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  • Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are both terrifying talents in their own right. But their tenture together will rest on their ability to find balance in real time.
By Rob Mahoney
February 21, 2017

Pairing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins is the stuff of dreamy hypotheticals. It’s just the kind of move that NBA obsessives or industry types would kick around for its pure delight, fascinating on in its own terms in a league that so rarely allows for superstar big men to wind up in the same place. Each is a terrifying talent. Davis began his career as a pick-and-roll prodigy and quickly developed the shooting skill and face-up game to make guarding him impossible. Cousins is one of the league’s foremost bruisers but also a remarkably agile driver and now an established three-point threat. Both came up by forcing their way through the small, fleeting gaps in spacing-deprived offenses. Now they’ll share the court as teammates—two proficient, flexible giants demanding of opponents in almost equal measure. 

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That there would be occasion for two of the league’s best bigs to support one another, after years spent making the most of sketchy help, is a tremendous turn of events. Davis may be a center by modern NBA standards, but he remains a power forward by preference. Any player would love the breathing room afforded by filling out lineups with more shooters and playmakers. Yet there is fair reason why so many frontcourt players bristle or push back at the idea of shifting up a position for the sake of small ball—particularly those of the high-usage subset. Davis has long carried so much of the workload for the Pelicans that the idea of wrestling a consistently bigger and stronger pool of opponents on a nightly basis didn’t much entice. The notion that Davis would be even more responsible for his team’s collective rebounding probably sounded like a chore. Life in a spread offense isn’t all spot-up threes and open lanes. Frontcourt players thanklessly create the most significant points of leverage by grinding their way through assignments that are, by their very nature, more physically taxing.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Acquiring Cousins, then, is a hell of a way to give Davis just what he wants. From this point forward, playing Davis at center can be a periodic alternative—no less powerful, but for Davis, much more palatable. Staggering the two should be a tremendous luxury. Yet playing them together could bring the real magic. This isn’t some typical twin-towers alignment; Davis and Cousins have such variety in their games that toggling the high-low orientation between them should come naturally and, in many cases, stretch all the way out to the three-point line. Throw out the data on how Davis has performed to date alongside traditional centers. Ditto for any concerns you may have with how Cousins logged time alongside Kosta Koufos or Willie Cauley-Stein. Any generalized fears in this case are simply overwhelmed by specific context. There is no universe in which Cousins and Omer Asik exhibit a similar influence on the game around them. They barely play the same sport. That both are nominal centers is a coincidence with precious little impact. Forget the positional designations. What matters in the fit of any two players is the range of opponents each can reliably guard, the spaces on the floor that serve them best, and the interplay of specific skills.

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Overlap is inevitable. There will be times where Davis and Cousins get in each other’s way, if only because both have grown accustomed to seeking out the ball in moments of disorder. Some early, turn-taking offense is to be expected with players with the second- and sixth-highest usage rates in the league collide for the first time. With no experience playing together or operational shorthand, Cousins and Davis will have to find the balance between their games in real time. Davis will have to learn how to move and cut off of a Cousins post-up as to maximize the defensive tension between them. Cousins will need to read Davis’s face-up patterns so he can slot himself on the floor accordingly. Both had done so well in making themselves instrumental to their respective teams on an every-possession basis. Now they’ll be asked to thrive in a more layered work of harmony.

All of the elements are in place for Davis and Cousins to hit the right chord. There’s enough passing and spacing between them to alleviate most of the interior crunch. If the crowd does become a problem, Cousins might be the best in the league when it comes to overpowering multiple defenders and Davis has grown this season by better preempting varieties in coverage. Many actions will only directly involve one or the other, but consider this: Any standard pick-and-pop for Davis forces a defense into rotation, likely leaving some poor wing to reckon with Cousins as he ducks into the post. Or to invert that scenario, any post-up for Cousins will naturally create an itch in the rest of the defense. Most opponents tend to watch Cousins carefully, awaiting the moment when they’ll need to spring into action with assistance. Davis will be able to slink around the floor with a newfound freedom. 

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So much of this on-court relationship will come down to what Cousins and Davis make of those opportunistic moments when the help leaves one to contain the other. What a relief that must be when your most talented teammate to this point had been Jrue Holiday (who should be a great middleman in New Orleans) or pre-combustion Isaiah Thomas. What a difference it must make to split the center of attention. How can a defense steel itself when a high-value post-up could come from either opposing big? Is running a switching defense even an option in that scenario? Is there enough length and strength in any frontcourt in the league to adequately rein in both Cousins and Davis at once? The process of learning to work alongside another superstar can be thorny with ego and competing responsibility. What makes it all so worthwhile is the way it changes the world for the game’s best players by eventually making all they do so much easier. 

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