Sports

With DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans Go All In on Big Ball

The New Orleans Pelicans have tried to find a suitable center partner for Anthony Davis for years. DeMarcus Cousins is the best of all worlds.

by ​Jared Dubin
Feb 20 2017, 6:37pm

Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Let's just ignore the Sacramento Kings for a minute. They're something of a joke at this point anyway, and they're not going anywhere special anytime soon. What else is new?

The thing that intrigues the most about the New Orleans Pelicans' late Sunday night trade for DeMarcus Cousins is that, in a league that has been trending smaller and quicker for years, the Pellies are going all in on big ball—but with two bigs so agile, flexible, and versatile that they can both stay on the floor against those smaller, quicker lineups.

Anthony Davis has been very open about wanting to play power forward. Sliding to center full-time is too hard on his body, and he has the extensive injury history to prove it. And so Dell Demps and company tried for years to find a suitable center partner who could guard the behemoths inside and still allow Davis ample space to operate offensively. Omer Asik wasn't it. Neither was Alexis Ajinca. Jahlil Okafor probably wouldn't have been, either. But Cousins is the best of all possible worlds.

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Let's throw this one out there: over the last four seasons, there have been 15 instances of a player averaging at least 20 points and ten rebounds per game, per Basketball-Reference. Anthony Davis has done it four times. DeMarcus Cousins has done it four times. And the rest of the NBA has done it seven times combined. Add in a requirement of at least 2.5 assists per game, and we drop down to eight instances: Cousins four times, the rest of the league four times. Cousins is also currently working on just the second season in NBA history where a player 6'10'' or taller has gone for 20-10-4 while shooting 35 percent or better from three.

The thing teams are really trying to accomplish when they go small isn't so much the creation a speed or shooting advantage but rather a skill advantage. Wings and smalls tend to be better with the ball in their hands than bigs, and getting an extra one of those players on the floor allows for one more creator—one more player who can keep the line moving and make something happen when the ball swings around. For most teams, those players just happen to be smaller. If they had highly skilled bigs who could move their feet well enough to keep up defensively when the opposition goes small, coaches would keep those players on the floor. The Pelicans are one of the few teams to now have that luxury—they're not so much zigging while others zag, but zigging and zagging at the same time.

New Orleans experimented with a smaller lineup earlier this season, too; as coach Alvin Gentry explained to VICE Sports last month, "The NBA is becoming kind of a switching league, where you just switch and everything that happens, you're able to slow the offense down because they don't have the advantages that some of the pick-and-roll stuff that you would do in this league in past years [created]." Now, however, the Pelicans have a front line that can switch any and all pick-and-rolls without losing anything on the glass or leaving a big man especially vulnerable to a blow-by.

Cousins was not the most attentive defender in the world during his time in Sacramento, but he showed enormous potential on those occasions when he was actively engaged. And while Davis has not quite lived up to the "best defender on the planet" expectations that had been heaped on his shoulders before he was even drafted, he's been a plus in New Orleans. His particular brand of quick-twitch athleticism should help paper over any shortcomings Cousins has, whether physical or effort-related. New Orleans has a top-ten defense this season for the first time in Davis's career, and it should stay there for the remainder of the season barring injury.

The Pelicans' issues, as Gentry told us in January, have come on the other end of the floor. "As much as I love the part that we've improved defensively, you've got to be able to put the ball in the hole," he said. "And that's where we've struggled. Our defense has allowed us an opportunity to win games and we have not come up with the big shots."

And it's on offense where the Davis-Cousins pairing has the potential to be truly terrifying. Cousins and Davis are two of just three players in the NBA finishing at least 2.5 possessions per game from the post, in isolation, and as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports data on NBA.com (the third is Blake Griffin), proving that both players are equally capable of acting as a tip-of-the-spear finisher and creating his own shot. And that only begins to describe their versatility as offensive weapons.

It's on offense where the Davis-Cousins pairing has the potential to be truly terrifying. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Both can step out to the perimeter and shoot. Only Cousins has shown three-point range so far (35.4 percent from three on 4.9 attempts per game this season), but Davis is knocking down a very respectable 42.1 percent of his jumpers outside the paint and inside the arc. With each of them experiencing the benefits of some defensive attention being devoted elsewhere for a change, they should see their jump-shot conversion rates rise.

That additional space will not just benefit their shooting ability. It should also provide an easier path to the offensive glass. Under Gentry, New Orleans has generally favored getting back on defense rather than crashing the offensive boards, and it has benefited their transition D, but the Pelicans coach should be more willing to let these two monsters loose in an effort to hammer opposing big men on the boards and gain extra possessions. Having two players this big and athletic is an advantage, and the Pelicans should press it in any way they can.

Even more exciting than the things these two can do individually is the prospect of the pressure they can put on defenses when working in concert. Gentry is one of the most creative offensive minds in the league. We've seen that in Phoenix and Los Angeles and Golden State. The pairing of two skilled and powerful big men should unleash every idea he's got in his brain, from simple things like Cousins ducking into the post while Davis slashes through the paint on a dive to rarer actions like a monster-sized 4-5 pick-and-roll that should prove nearly impossible for opposing bigs to defend. Anything and everything should be on the table. Two hybrid power forward/centers who can shoot, pass, pick, roll, post, board, and play in space like this haven't been on the same team since... who knows? Duncan and Robinson, maybe?

New Orleans need to add a bit more shooting to make things truly sing—they were 17th in three-point percentage before dealing Buddy Hield and Langston Galloway, two of the five players on the team knocking down better than 36 percent of their triples. They're reportedly already dangling Terrence Jones (who is repped by the same agency as Cousins) and it wouldn't be a surprise if they put Donatas Motiejunas on the market as well. Clearing out some of the frontcourt in exchange for more guards and wings is a natural next step. The Pelicans can already play a big version of small ball with Cousins and Davis on the floor together, but it makes sense to acquire the pieces that would allow them to go either big or small when one or the other is on the bench. It will likely take a while to work out the kinks involved in creating an offensive machine featuring two high-usage big men who operate from a lot of the same areas on the floor, and the trade is not without risk (Cousins is famously difficult to deal with, and he can still become a free agent after the 2018 season), but this is about to be as scary a front line as we've seen in a long time.

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