Anthony Davis has only existed in an era of basketball dominated by manufactured super teams and All-Star alliances, which made his remarkable turn as a solo act an experience that yielded sympathy from some and poaching schemes from others. In his first four treks to the All-Star Game, Davis had to look around the locker room with envy as some members of the team flaunted one, two, and, in the case of the Golden State Warriors, three teammates who joined the ride.
This season was supposed to be different with the game’s best headed to Los Angeles for another flamboyant and decadent display. The New Orleans Pelicans finally found Davis a running mate in DeMarcus Cousins, a peer who could relieve him from so many gargantuan performances and serve up a few of his own. For once, Davis would show up to the festivities with another Pelican by his side.
“Not anymore,” Davis told Yahoo Sports with an exasperated chuckle, reflecting on what’s been lost this season.
Cousins went down with a ruptured left Achilles tendon Jan. 26 that not only affected this season — as Davis and the Pelicans attempt to reach the playoffs for just the second time since his arrival as the No. 1 pick in 2012 — but it also placed the future of the franchise, Cousins’ career, and Cousins’ potential for a huge free-agent payday this summer in precarious positions.
Davis and Cousins weren’t an obvious match, as the Pelicans experimented with arguably the two best big men in the game at a time when the rest of the league was moving away from emphasizing size. Coach Alvin Gentry and his staff found something that worked, Davis and Cousins routinely went bonkers — in unison or one at a time — and the plan appeared to be coming together for a franchise desperate to make a postseason push.
But in the final seconds of a win over the Houston Rockets that signaled that the best of this duo was yet to come, Cousins hustled to chase down his own missed free throw, landed awkwardly on his left foot and collapsed to the floor. “We just started figuring stuff out, went on a nice little win streak and when he went down, it kind of hurt us a lot. Took a lot of the scoring away, the defensive presence,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “He was able to make me better. I was able to make him better. He did a great job of getting guys involved, passing the ball, setting screens. He was just good for me. He was good for the team. It was a tough one when he went down.”
Davis is back where he’s always been, not where he would like to be, and disappointed about the path that brought him here again. After dealing with some nagging injuries in recent years, Jrue Holiday is only now beginning to have the kind of performances that earned him an All-Star appearance in 2013, the season before he arrived from Philadelphia in a draft-night trade. But Cousins presented a different dynamic for Davis — a fellow All-NBA talent and All-Star starter who invoked fear in opposing defenses. Cousins pushed an already otherworldly talent to elevate his game, making Davis’ fifth consecutive All-Star selection — and third start — an easy ballot choice for fans, media and his fellow players.
“Any time you’re an All-Star, it kind of holds weight,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a sign of respect for everything you’ve done thus far this year and the hard work you put in. You’ve got to take that as an honor and go out there and have fun.”
What Davis, 24, has already accomplished in just six seasons has put him in some truly exclusive company. He might not always get his just recognition for ushering in the new wave of versatile big men with guard-like skills and giant-like defensive instincts. And, he’s been good for so long, that his relative youth gets overlooked — he’s only a year older than Joel Embiid, 21 months older than Giannis Antetokounmpo and two years older than Kristaps Porzingis, but that trio doesn’t have as many combined All-Star appearances as Davis.
Only six players have been named to five All-Star teams before age 25 (Kevin Garnett would’ve made it seven, if not for the 1999 lockout). The other five — Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — are either in the Hall of Fame or will be first-ballot inductees once eligible. But what those other players have on their resumes — playoff success and championship rings — is something Davis is eager to add. Cousins’ presence wasn’t going to carry the Pelicans to be a contender, but he possibly would’ve helped Davis do better than the first-round sweep he encountered in 2015. Without him, the challenge of simply getting into the postseason — even with the Western Conference a little wobblier than usual after Golden State and Houston — is that much greater.
“We’re trying to find our groove again. A lot of guys are playing out of position. I’m playing a lot more five now. We’re asking a lot from everybody and we just have to step up as a team and find a way to win,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I just tell them, ‘Keep playing. Keep fighting. Keep believing in each other. Right now is not the time to separate. We’ve got to stay together.’ We’ve got a lot of games left. Nobody is really taking off, fourth [seed] through 10th. We’re going to always stay in the fight, as long as we keep giving ourselves a chance. We’ve got to play hard and keep having fun.”
Davis remains optimistic that he hasn’t seen the end of a pairing that began immediately after he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game scoring record and raised the MVP trophy in his home building last year. After his season-ending surgery, Cousins posted a picture on social media of him wearing a cast on his foot and holding a thumbs up signal. Davis took some time before reaching out to his fallen comrade, giving Cousins the space to grapple with his own disappointment. “We talked. He’s in good spirits. We wish he could play,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “He just want to hoop. He’ll be back, stronger than ever and we’ll go from there. Until then, we’ve just got to try to win games.”
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