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Is it too early to label Davis a franchise-shifter?

by J.W. Miller on 03/01/13

     Professional sports has a long history of sorry teams who suddenly lucked into a franchise-shifter. In the NBA and NFL, he is usually a high draft choice who turns the franchise from a sad-sack bottom-feeder into a periodic winner, league champion or even a dynasty. New Orleans NBA fans like what they have seen so far, but is Anthony Davis that type of player?

     He looked like it Sunday against the Sacramento Kings. Davis had little difficulty beating the Kings forwards in transition or catching lob passes that led to forceful dunks. He scored a team-high 20 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the Hornicans' 110-95 victory against the Kings. The bad news is he tweaked something in his shoulder and had to sit out the next two games, losses to Brooklyn and Oklahoma City. The former Kentucky star has missed a dozen or so other games with a concussion and ankle injury. But such setbacks are not uncommon for players who eventually turn their teams into perennial winners. Few come in and make an immediate splash. Let's look at some examples of both, and you can decide where Davis fits.

     In 1979, the NBA saw two such players come into the league when Larry Bird joined the Celtics and Magic Johnson came to the Lakers. The year before, the Celtics suffered through a dismal 29-53 record which entitled them to select Bird. The slow white guy from tiny Indiana State fueled an instant turnaround. In Bird's rookie year, the Celtics were 61-21 and went to the Eastern Conference finals. Bird led the Celtics to three NBA titles and a competition with Johnson that became one of the great rivalries in sports. Magic was luckier than Bird, joining a cast that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon and Keith Wilkes that had gone a respectable 47-35 the year before. But with Magic as the catalyst, the Lakers won the NBA title and Johnson was named rookie of the year. The Lakers would win five titles with Johnson and remain NBA royalty for years.

     A lesser example, but still pertinent, was the addition of Tim Duncan to the San Antonio Spurs in 1997. The team had limped to a 20-62 record the year before with an aging David Robinson its only star. But Duncan revitalized the Admiral, and the Spurs joined the NBA's elite, winning back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999. You could find another example in 1989, when Robinson joined the Spurs, which had gone 21-61 the year before. With Robinson off active duty in the Navy, the Spurs went 56-26 in his first year and became a contender.

     The NFL has had its own share of franchise-shifters. The Buffalo Bills were 2-14 the year before QB Jim Kelly joined the team from the USFL. Kelly could not do it alone, however, and suffered through a 4-12 rookie year before the team added RB Thurman Thomas and proceeded to reach four straight Super Bowls after the 1990-93 seasons. Unfortunately for the Bills, they lost all four, two of them to a Dallas Cowboys team led by its own franchise-changer. The Cowboys had gone from America's Team to a dismal 3-13 in 1988 when Jerry Jones bought the team from the family of Clint Murchison, ran off Tom Landry and hired Coach Jimmy Johnson. In 1989, the Cowboys drafted QB Troy Aikman and watched him labor through a 1-15 rookie season before things turned around. With a supporting cast that included RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin, the Cowboys won Super Bowls after the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons and once again became America's Team.

     About that time, Green Bay GM Ron Wolf made a prescient decision when he traded with Atlanta to acquire an erratic Brett Favre. The Packers were a pathetic 4-12 the year before Favre came aboard, but Wolf liked Favre's gunslinger style. The Southern Miss product guided the Pack to respectable 9-7 records his first two years before hitting the big time. The Packers won the Super Bowl after the 1996 season and lost to Denver the next year, but Favre had led the franchise to elite status.

     Can Anthony Davis do the same thing for the New Orleans Pelicans? One theme of the teams mentioned above was the adequate supporting casts the teams assembled to give their main man as much help as possible. GM Dell Demps virtually started from scratch this year but has begun that process. It probably will take another good draft or two plus some key veteran pickups who will give Davis the freedom to excel. Eric Gordon has the ability, but his injury situation and his attitude are both troubling. His value might come in a trade for a contributing veteran. Austin Rivers is young and might develop into a solid starter, and the team has a core of solid role players who could continue to enhance Davis' development.

     A positive sign for the future has been the team's obvious improvement in the new year. On January 2, their 7-25 record was distinctive only to the Wizards and Bobcats, who were just as bad. However, after Gordon returned and before Davis' latest injury, the team went 13-12. The arrow is pointing up for the Hornicans, which is what happened with so many other teams after their franchise-shifter arrived.

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