“Y’all want a dance-off?” Davis said, growing louder and raising his left arm to encourage louder cheers. “Y’all want a dance-off?!?!”
For six years, the franchise has nurtured Davis and his evolutionary big man talent, giving him room to grow, trying to build around him and helping to strengthen a body once too fragile for the long and physical NBA season. Yet for all his ability, it has taken the most time for Davis to develop the personality of a transcendent athlete. He arrived in New Orleans as a 19-year-old college basketball player of the year and national champion, but it was as if Davis tried to hide his 6-foot-10 frame behind his famed unibrow. Basketball has always come easy for him, but to reach his potential, Davis needed to own his greatness.
The brief public-speaking moment provided a hint of Davis’s maturation. He is more assertive in everything he does now, from being more vocal on the court when necessary to taking a greater entrepreneurial interest in his career. He switched agents last month, leaving Thad Foucher for Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group, which represents LeBron James.
In every aspect of his professional life, Davis is taking command. He turns 26 in March. Soon, he’ll no longer be one of the NBA’s precocious 25-and-under talents. He is in his prime, and now starts the push to get all this game can offer. This is his team, his career, his plan. The Pelicans have noticed the change in temperament. For now, they smile and ponder the possibilities.
“He’s comfortable in his own skin,” Coach Alvin Gentry said. “You can see it, even when he took the mic. Three years ago, he would’ve wanted no part of that.”
Said General Manager Dell Demps: “Yeah, it’s his time. After all the adversity he’s been through — the losing, grinding through injuries, getting his body right — to watch him play with the passion and competitiveness he has, it’s really, really breathtaking at times. You know, he could energize a building.”
There’s also reason for the Pelicans to fear a grown-up, aspirational Davis. This is the era of the mobile superstar. The league’s best players have never been so transient. Of the 15 stars who made the all-NBA team last season, eight are playing for franchises that didn’t draft them. Retention is a difficult task.
Since Davis switched agents, the NBA superstar rumor mill has been in overdrive, trying to connect his move to his future departure from New Orleans. Real or imagined, it puts pressure on a Pelicans franchise that made a huge leap last season, recovering after all-star DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles' tendon and advancing to the second round of the playoffs. The New Orleans story should be all about hope and improvement. But with Davis eligible to receive a five-year, supermax extension after this season that could be worth a league-record $230 million, the Pelicans have an urgent need to keep growing and prove themselves to Anthony all over again.
It seems unfair for a team seemingly just getting started. It’s also the new way of NBA life.
Bigger beyond the Big Easy?
Davis refuses to fuel any speculation. He’s still too soft-spoken and earnest to talk publicly about anything other than personal improvement and winning more games in New Orleans. But he doesn’t have to say anything. The star movement has been so wild and unpredictable that the gossip cannot be restrained anymore.
As the 2018-19 season begins, Jimmy Butler is using every trick he knows to force his way out of Minnesota, which just traded for him a year ago. Kawhi Leonard was dealt from San Antonio to Toronto over the summer, but the story of his impending free agency will dominate the conversation this season. And then there’s Kevin Durant, a previous drifter, who is being pegged to depart Golden State for the New York Knicks next summer, even though the Warriors are favorites to win their third straight title.
Who’s got next? It’s Davis, despite having a $145 million contract that doesn’t expire until 2021. And it’s Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose $100 million pact also expires in 2021. In a league being overtaken by versatile forwards, those two are about to be overwhelmed by the whispers. With James, the star of stars, playing for his third franchise, the standard is different. The concept of spending an entire career on one team might be not as appealing to this generation.
Of his situation, Davis will only say, “I’m here, and I’m focused on winning. I just want to go out there and play my hardest.”
Make no mistake, however, he thinks about his place in the NBA. Last season, he averaged 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. He was a first-team all-NBA performer and a finalist for the MVP and defensive player of the year awards. When New Orleans lost Cousins, Davis took his game to an even higher level during a late-season stretch in which the Pelicans won 20 of 28 games.
