game in nearly three full seasons. Ewing only appeared in 50 games as a rookie, then 63 his second season before finally finding health (82 games) via a significant reduction in minutes – less than four minutes played per game in his third season. Sticking with Ewing, the bulk of his 32 games missed as a rookie were the result of a shutdown in March after he re-aggravated a season-long knee injury.

As we look at Davis’s spate of missed games over his first three seasons, we’ll see the shutdown factor slightly skew his number of games played as well. Over his first two years in the league, Davis was shut down with three games to go as a rookie due to a sprained MCL and bone bruise, then five more as in year two due to back spasms. Those eight games combine for 17% of the total missed games in his career – small volume, but it’s fair to wonder whether he may have played through injury had the playoffs been a possibility.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but New Orleans is a significantly better team with Davis on the court. For his career, when Davis plays, the Pelicans’ winning percentage climbs nearly 14% — from ~32% to ~46%. While the team’s winning percentage has grown each season he’s been on the team (with or without Davis), the disparity between with and without Davis has never been greater than it was in 2014-15 when their winning percentage climbed 14.5% when Davis played. This shouldn’t shock anyone, but rather continue to highlight how critical a healthy Davis is to any New Orleans success.

10-26-15 - with or without anthony

Beyond just winning and losing, there’s the impact of continuity. How well did the Pelicans play in games following a Davis injury? Looking at his first two seasons, the games immediately following his injuries were miserable. There’s a lot of noise when drawing these attribution statements such as opponents, New Orleans personnel, and other injuries, but at its base level, the message is clear that New Orleans repeatedly struggled to re-integrate Davis into their schemes following injuries in years one and two:

  • 2012-13 (rookie year): Davis missed 11 straight games from 11/20 – 12/8 and upon return, the team struggled losing 11 of 13 games (won 15% of games)
  • 2012-13: Davis missed back-to-back games and upon his return, the team dropped seven of eight (13%)
  • 2013-14: Davis missed seven straight and when he came back they lost 12 of 16 (25%)

Aside from being small sample sizes, the stretches above are directional indicators that New Orleans took time to rediscover their pre-Davis-injury winning rate. In each of those three stretches the team performed worse off than even without Davis in the lineup.

Year three revealed a different trend that should alleviate some of the uncertainty around the direction of the Pelicans:

  • 2014-15: Davis misses three straight games and upon return, the Pelicans win four of five (80%)
  • 2014-15: Davis misses five straight games, but when he returns the team wins five of seven (71%)

As the team and Davis have both evolved, New Orleans has improved; learning to live better without their star while simultaneously establishing a system stable enough to provide some level of continuity with or without him. Replacing former coach Monty Williams with veteran Alvin Gentry isn’t likely to disrupt too much as off-season changes left the team about as intact as any other in the league.

(As an aside, for all the teeth gnashing about how basketball is a team game, pro basketball with its radiant stars is hugely dependent on their in-game availability and ability to excel. Players like Davis that impact both offensively and defensively are capable of reshaping history singlehandedly.)

Finally, there are types of injuries. Davis hasn’t sustained a trademark injury like Steph Curry’s ankles, Derrick Rose’s knees or Steve Nash’s back. Since his rookie season, his injuries stretched from head to toe ranging from a concussion to a sprained toe. He’s sprained both shoulders, fractured his fifth metacarpal, experienced back spasms, sprained his MCL among various other dings picked up in nightly battle sessions. As someone without a background in sports health or injuries, it’s difficult for me to say if it’s a good or bad thing that Davis’s injuries are completely random instead of identifiable. I don’t know if it matters that his label is injury prone or just plagued with a bit of bad luck.

It doesn’t take intellectual curiosity to realize less Anthony Davis is bad for the Pelicans. But despite the obviousness of it, Davis has still missed 18, 15, and 14 games in each of his first three seasons as a pro basketball player and his team suffers mightily without him. The injuries are just random and fluky enough to think luck has played a role, but just recurrent enough to make me, you, and Dell Demps wonder. Winning 42% of their games without him is strong year-over-year improvement, but with Davis out for any extended period of time Pelican playoff dreams are crushed like a bag of Doritos in the mitts of Omer Asik. But maybe it’s all nothing more than a human impulse to search for the little blemish in perceived perfection. On the eve of a new season where someone somewhere is ready and willing to anoint Davis the next great thing, let’s bow our heads and clasp our hands and cry out to the Pagan gods of Walton and Ming that we’re dealing with another Ewing and not a Ralph Sampson.

anthony

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