DeMarcus Cousins and A Seminal Season For The Pelicans
DeMarcus Cousins’ has a reputation for undermining team chemistry by recurrently clashing with referees and coaches instead of focusing his efforts on winning. In Sacramento, he was characterized as a malcontent, blamed as the scapegoat for a perpetually toxic environment. Fair or not, it was obvious by February that Boogie was available via trade, but GM’s were terrified of what he might do to disrupt locker room cohesion.
If you’re a small market team, you have to make some bold decisions if you want to compete on the highest level. That’s what New Orleans did when they traded for Cousins. His talent has never been doubted; he’s one of the most offensively gifted scorers of this generation, and could skyrocket if he can mature in the correct system. Here’s how Cousins compares to three of the greatest big men of recent memory through their respective age-26 seasons.
The “twin-tower” pairing of Cousins with Anthony Davis has been ridiculed for its’ antiquation. The entire league is trending toward small ball lineups, yet the Pelicans are all in on the most formidable dual big man threat since David Robinson and Tim Duncan. This season is a paramount one for the Pels, as Cousins will hit free agency next summer, and trade rumors continue to swell around Davis’ name.
According to NBA.com, New Orleans will emphasize Davis’ ball handing and isolation scoring, complimented by Boogie’s facilitating.. Assistant coach Chris Finch believes that Cousins can become the premier big man facilitator in the league, after averaging a career high 25.8% assist percentage (4.6 APG) last season. Finch was in Denver last season, where he helped to cultivate Nikola Jokic into one of the league’s best passing bigs.
Conventional wisdom suggests that having two elite big men is a spacing nightmare in today’s pace and space league, but Cousins and Davis are unlike any pairing we’ve seen previously. They combined for 171 three pointers last season, at a respectable 34.9% clip. Both were outside of the top 20 amongst centers in post touches per game. Based on that, there should be ample room for each to operate. Take a look at their season shot charts, per NBA-Savant.
As you can see, Davis works best getting elbow and high post catches, where he can face up and scan the floor. Cousins is more comfortable playing in isolation working from the outside in. Both are effective around the rim --- Davis, using his length and athleticism, and Cousins channeling brute strength and deft touch to navigate near the basket. Alvin Gentry can draw up a myriad of high-low sets in the half-court offense, interchangeably using Cousins and Davis in either role.
Analyzing The Supporting Cast
After adding Cousins, New Orleans improved from a basement dwelling offense to a middle-of-the-pack one (16th in efficiency at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com). Cousins and Davis are supremely talented, and great players usually learn how to adapt to one another. Realistically, the debate worthy topic is whether the Pelicans supporting case will be enough to push New Orleans to the playoffs.
Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, Davis, and Cousins all ranked in the 85th percentile or higher in total time of possession, per NBA.com. Now, they’re joined together in one of the more fascinating starting lineups in the league. Something will have to give, and the sacrifice will inevitably come from the two guards, who will be the ancillary pieces in coach Alvin Gentry’s system.
Holiday typically prefers to find his scoring off of the dribble. Per Synergy Sports, 51% of his shot attempts came as a pick and roll ball handler last season. Another 18% came in isolation or as the ball handler in transition. With Rondo in town, Holiday’s time of possession is going to plummet, and he’ll have to adjust accordingly. The benefit of simultaneously playing two traditional point guards is that it enables additional playmaking and facilitating on the floor. The burden is that they’ll each have to accustom themselves to handling the rock less, an unfamiliar territory for Holiday and Rondo.
Rondo’s ball dominance and suspect shooting percentages essentially necessitates moving Holiday to more of an off-ball role, which largely equates to a lot of quick catch and shoot attempts. Take a look at Holiday’s spot up shooting breakdown from 2016-17.
Per Synergy Sports
There were only 132 measured possessions where Holiday attempted a spot up jumper, far below the expected average for natural off guards. It evidences that Holiday’s transition into his new role won’t be an easy one. Naturally, his best shooting production came off of the dribble, a testament to how proficient he was in the pick and roll and pick and pop. Holiday is a reliable 36.6% distance shooter for his career, but he finished in the 42nd percentile in spot up shooting last season, an underwhelming statistic for a player trying to make the switch to 2-guard. What’s worse is that he finished in the 13th percentile on spot ups without a dribble, a shot he’ll have to fine-tune to remain harmonious with Rondo.