“In my eyes, I’m the best player in the game,” Davis said this preseason. “I really feel that way. Nobody can tell me different.”
He could be the best, but can he be universally revered as the top dog while playing in New Orleans? It has been 16 years since the NBA returned to the Big Easy. During that time, the franchise has made seven playoff appearances, but it has advanced in the postseason just twice. It hasn’t gone further than the conference semifinals. It has already seen one superstar, Chris Paul, exit. Seven years ago, he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, and interest in the franchise regressed after a decent era of basketball.
The past 16 years of the NBA in New Orleans have been defined by hardship mostly, including Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city in 2005. Beyond the natural disaster, New Orleans is most loyal to its NFL franchise, the Saints. Davis is a superstar, but he might be a greater global figure than a local one.
“It’s been a lot,” said Demps, who had been the GM for a year when Paul was traded, a situation which was complicated because the league owned the team at the time. “We basically started over when CP left. Then we built something solid, and injuries tore it apart. Then we started over again.”
Now, the Pelicans have momentum once more. Davis and guard Jrue Holiday are a star duo that impacts both ends of the court. Nikola Mirotic is a good, stretch-the-floor big man. The team didn’t re-sign the injured Cousins, but it acquired Julius Randle, who fits Gentry’s fast-paced system that requires versatile playmakers at all positions. The Pelicans are not the perfect team; they’re undersized and unimpressive at small forward, and they’re not a great three-point shooting squad. But they have the potential to make the playoffs again and become a squad that no one likes to see because they’re so aggressive defensively and play at an accelerated pace.
Just as it mattered that Davis spoke during that open practice, it was important to note that the crowd of 7,426 was a record audience for a Pelicans open practice. Three years ago, Gentry figured only about 1,000 people showed up for the event. Holiday, who has been on the team since 2013, remembers when there were even fewer.
“I think I’ve seen it from when it was barely anybody in here,” Holiday said. “They see that we’re working hard and trying to win for them every single game. Them coming out and supporting, it’s a blessing and more than we could ask for.”
The wait is on
To keep Davis past his current contract, the Pelicans will have to ask for more. Can the city and the franchise keep growing with their superstar? That is the pertinent question.
“They have to know we’re nothing without them,” Davis said. Oh, Davis is something without them. But he’s also private, and he loves that there aren’t as many demands of him in a smaller market.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George can tell Davis about what awaits. He just went through the stay-or-go speculation last season after demanding a trade from Indiana. Everyone had him pegged to go to Los Angeles, his hometown. But he ended up staying in Oklahoma City. He learned much about himself during the process.
“It can be frustrating when, at the end of the day, we’re the only ones that know what it feels like or what decision we ultimately want to make,” George told reporters in Oklahoma City last month. “But then you say one thing, and one person put this story out, and now everybody is taking to it. You say one thing, I’m going to make this person mad. Say something else, I’m going to make these people mad. So at the end of the day, we’ve got to be happy with who we are, and we’ve got to be happy with the decision we’re going to make. It was frustrating, but it’s what our job is. It’s what we’ve got to deal with.”
Davis can end the speculation early by signing the supermax contract next summer. If he doesn’t, his life will become more complicated, and New Orleans could have some stressful moments. The Pelicans would be wise to make the most of this season while they have Davis’s full commitment.
“Anthony is the kind of guy who’s locked in,” Demps said. “You know that he is 100 percent your franchise player.”
As he left the arena with family and friends after that scrimmage, Davis walked alongside his daughter, Nala. She took a few steps and fell down. She took a few more steps and fell down. And again. And again. Every time, Davis reached down, barely leaning over, with his Go-Go-Gadget arms and lifted her. He was patient, same as he is with his team and a city still learning to love the NBA. At some point, though, the expectation is that all must learn to walk.