The New Orleans Pelicans' new-look pairing of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis is as unusual as it is surprising.
Not since the 1997-98 NBA season have two teammates averaged at least 20 points and ten rebounds each. Cousins and Davis should reach that threshold comfortably. Separately, each player is one of the most difficult individual matchups in the league: the former is a bull, strong and mobile enough to overpower any defender; the latter is a gazelle, quicker, longer, and more agile than anyone else his height. Both players are incredibly skilled—and together, they could be the most dominant frontcourt duo in decades.
Still, the Boogie-Brow team-up isn't guaranteed to work. The NBA is moving toward a more perimeter-oriented game, and while Cousins and Davis both possess many outside-the-paint skills, there's enough overlap in their talents to question their mutual fit. Moreover, both players are used to being the offensive focal point of his team. Sharing the burden sounds great—but to maximize their effectiveness, both guys will have to adapt and sacrifice. Moreover, the Pelicans will have to reinvent themselves on the fly.
How can New Orleans get the most of its Really, Really Big Two? Let's take a closer look.
Hit the Offensive Glass
The Pelicans currently grab the fewest offensive rebounds per 100 possessions and score the third-fewest second-chance points in the NBA. Some of this is due to personnel. Davis has the potential to be a great offensive rebounder and putback finisher. By contrast, Alexis Ajinca is too skinny. Omer Asik is too slow and ground-bound. Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones spend much of their playing time on the perimeter—and even if they didn't, neither man is tall or athletic enough to be a real threat on the offensive glass.
Then there's New Orleans' scheme. There's always a trade-off between pursuing offensive rebounds and preventing fast breaks, and the Pelicans lean toward the latter. They rank 18th in opponent fast-break points and 24th in offensive rebound "chances"—that is, plays where they have a player within 3.5 feet of an offensive rebound.
With both Cousins and Davis on the floor, this should change dramatically. Cousins is a load in the paint, great at carving out space near the rim whenever defenders leave him to provide help elsewhere. In Sacramento, that wasn't often necessary; opponents weren't exactly scheming to slow down Kosta Koufos. In Davis, Cousins has a teammate who will draw an incredible amount of attention from help-side defenders, especially when Cousins is hanging around the baseline and Davis is running high pick-and-rolls.
Davis isn't a space-creator like Cousins, but he uses his quickness and length to make plays on the glass. Given that most teams will now stick their biggest defender on Cousins, Davis will have more opportunities to crash the boards against smaller, less physical guys. Imagine Dirk Nowitzki or Ryan Anderson trying to keep Davis away from rebounds while also providing help on Cousins in the post. The Brow is going to eat.
Play Fast, but Don't Hurry
When your two best players are seven-footers, playing fast seems counterintuitive. But speeding things up in transition helps to create mismatches—and since few opponents will have even two defenders big enough to handle both Davis and Cousins, New Orleans set the table for favorable switches and isolations by pushing the pace.
One way to do that? Let Cousins and Davis run the ball up the court after defensive rebounds. Both guys are very capable open-court ball handlers. In the video below, look at how scrambled the defense becomes when they run the point in transition. The entire defense has to stop the ball, and that usually ends with a guard rotating over to prevent a coast-to-coast dunk. When that happens, someone is almost always open at the rim or in the corners.
When the Big Two aren't starting the break, they can take turns rim-running or trailing the play. Defenders have to account for rim-runners early in order to prevent them from getting deep post position. This is especially true for Cousins, who is automatic if allowed inside the restricted area, and for Davis, who forces cross-matches almost every time he gets an early jump in transition. If one big man gets deep position and forces a scramble to take away the entry pass, the other will have a perfect trail opportunity behind the arc.
As part of their secondary break, New Orleans runs Pistol action more than any other team in the league. That likely will continue with Cousins in the fold. This action is particularly dangerous with Davis as the screener, since he is a threat to either pop for a midrange jumper or roll hard to the rim. As a team, the Pelicans get great looks almost every time they're able to execute pick-and-roll running toward the baseline, allowing Davis to roll toward the middle of the floor and the front of the rim. With Cousins now spacing the floor from behind the arc or positioning himself outside the opposite block for an offensive rebound, this should become even more effective.
Double High Screens
New Orleans hasn't used double high ball screens very often this season, but expect that to change—with two huge, skilled bodies setting the picks, defenses will be forced to switch something to stay connected to Jrue Holiday. Sacramento ran this action often and had quite a bit of success with it; just imagine replacing Koufos with Davis, and forcing defenses to pick their poison between a rolling Davis and popping Cousins.