It feels bizarre for the Pels to force Holiday to completely change his playing style after inking him to a $131 million extension, but the decision seems somewhat financially driven. In a free agency market that was oversaturated with point guards, GM Dell Demps knew that signing Rondo would be less expensive than finding a free agent shooting guard or wing. New Orleans will pay out $118.5M in guaranteed salaries this fall, a figure that dances on the razors edge of the $119M tax threshold. The small market Pels have never encountered the luxury tax territory, so using part of the mid-level exception to sign Rondo was the best that they could do.
Wing depth remains the major issue. The initial nod will likely go to Solomon Hill after he started 71 games last season. Hill is a versatile defensive specialist, an invaluable trait given the Pelicans’ starting lineup features undersize at shooting guard and oversize at power forward. Hill will be assigned to defend the opposing team’s best wing, and will need to make tactical switches onto quicker guards and stronger forwards. Hill is an underwhelming shooter (career .336 from distance), but he’s the clear 5th option on offense, and thus, many of his attempts should be uncontested.
Behind Hill, they will lean heavily on Quincy Pondexter, who offers capable scoring ability, but has only managed to appear in 75 games over the past two seasons. After that, the outlook is pretty bleak. Veterans E’Twaun Moore and Jordan Crawford could play some 3 spot in a pinch, but they’re shooting guards by trade, and lack the size/strength attributes to hold up against the majority of small forwards. Rostering switchable wings who can provide position versatility and floor spacing has become critical for building a winning team, so how New Orleans handles their wing depth is a storyline that could have significant implications.
The Pels completely lucked out at the backup point guard spot. In June, they inexplicably traded Tim Frazier to the Wizards for the 52nd overall pick, which they ended up flipping for cash considerations. Not only was Frazier inexpensive ($2M salary), youthful (age 26), but he was also supremely effective in NOLA, averaging 13.6 points, and 8.7 assists per 36 minutes over the past two seasons. Fortunately for New Orleans, this summer’s point guard market ended up being ice cold, and they were able to sign Ian Clark for the veteran minimum. Clark, who has the versatility to play both point guard and shooting guard, should be able to rotate in for Rondo or Holiday. He instantly becomes one of the Pelicans better outside shooters, after connecting on 37.4% of his attempts last season playing for Golden State. Simply due to his playoff experience, Clark is an upgrade over Frazier.
The Big Picture Outlook
There isn’t another non-playoff team with more pressure on them headed into this season. Davis is constantly asked about the stability of his future with the organization, and to his credit, he remains steadfastly committed to the organization despite the fact that they’ve managed to win 40 games only once in his five seasons. He’s a generational player, but the Pelicans have never been able to find or develop a secondary star to help them ascend to the next level.
Despite what skeptics might say about the unconventionality of a Davis-Cousins duo, collecting frontline talent is the most difficult task in the NBA, and the Pelicans have accomplished that by adding Cousins. With a full offseason of implementation under them, expectations have to be high. But with the Timberwolves and Nuggets also making notable improvements, the jockeying for playoff positioning will be fierce.
Cousins will become a free agent next summer. He grew up in the Gulf Coast area in nearby Mobile, Alabama, but if the Pelicans miss the playoffs again, I can’t see a reason why Boogie would want to re-sign in New Orleans. He has the pedigree amongst his colleagues to pair up with another star, forming another alluring “super team”. A theoretical tandem with a blue chip ball handler makes much more logistical sense than playing alongside the 6’11 Davis. Supposedly, Cousins privately endorses the idea of pairing with John Wall, a possibility that has been floating around NBA blogs for over a year. I wrote about that potential in my Wizards article last week. The Lakers are poised to add multiple max contracts next summer, and were heavily connected to Cousins before he landed in New Orleans. Those are two of the many suitors who will be hot on Boogie’s trail provided that he can minimize his behavioral distractions.
Meanwhile, much to the chagrin of Pelicans fans, Davis’ name continues to resurface in trade rumors. The rest of the NBA is undoubtedly hoping that the Pelicans to miss the playoffs, a result that could finally break Davis’ seemingly unrelenting public loyalty to New Orleans. Davis is under contract through 2021, but with the constant flux of superstar movement in the NBA, could anyone blame him for wanting out of New Orleans if they produce another year of uninspiring results?
*All non-cited statistics are from basketball-reference
*All salary information is from realgm.com