Following a lousy team through its regular season, loss by numbing loss, is one of late capitalism’s stupider extravagances. It’s a wonder that so many of us put up with the necessary day-to-day aggravations of living and working, then regularly sink into the couch to be deadened by what’s supposed to be entertainment. It speaks to a lack of imagination, a peculiar sense of brand loyalty, a vague hope that present suffering will enrich eventual success. Mostly, we are just tired. When you’re psychically fried and bones feel heavy, you reach for what’s familiar, even if it doesn’t satisfy.
Though it’s a waste of time—made doubly wasteful for it not being all that enjoyable—we do it without effort, for two or three hours at a time. It’s also, if you take two steps back from it, a perverse form of recreation, a boring glimpse into existences that aren’t occasionally polluted by someone else’s failure but steeped in personal futility. We partake in the dull misery and shrug. We chop vegetables while the game gets out of hand and leaf through a Harper’s as the bench clears out to open the fourth quarter. We can remove ourselves from it, but those are people’s lives playing out on the screen in front of us. And vocationally speaking, oh dear, things are not going well for them.
It’s hard to figure what Anthony Davis has gotten out of his first four NBA seasons. It’s been clear more or less since he entered the league that he’s a generational talent, the sort of player who screams across our consciousness trailing cotton candy pink smoke, who competes for titles and MVPs and inspires thousands of bar-room rhapsodies about the vastness of his ability. To an extent, Davis has done some of that and still has plenty of time to do the rest of it, but all the spectacular stuff he pulls off—the 30-and-15 performances, the space-bending blocks—happens within the soundproof safe of loss-pocked seasons from dour, overmatched Pelicans squads that aren’t headed anywhere in particular.
The franchise hasn’t done much for its savior. The Brow’s Scottie Pippen, his Pau Gasol, has been... maybe Jrue Holiday, during the brief stretches he’s been healthy? Or Tyreke Evans? Monty Williams and Alvin Gentry are unremarkable coaches. Buddy Hield, even if he turns out to be just a serviceable NBA shooting guard, will be far and away the best player the Pelicans have drafted since Davis’s rookie season in 2012... because they didn’t sign a first-round pick for three straight years.
Last season wasn’t anyone’s fault. If the Warriors or Spurs had lost most of their starting lineup to injury, they would’ve been pretty crummy too. But the Pelicans haven’t been thoughtfully constructed in the first place. They’ve followed roughly the same path with Davis the Cavaliers pursued after drafting LeBron, scrambling to flank their young star with mid-tier veteran talent and ironically ending up serving neither the player nor the overall championship project. No team has ever profited from overpaying the likes of Larry Hughes and Omer Asik.
The Pels will be sandbagged by injuries this season too. Evans and Quincy Pondexter are out until mid-December. Holiday—who’s traversing a personal hell at the moment; his wife has a brain tumor—doesn’t seem as if he’ll ever again play more than 40 or 50 games per year on his fragile legs. The difference between this year and the previous one is that the Pels seem to more clearly understand their predicament. They’ve signed a couple more warm, professional-grade bodies in Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore to ensure they’re not starting D-Leaguers, but broadly speaking, they’re turning into the lottery skid rather than tasking Davis with dragging a squad of also-rans to the playoffs.
Next summer, the team will get out from under Evans and Holiday’s contracts and, who knows, maybe the ping-pong balls will smile on them and they’ll grab a top-three pick in the draft. On the half-decade mark of Davis’ stay in this counterproductive purgatory, the Pelicans will be afforded a soft reset. They can take a breath and think carefully about the sorts of players they want to bring in, and at what cost. Davis is signed through 2021, so there’s ostensibly no rush, but the Pels’ star must be restless, and for that matter, if he’s going to ascend to the heights he’s capable of reaching, his development would be aided by playing some consequential basketball before he hits his late 20s.
Fans waste their own time, of course. The blowouts pile up, and we have shelves of unread books, hobbies left unpursued, whole towns and cities we’re ignoring. We could be doing other things. But it’s something else entirely to have your time wasted, to commit yourself to a life-consuming pursuit that bores you, where the people in charge don’t look out for your interests, and you don’t feel as if you’re growing or working toward anything of consequence as the nights and months and years pass. Anthony Davis is about to start his fifth season in the New Orleans. What is he getting out of this? When will it stop being a slog?
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