The New Orleans Pelicans were in a bad place in February. DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season and his future was in doubt. The team had lost five of six games since his injury and slipped out of playoff position in the standings.
With the entire team in a depression, coach Alvin Gentry came to Anthony Davis with a message. Davis had put up a few duds since Cousins went down. A 6-of-19 shooting night, a couple of 6-of-16 nights. Games where he had scored just 14, 15 points. He was having to play center more, a position he loathed. He liked having the advantage on power forwards; leaning on centers tired out his legs. His shots in the fourth quarter were short when he played center, he ran low on energy.
"I told him, 'Look, you don't have to put pressure on yourself,'" Gentry remembered. "I just wanted him to play more free, to play like himself."
For the greatest players in the NBA there is often a moment of consciousness. A time when they come to understand their power, how those select few at the apex can often control so many things around them. They intimidate their opponents, they capture the crowd, they lift their teammates.
Sometimes it happens within a game -- LeBron James had an awakening during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2007. Those who know Steph Curry say he changed after he made 11 of 13 3-pointers in Madison Square Garden in 2013. Sometimes it happens because of a change in situation -- Steve Nash given the keys to the "seven seconds or less" offense in Phoenix, James Harden's trade to Houston. There's no exact road map, but for so many greats it happens when talent, experience and hard work meld into an understanding.
On a Saturday morning in Brooklyn last season, Davis might've had such a moment.
"I heard what Coach was saying to me, I know what he was trying to do," Davis said. "But that's not what I wanted. I wanted to be great and I had to accept the challenge. From that day forward, I had to understand that if I wanted to be great that I had to do it. I had to be great every night.
"I saw what Russ Westbrook did when [Kevin] Durant went down with that foot injury in OKC. And that's what I told Coach Gentry I have to be. If I have to be Westbrook, I will be Westbook."
What happened was the three greatest months of Davis' career. It's not to say he wasn't already a star. He led the league in player efficiency rating when he was 21. He made first-team All-NBA for the first time in his third season. But what Davis did down the stretch for the Pelicans last season was a new level. It was superstar consciousness, an elevated understanding and acceptance of the circumstances. He was controlling games not just with his array of skills but a new will.
That night in Brooklyn, he led the Pelicans to a win in double-overtime, scoring 44 points with 17 rebounds, 3 blocks and 6 steals. The Pelicans, with the help of a trade that brought in Nikola Mirotic and some of the best play in Jrue Holiday's career, finished the season 20-8 then blasted away the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round for Davis' first career playoff victories.
He averaged 30 points, 12 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 2 steals in those 28 regular-season games. In the playoffs he was even better, closing out the Blazers with a 47-point performance on his home floor.
As he was doing it he put some time in the weight room to build up his lower body so he could deal with those other centers better. When Davis came into the league six years ago, he weighed 215 pounds. Now he's at 255, and when he sees other bigs, he can better cope with the size and still outrun them to the other end.
He began pouring out his energy throughout games as the Pelicans quickened their pace. He was diving for loose balls, he was flying across the lane in help defense. He studied his opposing big men more intensely so he could predict their moves and be more efficient on defense.
Davis always had the skills to play like this, but when he was younger he didn't have this makeup. Gentry knew he had to play Davis at center sometimes, but he resorted to some trickery to mask it. Similar to how Gentry managed a super-athletic big named Amar'e Stoudemire in Phoenix, Davis was announced in the starting lineup as a forward.
But earlier this month, NBA GMs named Davis the best center in the league and the best power forward.
"I knew we had some things going against us, and I had some things I had to deal with," Davis said. "But I decided to just embrace it. OK, that's the challenge now, go and answer it. Be the great player."
In practices this preseason, Davis has rarely shot the ball. He wants his teammates to get used to not always going to him. During games he wants others to find confidence, especially Mirotic, because his scoring often unlocks the Pelicans' offense. Last week in the final preseason game he wanted to put up a huge line -- he had 36 points and 15 rebounds in 31 minutes -- because he wanted his opening-night opponent, the Houston Rockets, to see he was ready for the start of the season.
"When you look at LeBron, every year you know he's going to be great and his team is going to have a chance to win the title," Davis said. "From here on out, I want to be in that conversation every year. Not every other year. Not every few years. Every year. If that's going to happen, we're going to have to win, and I'm going to have to be the most dominant player."
This was simply not the way Davis talked or felt when he was 21 or 22. But he'll soon be 26, and this is his seventh year. This actually might be the beginning of his prime. He's making statements like this not because he wants to create a sound bite or launch a marketing campaign, but because he has raised his expectations. It's not lip service; his play shows that.
Those statements can be uncomfortable for some, especially with the Pelicans aware that he can be a free agent in 2020. More to the point, if Davis isn't feeling the franchise next summer, when it can offer him a five-year extension for around $240 million, there's going to be problems. Big problems.
That reality is just below the surface on every decision that is taking place in New Orleans right now. Just being around the team and talking to its players, coaches and executives, the tension exists. To pretend it doesn't isn't genuine. That makes this season pretty important for the future of the franchise.
But for Davis, he seems to be truly focused on the surface. And he doesn't feel the need for ambiguity there. The way he finished last season is his standard now, and he's not planning to let others hold him accountable to it. He'll do it. And he wants that to be known as much as he expects it to be true.
"I want to be the best player. I want to be in the playoffs. I want them to be talking about me as an MVP candidate," Davis said. "I don't want there to be any questions anymore about AD."