Of course, the Pelicans could flip that, with Davis popping and Cousins rolling. Such is the luxury of having two versatile bigs. Double high screens can also help open up the paint—something that is hard to do for a full 24 seconds with two seven-footers on the floor—which could help wings E'Twuan Moore and Solomon Hill get more involved as cutters.
Indeed, the double high action can create off-ball opportunities. Running a shooter off of two screens on the weak side has the same effect as double screens on ball—it almost always forces a hedge or a switch. The Pelicans have used this type of action to set up pick-and-pop opportunities for Davis. In the clip below, Buddy Hield fakes as if he is going to use the screens but short cuts toward the rim. Davis then pops out off of the other screen for a wide-open jumper:
In the clip below, the Pelicans run Holiday off of two completely separate screens, creating open passing targets. Imagine swapping Dante Cunningham for Cousins—a defender has to fight through Cousins, only to immediately run into a Davis screen. There aren't many good options for the defense. Who do you help off, exactly?
Twenty years ago, it would have been laughable to suggest a NBA team run pick-and-rolls with its center and power forward. No longer. The Pelicans ought to mix 4-5 and 5-4 pick-and-rolls into their offense, and they should do it with confidence.
Defenses aren't used to dealing with this type of action; centers don't typically cover pick-and-roll ball handlers. Likewise, power forwards rarely have to fight through ball screens and recover. New Orleans can compound defensive discomfort by deploying Davis, who is arguably the best roll guy in the league.
The Pelicans already have been creative (crazy?) enough to try this action with Davis as the ball-handler, and have even gone to it with Motiejunas and Jones. As a general rule, anything Motiejunas can do, Cousins can do much, much better. Also, we've seen Cousins do a bit of this with the Kings:
Most opponents will try to avoid switching Cousins and Davis' defenders, since the latter is lightning-quick and the former is ox-strong. As a result, 4-5 and 5-4 off-ball pin-down screens should help produce easy shots for both players. Davis is great at catching passes off of curls toward the paint and taking ten-foot jump shots, a look that will be made even more open when Cousins is the one setting the screen. However, he will have to get better at reading the drop-off pass. Right now, he has a tendency to get tunnel vision, as seen here:
For his part, Cousins can grab offensive rebounds when Davis shoots off curls, and can beast even harder if his defender slides over to hedge on Davis as he comes off of the screen. It will take time for the duo to get familiar with each other, but simple actions like these will be a great way for New Orleans to start its offensive possessions.
Hi-Lo from the elbows
This is a staple of any Twin Tower lineup, and Davis and Cousins can run it interchangeably. In fact, expect them to play both spots on the same possession.
The action begins with a threat to shoot or drive from the elbows. Few seven-footers are as dangerous to shoot or drive from the elbows as Cousins and Davis, who rank No. 1 and No. 2 among NBA centers in drives per game. Cousins especially likes to drive, averaging 7.6 per game, more than twice as many as Davis, and he is very, very good at it. When teams put a smaller defender on him, he drives slowly and in control (most of the time); when faced with a lumbering defender, he blows past him. Cousins is also a magnet for drawing fouls:
High-low allows for cutting angles off the ball at the elbow. Given Cousins and Davis' high usage rates, this will be an important way for Moore, Hill, Cunningham, and the rest of the Pelicans to stay involved in the offense.
This action also opens up opportunities for duck-ins and lobs. When Cousins drives, the help-side defense steps up early. That help will now be coming off of Davis, who can capitalize by catching a lob or a drop-off pass. When the roles are reversed—Davis up high, Cousins down low—every help step-over toward the paint is an opportunity for Cousins to position himself more deeply for a post-up or an offensive rebound. There are a lot of possibilities with this action, and since New Orleans can now run three or four reversals each time down court with threats from both spots, it will be incredibly difficult to defend.
Bigger picture, it probably will take some time for Davis and Cousins to gel. They both rank in the NBA's top seven in usage percentage, and both guys will have to reduce their touches, shots, and offensive initiation opportunities now that they're sharing the floor. The Pelicans' role players also will have to get used to fewer touches and a more ancillary offensive role. These are good problems to have, but New Orleans doesn't have a lot of time to solve them before the end of the season. They're in a race for the Western Conference playoffs' No. 8 seed, just 2.5 games behind the surging Denver Nuggets as of the All-Star Break, and they face a tough, road-heavy schedule.
Most likely, the Pelicans will fall short of the postseason. Still, the long-term outlook is promising, and coach Alvin Gentry has a unique set of toys to play with. New Orleans has a chance to create matchup nightmares that no other NBA team can deal with, and also will be able to have at least one elite center on the court at all times.
Even in the small-ball era, skilled bigs are still kings, and the Pelicans just paired two of the biggest and most skilled guys around.
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