NEW ORLEANS — With every Anthony Davis put-back dunk, reverse alley-oop jam, step-back three-pointer or game-sealing block in the playoffs, the New Orleans Pelicans take a step closer to becoming the NBA’s next small-market success story.
That didn’t quite happen with Chris Paul, who essentially forced a trade after his sixth season in the Big Easy amid concerns about uncertain ownership.
The 25-year-old Davis is now in his sixth season in New Orleans. And the five-time All-Star is not only playing historically good basketball, but seems to see no need for moving vans in order to go ring hunting.
Davis, after all, was a young fan when Reggie Miller was in the twilight of an 18-year career with Indiana that transformed the Pacers into playoff regulars — and while Tim Duncan was embarking on a long career in San Antonio highlighted by five NBA titles.
“There’s always, you know, ‘You can’t win in a small market or you can’t get noticed in a small market,’ but then you look at those guys and they’ve won and been well recognized in their respective teams,” Davis said, referring to Miller and Duncan. “I love the city of New Orleans. I love playing for the city. The city’s showed me a lot of love, so I couldn’t ask for a better place to be.”
New Orleans is noticing. So, apparently, is the rest of the world.
Sharp-shooting forward Nikola Mirotic, a Montenegro native acquired by the Pelicans in a mid-season trade, said Davis already has enhanced New Orleans’ international profile because of the NBA’s global appeal.
“I know in my country, for example — or Spain, or Serbia — they all talk about him. They all want to see him playing because of the show he puts on,” Mirotic said. “He’s still young. There’s a lot of room for him to improve. I’m sure he’s going to be someone that everybody is going to remember in the future.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees remains New Orleans’ most popular athlete. But Davis’ rising global star power is on full display.
The Pelicans’ home arena, the Smoothie King Center, was packed to the rafters and deafeningly loud during games 3 and 4 of sixth-seeded New Orleans’ somewhat surprising first-round sweep of the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. The series victory not only was New Orleans’ first since 2008, but only the second since the NBA returned 16 seasons ago to the city where the Pete Maravich-led Jazz originally played from 1974-79, before moving to Utah.
Davis averaged 33 points, 12 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game during the first round of the playoffs, earning him constant “M-V-P” chants from fans — who hope this is just the start.
“We would want this to be something that changes the mindset of not just what we do here, but also of other people looking to come here,” said Pelicans forward Solomon Hill, who joined Davis as a free agent in 2016. “From player personnel to the front office, whatever it may be, we’re trying to let everybody know that New Orleans is a place where we’re trying to win — and he’s the key piece you need.”
Sitting on the bench in street clothes and a walking boot watching Davis these days is fellow All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, who is due to become a free agent this offseason. The Pelicans have said they’ll try to re-sign Cousins, who technically is now part of his first playoff team in eight NBA seasons, but who still has yet to play in the postseason because of his Achilles tear in January.
Davis said he hopes the way the Pelicans played, and the way fans cheered, in the first round gives Cousins “a little itch to come back.”
New Orleans hardly looked like a playoff lock in the highly competitive Western Conference after Cousins was injured. But Davis averaged an NBA-high 30.2 points during the last 34 regular season games, with the Pelicans going 21-13.
Unlike when Paul was in New Orleans, the Pelicans are now on sound financial footing, with the same local ownership as the NFL’s Saints. They have a modern, spacious, permanent practice facility on the same campus as Saints headquarters and a team-friendly arena lease that runs through 2024.
Davis is under contract for three more seasons.
“I know that his goal is to be the foundation of a team that wins consistently here,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “With the talent-level that he is and the way he can make other guys better just by being on the court with them, I see no reason why that can’t happen.”
Guard Jrue Holiday, who had 33 points in Game 2 and 41 in Game 4, is under contract for four more seasons. Veteran guard Rajon Rondo, who won a title in Boston with a “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, said he came to New Orleans on a one-year deal to play with the “Big Three” of Davis, Cousins and Holiday. During the playoffs, Rondo has emerged as the club’s third star, piling up 53 assists in four games.
Davis wants Rondo back next year as well, and very well may get his wish.
“We just can’t make this a one-every-three-years or one-every-two-years” playoff run, Davis said. “It needs to be a consistent thing where before every season they’re talking about: These are the top five teams that we know are going to be in there — and we need to be one of them.”