When Alvin Gentry was named the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, everyone assumed he and Anthony Davis were a match made in heaven.
On one end, you had a coach who was known for his up-tempo style of play and was a true pioneer in implementing ideas and systems that have led us into the pace and space era of basketball. On the other side, you’ve got one of the most athletic big men to ever play the game in Anthony Davis. It was hard not to envision Davis constantly beating overmatched big men end to end, receiving constant lobs and finishing on the fast break.
What made the marriage a truly frightening prospect is the fact that Davis is more than just a generational athlete.
He’s arguably the most skilled big man in the league as well. He doesn’t possess the back to the basket game of a Lamarcus Aldridge, but his face-up game has become nearly indefensible, and his tireless work to improve his mid-range jumper has paid off tremendously. In the 2014/2015 season, Davis took 534 mid-range shots (per nba.com) and made 43.4% of them.
Those are elite marks in terms of both volume and efficiency.
So, when Gentry declared that he was going to have the team’s franchise player start shooting the three-pointer, it seemed to be a nothing more than the next progression in Davis’ game.
Looking at the decision from an analytical perspective, even an average three point shooter is more efficient than an elite mid-range one. No one expected Davis to be a knockdown shooter from deep right away, but if he could hit even 34% of his attempts, that would equate to nearly 1.02 points per shot. Those mid-range shots Davis is so proficient at (not taking into account that not all shots are created equal) garnered only 0.87 points per shot.
Not only did moving Davis beyond the arc make sense analytically, it also seemed to be an idea that would benefit the other players on the roster.
Coming into last season, even when healthy, the Pelicans didn’t feature many long range threats. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are sharpshooters, but no longer on the team. Quincy Pondexter has worked hard to become at least serviceable from deep, but other than them, the Pelicans’ core players are all better suited working within the arc. Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday both prefer to have the ball in their hands, running pick and roll and Omer Asik is offensively limited and cannot score anywhere other than in the restricted area.
Shifting Davis more towards the three point line would not only make him a more efficient scorer, it would open up the court more for his teammates as well. At least, that’s how it should have worked in theory.
As we all know, however, the Anthony Davis three-point venture did not go as intended. Sure, some of that can be attributed to the fact the Pelicans were never close to healthy, but it may just be possible, that sticking a player with the unique talents Davis possesses 25 feet from the basket, isn’t the best strategy.
Before going any further, let me be clear and say that the experiment was not a total failure by any stretch.
Even though Gentry had told Davis that he “should be a good corner three-point shooter”, it was on the longer, above the break threes where Davis had the most success, shooting 34.1% on those shots, and even shot a very solid 38.3% on shots ranging from 25-29 feet (both numbers per nba.com).
Stashing Davis in the corner never seemed like a plausible scenario, since having your star player spotting up in the corner does nothing except give the defense a break, but having him pop out to the three-point line, as opposed to the mid-range area would keep him involved in the action, and force defenses to recover farther out.
If opposing defenders had to scramble out to disrupt Davis’ three-point shot, it would allow him to better utilize his first step and blow by those defenders, producing easy baskets.
Even one of the league’s elite defensive players, Draymond Green, is unable to stick with Davis in this scenario.
Another way the team used Davis’ athletic gifts to help compliment his shooting was by running him off screens, the same way many teams do with their guards. Davis, a guard in high school, is already too quick for almost any big man to stick with, so if his defender got hit by a screen or two, Davis would have even more room to shoot.
For the most part, the Pelicans were successful with this play:
On both plays we get a glimpse of Gentry’s ultimate vision; he wants to turn Davis into the ultimate guard/forward hybrid.
Someone capable of dominating not only down low, but also by abusing his slower footed match-ups on the perimeter by blowing past them and running them off screens until they simply can’t handle it. But, unfortunately for everyone except those match-ups, those plays showcased above are the exceptions, not the rules.
Those drives from the three point line don’t work as well when the floor spacing isn’t optimal, and they often ended with wild forays into the paint that resulted in even wilder shot attempts.
Look at the crowd Davis attracts here, and look at the positioning of his teammates. Alonzo Gee and Kendrick Perkins are parked on opposite sides of the lane and their defenders already know who the first, second, and third options are on this drive.
It’s easy to say these types of plays will diminish this upcoming season as the team gets healthier, but the Pelicans just lost their two best shooters (Gordon and Anderson). Even if the team gets through the season without any major injuries, it’s tough to figure out where the spacing will come from other than Davis, and maybe rookie Buddy Hield.
And that is why one has to question the strategy of forcing Davis to expand his game farther and farther away from the basket. Is it worth it to have Davis camped out 25 feet from the basket for so many possessions when the success isn’t substantial and marginalizes so many other areas of his game?
Keep in mind that although Davis has never been an elite offensive rebounder, he was very proficient in keeping possessions alive and giving his team second chances early in his career.
As his game has been pushed more to the perimeter, that skill has been put to use less and less.
||Average Shot Distance (In feet)
||Offensive Rebound %
Nyloncalculus.com also calculates that Davis chases after offensive rebounds only 12.3% of the time, a number comparable to Spencer Hawes (12.5%).
This is despite the fact that he wins those chases 48% of the time, just 0.1% less than Enes Kanter who has the highest OREB Chase % in their database. Now that he has incorporated the three ball into his game, the ability to keep plays alive on the glass has eroded almost completely.
Beyond that, the more time Davis spends behind the arc, the more his options on any particular possession are limited. When he’s spotted up from deep, he essentially has three options: shoot, attempt to drive, or pass the ball.
On the other hand, move him inside the arc and his options are almost as limitless as his potential.
Just as he has worked to add the long ball to his game, he has started to work towards becoming a real number one offensive option, someone his team can dump the ball off to any time they need a bucket.
The early returns on that project haven’t been good, but Davis has the touch, quickness, IQ, and length to inspire hope that he may one day become the great all-around offensive talent that many pegged him as a bit prematurely.
The flashes have undoubtedly been there.
On this possession, Davis has the ball in what I like to call the Carmelo area. As mentioned previously, Davis is pretty much impossible to handle when he faces up, and here the mere threat of him driving him to the basket is able to gain him a few feet of separation, resulting in an easy jump shot.
That won’t always work, especially against better defenders, and Davis has to improve at hitting tough, contested jump shots. He has begun adding one dribble pull-ups and step-backs to his repertoire, and the ease with which he shoots them is promising for the future.
To this point, most of his offensive game is set up by the threat of his driving ability, and even elite defenders find it hard to not react to his jab step, but his one-on-one game just isn’t very advanced at this point. Some of that is on the Pelicans abysmal roster situation, but some of it is on Davis.
Last season was perhaps the first time since high school that Davis was asked to consistently create his own shot, and he struggled mightily both in isolation situations and with his back to the basket.
The immense expectations placed upon him going into the year caused many to forget he is only 23 years old, and that he averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds per game last season. The ceiling is as high as it ever has been for Davis, and the Pelicans coaching staff need to help him maximize his potential, and a good start would be eliminating the three-point shot from his game, at least for the time being.