- It might not have looked like it on Day 1, but the Pelicans' signing of DeMarcus Cousins is the best thing to ever happen to Anthony Davis.
It took roughly five minutes of Thursday night’s game for a reasonable, fresh set of eyes to determine that everyone should be pulling for Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. New Orleans’s long basketball nightmare is kinda-over, for now, because the Pelicans are watchable as hell and potentially a very, very difficult team to stop. It’s easy to speak breathlessly about a pairing of talent like that, and it’s also fair to say we could have made these same assertions four days ago, when Cousins landed in New Orleans (figuratively speaking, seeing as how the All-Star big was literally already there in person). Never mind that. The optimist’s take is the one worth entertaining for now.
No, the Pelicans did not win against the Rockets last night, a team that’s perfected their breakneck style, got better at the deadline and can score the ball as well as anyone in the league. In fact, they lost by 30. Also still a fact: the Pelicans are not great. They looked discombobulated on defense and didn’t do much right, botching pick and roll defenses and losing shooters. It was a bad night. The other recently-liberated King, Omri Casspi, broke his freaking thumb. Pulling the Houston Rockets as your opponent in an initial attempt to integrate a dominant-yet-plodding center is like trying to fake your way through a surprise pop quiz in 8 a.m. AP Calculus on the first day of school. New Orleans failed. And that’s okay!
Although they may not need to do too much to sneak ahead of the Nuggets and Blazers for the final playoff spot, temper some of the excitement for this playoff push. This is still New Orleans we’re talking about, and acknowledging a longer view for a project this ambitious, even with a definite clock as determined by Cousins’s 2018 free agency, is going to be critical. That aside, what everyone was looking for on Thursday was exactly how Davis and Cousins would mesh together. Read Rob Mahoney’s Tuesday column for the nitty-gritty. It’s far more instructive.
The nut of the big one-game takeaway is this: stylistically, Davis and Cousins are not really in each other’s way. Boogie had 27, 14 and 5, Brow had 29 and 9, but this wasn’t really about the stats. Davis has always been better than just about anyone on the planet at contributing to winning without dominating the ball. Some of that got lost while he centered a one-man show without ample playmaking to maximize his talent. Remember when 18-year-old Davis carried Kentucky to a national title while taking the fourth-most shots on the team, shooting 62% from the field, leading the nation in blocks and scoring just six points (albeit on 1-for-10 shooting in the national title game)? That’s the root of his basketball DNA, so to speak. And now he can get back to it. His evolving ability to space the floor, put it on the deck and do stuff we’ve never seen before is the tastiest kind of gravy. Cousins is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
As for Boogie, he was, well, Boogie. He was best utilized in simple low-block clearout sets that let him whip passes to the opposite corner. Surely, the Pelicans will learn to run things through him, a role he should embrace thanks to the presence of a legitimate peer. He’s the opposite of Davis in that the ball must be in his hands for him to impose his will on the game, and that’s a plus. That, and they’re both good enough passers and shooters for New Orleans to go five-out and try different things. Presumably, that’s how the next month and a half is going to go as the Pelicans spend time together and find a preferred tempo. In that sense, there’s definite potential for this to work nicely. A couple of half-hearted Davis-Cousins pick-and-rolls they tried out later in the game didn’t amount to much, and yet those are the things that take mutual understanding and time. Trust the talent.
But we can’t get too ahead of ourselves. Of course, there are obstacles. For one, Cousins was a large part of the defensive struggles. Though some of that is based on new surroundings, he remains vulnerable in space, can be outworked by quicker bigs, and has to some degree been absolved from the whole “dying big-man” narrative due to his sheer offensive force. Building a defense around him will be a challenge, even with Davis to clean up some of the misses. It helps that if New Orleans figures out how to utilize personnel, few teams are going to have the luxury of playing small against them, but as long as Cousins is stuck on a nominal big and Davis is forced to leave the paint and account for a shooting threat, they’ll be vulnerable. The Rockets, of course, expose that weakness as well as anyone.
Along those lines, New Orleans also can’t afford to get outworked on the glass long-term (they conceded 12 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points), particularly when one of their two stars rests. Grumpy Nene (who tried hard to piss off a relatively calm Cousins) and bouncy Clint Capela were active and caused problems. Donatas Motiejunas and Dante Cunningham aren’t helping much there. A flexible third big man will be pivotal for cover, among many other necessary changes.
It goes without saying that the Pelicans have to creatively upgrade the roster and pick a direction this summer. They’ll likely want to pay up for Jrue Holiday (who seriously struggled Thursday) in lieu of better options, but the rest of the roster around Davis and Cousins should remain as liquid as possible. Do we trust New Orleans to do that? Although Dell Demps just struck gold, not yet. It’s also true that the hourglass has already flipped when it comes to finding a convincing, happy medium before Cousins hits free agency.
Still, we knew those things before Cousins ever pulled on a Pelicans jersey. The situational challenges are lost on nobody. It’s not the right time for sweeping predictions of success. Treat the next 22 games like a free trial. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are teammates, and we get to watch them feel each other out in a relationship that really might work. There will be few better reasons to watch the NBA in March (which is, of course, Where Tanking Happens). Shelve the overreactions and think about it.