The first All-Star ballots are in and if the voting ceased now the West starting line-up would feature one Rocket, two Warriors and two Pelicans. The NBAs best big men are lined up against the wall in traditional schoolyard style and Pelicans coach, Alvin Gentry has somehow ended up with the first two picks.
DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Arguably the two best big men in the league are patrolling the paint and terrorising defenses, all while wearing the same uniform. So how are the Pelicans barely clinging to their playoff spot in the 8th seed, only one game above .500?
The Cousins and Davis experiment has now stretched into its tenth month. DeMarcus will be an unrestricted free agent come this summer and the rumours continue to swirl around Davis’s future at the Pelicans. Davis himself admitted in a recent interview that the clock is ticking on the Pelicans and their two stars.
“You can score, you can dominate. You can do whatever. But they calculate everything off winning. You know that. I know that. Everybody in the league knows that…For DeMarcus and me, this is the time. The time is now.”
In a league hell-bent on spacing, pace and small ball line-ups, the Pelicans are bucking the trend by pinning their hopes on two traditional big men. But while Davis (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) and Cousins (6-foot-11 and 270 pounds) may fit the traditional big man body-type, their play style is anything but old-school.
Both Davis and Cousins have handles the envy of many a guard in the NBA, which allows them to create opportunities previously unheard of for a big man. They can both run the point on a fast-break, surveying the options before dishing to an open teammate or taking the scoring responsibility themselves.
Here is Cousins running the fast break before finding Davis for the two-handed flush.
Here is Davis going coast-to-coast with ease on the Lakers defense.
While it may be common practice to see the likes of Steph Curry bursting around screens to create daylight for their shot, it’s somewhat uncanny to see the near 7 foot Davis nipping around the perimeter hunting for a three.
And because DeMarcus doesn’t want to be outdone, I’ll just leave this here.
Every night Cousins and Davis are a highlight reel waiting to happen, and while their dazzling moves leave fans searching for superlatives, the numbers also back up the eye test. Through 37 games Cousins is averaging 26 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while shooting 36% from beyond the arc. Davis is no slouch either, averaging 25.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, while besting Cousins beyond the arc with a clip of 37% from three.
As you would expect, the Pelicans frontcourt has very few offensive issues to worry about. Their combined firepower has led New Orleans to the 7th best offensive rating in the league, while scoring just over 111 points per game (best for 4th in the league). That’s almost seven points more every contest than the Pelicans managed last season, in which they ranked 26th for offensive efficiency.
Credit needs to go to Gentry for evolving his offense to incorporate Cousins, but the Pelicans slightly misfit supporting cast deserve their time in the sun as well. Jrue Holiday has taken his game to the next level, averaging a career-high 18.3 points, while still dishing out 5.2 assists per contest. Behind the play of Holiday and the somewhat shaky addition of Rondo, the Pelicans have jumped to 2nd in the league in assists, averaging over 26 per game (up from 12th last season).
While they may not be household names, E’Twaun Moore and Darius Miller are leading somewhat of a three-point renaissance for the Pelicans. Moore (47% from three) and Miller (44% from three) have helped catapult the Pelicans from 19th in three-point percentage last season (35%), to 2nd in the league this campaign (38%). In the month of December, the Pelicans shot a scorching 43.2% from beyond the arc. The only team shooting threes at a higher clip then the Pelicans are the Golden State Warriors, which is not bad company for Gentry and his men.
So, the offense is anchored by two scoring giants, the team is top two in the league in three-point shooting efficiency and assists, which all combines for the 7th best offensive rating in the NBA.
This is the part where the dreaded ‘but’ enters the fray.
Unfortunately for Gentry and the Pelicans, basketball is a two-way sport. Offense is flashy, dominates the highlights reels and wins fans hearts, but without defense it all eventually crumbles to the ground.
DeMarcus Cousins is either incredibly unlucky and just always ends up on bad defensive teams, or there are some underlying issues on the other side of the floor for the three-time All-Star. Unfortunately for Cousins the numbers back up the latter.
The Sacramento Kings had a top twenty defense in exactly one of Cousins seven years there, and it was in Cousin’s rookie season. In the 2016-17 season, the Pelicans conceded just 106.4 points per game, ranking them as the 9th best defense in the league. With Cousins in tow, the Pelicans have slipped to conceding just under 111 points per contest this season, which ranks them as the 7th worst defense in the league. In the month of December, they had the 2nd worst defensive rating in the NBA.
The problems arise when Cousins is left to anchor the defense without Davis as his wingman. The Pelicans defensive rating with the pair both on the court is 104.3, which would be the 2nd best rating in the league. When Cousins is left to protect the rim on his own, the rating plummets to 112.9, which would be the 2nd worst rating the league.
Casting DeMarcus in the role of a traditional center is where the problems arise. While he fits the frame of a rim protector, he lacks the pace and lateral quickness to guard todays elite multi-dimensional scorers. While Davis can hedge out at Steph Curry to deny a three ball and then recover to contest his drive to the rim, Cousins simply can’t keep up defensively with the pace of the modern offense.
The results of Cousins left by himself speak for themselves. Here is Cousins low-light reel from a recent loss against the Rockets, in which Davis missed with a groin injury.
Cousins constantly gets stuck in no man’s land trying to defend the pick and roll. He has no idea whether to attack the ball or stay with his man and generally ends up parked below the rim waiting to collect the ball after it sails through.
Davis is the perfect Robin to Cousins Batman. He has the speed and agility required to play defense in the modern game and can clean up Cousins mistakes. The recipe for Pelicans success seems to be playing Cousins and Davis together, but that just presents another issue for Gentry.
Behind Cousins and Davis, the Pelicans are scrapping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to back-up big men. Omer Asiks jersey number is more than double his scoring average, and he wears number three. Cheick Diallo (pick thirty-three from the 2016 draft) has potential but is simply too inexperienced to anchor a line-up at this stage of his career.
Gentry has been hesitant to sit Cousins and Davis on the bench at the same time this season, and understandably so considering the inevitable offensive drop-off. But the key to the Pelicans short and long-term success seems to revolve around how best to hold the defensive fort when Davis takes a breather. Plan A was to rely on Cousins, but if they want the success they so eagerly crave come playoffs, Gentry better be reading up on his alphabet.
Unfortunately for the Pelicans, there is no magic answer to the DeMarcus Cousins riddle. How do you translate his incredible highlights and raw numbers into a winning formula? It’s the question that will be keeping Alvin Gentry and GM’s across the league awake at night.
The clock hand is ticking dangerously close to midnight for the Pelicans and the Davis and Cousins era.
As Davis said himself, “the time is now.”