Perhaps the best indicator of a transformative NBA talent lies in how he raises the play of those around him. After leading the league in player efficiency rating in his age-21 season, Anthony Davis' ability to erase doubts about the Pelicans' ascent as a Western Conference contender this offseason exceeded even his prodigious skill at erasing opponents' shots.
Lackluster defense? Right, but Davis.
New systems being installed on both ends? No, worries -- Davis.
Good-but-not-great running mates? Still, Davis.
A firm first-round nudge to the Warriors on their way to a title and the arrival of Alvin Gentry from said champions' much-ballyhooed coaching staff added momentum, yet all expectations of the dawn of a new era in New Orleans can be traced back to the supremely skilled big man with a summit still shrouded by the clouds.
Now a month of games has passed and not even otherworldly performances from Davis seem able to resuscitate the preseason optimism that's since been lost in an ocean of injury-status updates.
"We still don't know what kind of team we have because we've never had the [full] team together," Gentry said Friday in Los Angeles. "We've just got to be patient, try to keep competing and, eventually, we'll get all the guys back on the floor."
Indeed, the absences have been staggering. Three key players -- Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, Norris Cole -- have yet to suit up this season. Starting point guard Jrue Holiday is on a minutes limit and has been held out of all but the most recent back-to-back (in which he played only a combined 27 minutes). Kendrick Perkins, an emergency center thrust into the starting lineup during the dire straits of the season's beginning, is out indefinitely after finally hacking someone too hard. Omer Asik has missed seven games, Luke Babbitt two. Davis has even missed three games and was removed from three more, including after Friday's panic attack-inducing right knee contusion.
The Pelicans have used 11 different starting lineups through 17 games, tied with the Kings for most in the NBA according to ESPN Stats & Info.
So even though the team's bench erupted acrimoniously when a fast-break collision with Chris Paul on Friday sent Davis to the hardwood clutching his knee, Gentry sounded more exhausted when discussing it afterward. Asked if he saw his life flash before his eyes when his star went to the ground, the veteran coach said, "We've been doing it all year. So I would be blind right now."
Dogged by more losses (13) than every team except the Lakers, Nets and historically awful Sixers, the Pelicans' hole, even with the bar for a West playoff seed seemingly sagging by the week, is already deep, with a brutal December schedule -- including six straight on the road -- awaiting.
"A lot of guys are hurt," Davis said. "I can't afford to go down."
Sure enough, despite being carried off the court by two teammates the night before, Davis was back in the starting lineup in Utah and delivered one of his best games of the season: 36 points on 12-for-18 shooting, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in 44 minutes. The Pelicans were outscored by 15 without Davis on the court, as noted by veteran Jazz writer Andy Larsen, and ultimately lost by 14, their second defeat in a row after a spirited three-game win streak.
Defense is the obvious culprit. Last season's bottom-10 unit has slid to second-worst in the league (108.5 points per 100 possessions), as a rotating cast of characters sort out new pick-and-roll coverages. The coaching staff countered by bumping Alonzo Gee, a journeyman defender, up to a starting gig, but lineup shuffles have been a bit of a shell game with a roster complicated not only by injuries but also by zero draftees (and their team-friendly contracts) to show for the past three years. So while the first unit's defensive rating (96.8 points per 100 poss., per NBA.com/stats) would rank ahead of the reigning champs', put two non-shooters like Gee and Asik together and the Pelicans' offense plummets to pre-shot-clock-era levels (78.9), and has forced the team to play from behind the past three games as a result.
The defense has held steady of late when making the familiar offense/defense swap of Ryan Anderson, patron saint of the stretch-4, for Asik, who despite ranking 11th in defensive real plus-minus is now earning more than twice as much per season as his current offensive rebound rate, his primary function on that end. But the scoring has to come from somewhere, and the absence of Evans' creation and Pondexter's floor-stretching have put heavier burdens on core players to mixed results: Anderson is shooting a career-high 45.9 percent thanks to a Dirk-esque step-back game, but Eric Gordon (35.1 percent from 3 on a career-high 7.7 attempts a game) and Holiday (career-low 39.5 percent shooting despite a career-high 28.1 percent usage) have struggled at times.
Ish Smith, plucked from the waiver wire before the season-opener, has been a revelation (team-leading minus-2.2 net rating, per NBA.com/stats), but, again: non-shooter. Gentry's job, perhaps the most plum out of all of the offseason openings, has turned into high-level Jenga.
''We have to find the way to make baskets,'' Gentry told reporters after the loss in Utah. ''If we don't make it, then we got to move it on to the next guy. We just got to get better. To me, I thought we were making progress. Now it's three steps forward, two steps back.''
Evans and Cole are expected to debut on Tuesday, and long term,, the Pelicans still have a superstar under contract and all of their future first-round picks, the most precious of basketball's natural resources.
"I think all of us coaches who have been fired -- and we all have, if you've coached long enough -- your next job, you really got to look at can you be successful," said Doc Rivers, who noted he consulted with Gentry before his former lead assistant took the New Orleans position. "Your first job, you just take. And then after that you start trying to figure out the organization, the players. And at the end of the day, they had a guy named Anthony Davis on their team. So you're looking at that. And they have a lot of players on this team. And you just thought it was a place that he could have success. And he will."
The Pelicans are finding out the hard way that even a limitless big man worth nearly 16 more wins than a league-average replacement can't physically fill the void left by a body count that already features three rotation players with 16 games missed because of injury.