The first proper night of grind-it-out, regular-season NBA basketball rewarded hopeful fans with two absolutely monstrous performances.
Player A put up the following statline: 50 points on 17-for-34 shooting from the field, 16 rebounds, five assists, seven steals, and four blocks.
Player B put up the following statline: 52 points on 21-for-58 from the field, 18 rebounds, 26 assists, nine steals, and one block.
Reasonable parties can disagree on which player had the better game. Player A did so much of everything, but Player B, despite an ugly night of volume shooting, was a steal away from a vaunted and exceedingly rare quadruple-double. There have only ever been five of those, and thanks to Player B we almost saw the sixth! Yeah, it’s inefficient overall, but that’s nothing to sniff at. The troubling part, as you have probably already guessed, is these players’ identities.
Player A is the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, an otherworldly talent who has, unfortunately, been frequently injured during his brief NBA career. The vagaries of the human body have routinely conspired to deny us Davis’ best, although they did not do so on opening night—or in his team’s next game, when he scored another 45 points.
Player B, as you might have guessed, is the hideous blob comprised of all of Davis’ fellow Pelicans, taken altogether. This is simply for the sake of showing how the word monstrous can mean two entirely different things, depending upon the object and the context.
Despite Davis’s exquisite performance, the Pelicans were, until the very end, barely competitive with the Denver Nuggets on opening night, ultimately losing 107-102. Another way to think about this close loss to an up-and-coming Western Conference team, he writes very generously, is that if Davis had merely achieved to his 2015-2016 averages, the Pelicans would have lost by 29 points.
Maybe it is not fair to draw assumptions like that. Maybe Davis only put his pedal to the floor upon realizing that his teammates didn’t have it. Maybe Davis’ teammates focused on getting the ball to the only one of them that had any concept of how to reliably get it through the hoop. Maybe, on a different night in a different town against a different opponent, things would have been, well, different. Maybe.
But the Pelicans took a seven-point loss to the world-historically stacked Golden State Warriors in Davis’ next dominant performance; Davis’s 45/17 having earned him rave reviews but nothing more. In the game after that, another loss, Davis, presumably exhausted, went for 18/5 against the Spurs. And then there was Tuesday night against Milwaukee, where, on his home-floor, Davis put up a 35/15/2/3/3. That is somehow his second worst game this year.
For the season, Davis is averaging an absolutely bonkers 30/11.8/2.2/2.5/3.2 per game The Pelicans are 0-6.
Although the season remains young, the Pelicans’ roster leaves one wondering what exactly the organization means to do with him, or means to do in general. The plan is obviously for Davis to live as a god walking among men, and for his rising tide to lift the rest of the organization up with it. But if Davis’s surreal games—getting 50 points plus the rest is a thing that has literally never before happened*—wasn’t enough to propel the Pelicans past even the Nuggets, is it actually possible to imagine the likes of Omer Asik and Dante Cunningham and Solomon Hill doing enough to get the Pelicans past mid-conference Western Conference teams? Please imagine an airplane skywriting “NOPE” in giant letters.
Davis is only 23, somehow, a fact that seems even more remarkable given the long list of injuries he’s already dealt with as a professional. The only thing holding him back from achieving sustainable basketball supernova is his own body. It furthermore seems institutionally unlikely that the Pelicans can fairly expect anything more from Davis, up to and including what they are already getting from him, save perhaps his aforementioned health. This is not only their guiding institutional hope, but—with all due respect to the aforementioned Asik and Cunningham and Hill and the very respectable and indefinitely sidelined Jrue Holliday—apparently the organization’s only actual plan.
It would be absurd to dismiss the Pelicans chances after only six games. Two of their losses are to the all-world Warriors and Spurs. Things could conceivably get better for the team, although it’s hard to imagine Davis or anyone else getting much better than he’s been so far, considering that no one has ever even been this good before. But while people who like watching great basketball pine for more 50/16/5/7/4 stat-lines, we might as well spare a thought for the people who like watching the Pelicans play basketball above any other team. They are stuck knowing that their team has surrounded their monster with a bunch of hopeless cases, a fact that becomes clearer with every passing game. They are fans stuck knowing that, not just this year but for the foreseeable future, that is what they will be watching.
*Hakeem Olajuwon once put up a 38pts/17rbs/6ast/7stl/12blk(!), but took him 51 minutes of gameplay. Hakeem Olajuwon is also awesome.