Three weeks into the 2017-18 NBA season, DeMarcus Cousins has been no worse than the league’s fifth-best player. He’s 27 years old, off to the most efficient start of his career, on a team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Before you write him and New Orleans off for all the rational reasons one might lean towards doing just that, please look at these averages: 28.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game. Basic numbers are almost useless without context and further exploration, but it’s hard to argue that anyone posting these on a nightly basis isn’t helping his team win. They are farcical figures. The grand list of players in history who normalized this box score for an entire season amounts to two: Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Ho hum, nothing to see here.
A 6’11” mastodon who plays with the anger of a man who feels infinitely disrespected by everyone at all times, Cousins’s sour demeanor has not improved despite the best start of his career, and first November outside Sacramento since he was drafted. He still shows up referees, coaches, referees, and teammates (also: referees) in ways that often belie the charitable contributions he makes on the floor and within his community.
But when you’re as consistently dominant in all the ways he’s been, on a team that’s better than most preseason projections predicted, on-court production of this magnitude significantly outweighs any behavioral drawbacks. After placing 19th, 14th, 9th, and 127th over the previous four seasons, Cousins is currently second behind only James Harden in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat. He’s also first (!) in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (more on that later).
Cousins ranks sixth in usage, second in minutes, and is the only high-volume three-point shooter his size in NBA history who also demands a double team on the left block. According to Synergy Sports, he’s drilling 56.4 percent on post-ups which is about 15 percent higher than last season’s stint with the Pelicans, and third highest among all players who’ve logged at least 25 post possessions this year.
His game is unique in that no person strong enough to remove boulders sans machinery for a living should be able to rumble in from the three-point line with as much force and control as he does. Just look at the play below. What even is that?
With sincere apologies to Paul George, Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul, and Aron Baynes, Cousins only trails LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the most talented unrestricted free agents scheduled to hit the open market this summer, a reality that deserves far more attention than it’s received to date. The ripple effects from his potential exit would re-chart the New Orleans Pelicans, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the league. All bets are off if he leaves, but there aren't many suitors out there that may be willing to offer a four-year max. The Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Dallas Mavericks will have room, but none feel like a good fit.
On the other hand, by continuing on his current tear and re-signing in New Orleans with a five-year max deal, 29 teams around the league may soon need to figure out how to stop a distinguished and uniquely dominant duo that’s already figured out how to help each other out.
The stakes on this season are high, for sure. But questions surrounding Cousins’ ability to co-exist (and thrive) with Davis have already been answered. After posting a +2.8 net rating in 17 games together last season, New Orleans is now outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions when those two share the court—AKA they play like one of the three or four best teams in basketball—and Davis absolutely dominates when opposing rim protectors have Boogie occupying their attention. As a collective unit, they’ve morphed into one of the least selfish teams in the entire league, and are defending at a top-three level.
Yet for all the various ways the Pelicans and Cousins have been awesome, they and he both still have plenty of room to grow. We’ll discuss the problematic roster in a bit, but first let’s just look at why things aren’t going as well as they should on the offensive end before a deep dive into Boogie’s defense.
New Orleans ranks 21st in points per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass. They turn the ball over a ton (in large part because they employ Cousins) and prioritize transition defense over crashing the offensive glass (a debatable choice given their personnel).
The Pelicans are, as one might expect, borderline-dominant in and around the paint, where they take a majority of their shots. Their three-point rate dwarfs the percentage of shots that are long twos, which is good. They also rank 21st in three-point accuracy, and Jameer Nelson might be their most potent outside threat, a dilemma that’s created several uncomfortable situations for Cousins when he’s trying to do work down low.
All five Atlanta Hawks have at least one foot in the paint for the duration of this clip, before Dennis Schroder makes an easy steal.
Look at how the Chicago Bulls swarm towards the ball as soon as it’s entered down low, like an eclipse of moths that are hypnotized by a porch light.
Several unsolvable issues are caked into this Pelicans’ roster, but no discussion about them and Cousins can be had without a close look at his defense, which has long been one of the more mercurial and frustrating variables in the NBA. Cousins has always been a mixed bag on that side of the ball, but New Orleans totally falls apart whenever he exits the game.
Against pick-and-rolls, Gentry’s calculus has been to drop his starting center and coerce ball-handlers into a flurry of long twos. Only three teams force opponents to shoot a higher percentage of their shots from 14 feet to the three-point line than New Orleans. This makes perfect sense. Cousins doesn’t have the lateral quickness or attention span to switch out onto guards and then hang with one on (or off) the ball for the meat of an entire possession. Hedging and recovering back to his man is also way too much work.
But Boogie remains nimble enough to backpedal with speed demons while setting a tone that dictates what type of shot they have to take. He knows how to exploit angles to his advantage and positions himself well enough to block shots and deflect passes. If he tried on every possession he’d be one of the best defenders at his position.
That “if” could fill a galaxy, though. Cousins doesn’t race out to contest most shots and continues to feel like waving his arms is a more effective strategy than shuffling his feet. Some of this harks back to a symptom spread through most players at his position: Cousins either doesn’t realize or is willfully ignorant of how popular the three-point shot is among centers. Instead, he’d rather treat everyone as if they’re DeAndre Jordan or Nerlens Noel when they have the ball. In other words, Cousins either does not know his personnel, or he simply doesn’t care.
The play above is somewhat forgivable. The play below is not.
Right now Cousins is the slowest player at his position, averaging just 3.59 miles per hour in all on-court movement (sprinting, jogging, standing, walking, per NBA.com). For those with trouble picturing how slow this actually is, Dirk Nowitzki is crawling along at 3.71 miles per hour. The Pelicans are already very good on defense when Cousins is on the floor, but just imagine their ceiling if he actually tried!
A lot can change between Thanksgiving and July, but right now the Pelicans are more likely than not to qualify for the playoffs. Should they make it, and Alvin Gentry is emboldened to play Cousins and Davis together for more than 28 minutes, no team will want any part of them in the first round.
The major concerns, then, look ahead at the crappy cap sheet constructed by an incompetent front office that routinely sacrifices future gain for a passable present. How, assuming Cousins locks in this summer, can New Orleans add championship contending complementary pieces around its All-NBA pair down low?
So long as Jrue Holiday’s five-year, $126 million contract remains on the books—the 27-year-old has been dominant around the rim and solid on defense, but can’t buy a three right now; outside shooting is his most critical function—free agency isn’t much of an option before Davis can opt out in 2020. During AD’s contract year, nearly $85 million would be locked into him, Cousins, and Holiday alone. Holiday’s deal is an anvil, E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill are also guaranteed money for another two seasons, and Omer Asik’s contract lingers with more disgusting side effects than Jerry Seinfeld’s smelly car.
That’s bad news, but for every team except the Golden State Warriors, crafty signings, trades, and draft picks are necessary when two max-contract stars are already under contract.
The good news is New Orleans still owns all its own first-round picks and Cheick Diallo may be an interesting trade chip they can flip for some shooting. Even without cap space, an impressive showing this spring could lure useful players like Marco Belinelli, Wayne Ellington, or even Joe Johnson with a mid-level exception.
The bottom line here is this: With Cousins and Davis, the Pelicans have two critical ingredients in what almost already is a delicious recipe. If they both stick around for the long haul, there’s a decent chance their combined talent will be able to overcome most of the organization’s most basic mistakes.
The Pelicans aren't one piece from winning it all, but with those two in tow and Cousins continuing to evolve, the mountain top is suddenly visible.