Nobody wins when a star player goes down. Usually.
The New Orleans Pelicans got a bit of bad news on Sunday when Anthony Davis, somehow, fractured his left hand in the first quarter of a 103-99 win over the Knicks. This is terrible news for basketball—the center is a young, charismatic star. For almost precisely these reasons, it’s great for the 76ers.
The Sixers own the Pelicans first round selection in the ludicrously-loaded 2014 draft, so long as this pick falls out of the top-5. This leaves Sixers fans in the position of rooting for a relatively narrow set of outcomes for the 2013-14 Pellies: we want them to be bad enough to get in the lottery, but not so bad that they fall in its top-5. Fortunately, this is exactly where the ‘Brow injury leaves them.
The Pelicans are about a .500 basketball team, but this probably understates the team’s ability level and what our expectations should be for them going forward—or should have been before Davis got hurt. The team has a healthy scoring differential of +1.9 over its first 17 games, and since Ryan Anderson returned to the lineup on Nov. 16, the team has gone 6-2 and won by an average of 6.5 points. (Now, we could also point out here that the six teams the Pelicans defeated in this time are the crestfallen Bulls, the discombobulated Knicks, the Sixers twice, plus crumby Jazz and Cavs teams. Not exactly a murderers’ row.) So how good are the Pelicans with Davis? Let’s call them a 44-win team, which in the very deep Western Conference would be just enough to get the No. 8 seed or, most likely, be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
But what about without Davis?—which is what the team will, you know, be for the next 4-6 weeks. ESPN reckons the ‘Brow will miss about 20 games in this time frame. Let’s assume this is correct. This is a huge loss. Davis leads the team in wins produced and win shares—the two advanced metrics we favor in these parts—by pretty enormous margins, and ranks No. 11 and No. 6, respectively, in the NBA by these measures. He’s made the sophomore leap from promising rookie to superstar. Thing is, his absence is a problem for New Orleans, but it’s not the problem. This is: Jason Smith, Lou Amundson, and Greg Stiemsma—the three horsemen the team will use to replace him.
It wouldn’t be fair to call this trio terrible, but it would probably be true. In 682 minutes this season, the veterans have combined to produce -.11 wins for the Pelicans. (Win shares takes a slightly rosier view of the group, giving them 1 on the season.) It’s clear that this means grim things for the Pelicans already slim playoff hopes. Davis was on pace to produce about 17 wins for New Orleans when he went down and his replacements, if they play as they have so far this season, can be counted on to produce about zero wins in his stead. So, if our baseline assumption for the 2013-14 Pelicans is correct—that they’re a 44-win team—we should downgrade them to about 27 wins sans ‘Brow. Over the course of 20 games, the duration Davis should miss, a 27-win team should get about 6 or 7 wins. A 44-win team should win 10 or 11.
Is an injury that costs a team 4 wins the end of the world? In a vaccum, not really. But for a Pelicans team that’s sitting precariously on the playoff fringe in the wild, wild west, it could be pretty devastating. Or, for the happy owner of their first round draft pick, one hell of a break.