- The clock is ticking on the Pelicans' big-man experiment. Can New Orleans win with two superstar bigs and an unbalanced roster? It doesn't have much time to figure it out.
The Pelicans stunned the NBA during All-Star weekend last year when they pulled off a blockbuster trade for DeMarcus Cousins. Trading for Boogie was a momentous deal for the organization, a signal to the league that New Orleans wouldn’t be content sitting on the outside looking in as the playoffs roll around each year.
After failing to surround Chris Paul with the necessary help during his six prime seasons in New Orleans, the Pelicans are determined not to waste the best years of Anthony Davis’s career. The first-team All-NBA honoree is just 24 years old, primed to carry New Orleans for the next five years of his $127 million contract. But the Pelicans had struggled to put top talent around him until swinging the trade for Cousins. Now that the two have a half-season under their belt together, will the superstar pairing vault the Pelicans up the Western Conference standings? That remains to be seen.
Let’s start with the good news. New Orleans now boasts two of the most skilled big men in the league—two offensive forces with complete games. Cousins is the bigger bruiser of the two. He sports an array of impressive post moves and is lethal on the block. Send just one defender to cover him and you’re asking for trouble. Boogie has ranked in the top 10 in points per game for each of the past five seasons. And that’s not to mention his improved three point stroke. Cousins averaged over two made threes per game last season (and 37.5% shooting) for the first time in his career.
As for Davis, there aren’t many more versatile players in the league. He’s comfortable setting screens and sprinting to the rim as well as popping out for his patented jumper. The gravity of his offensive game shifts defenses into his orbit, freeing open space around the floor. And if he gets cooking from the mid-range, look out. Davis can be unstoppable with his near 8-foot wingspan, floating the ball over opposing defenders with ease. He’s scored 40 or more points in a game 15 times in his short career, maxing out at 59 points against Detroit in 2016.
Both Davis and Cousins are high usage players, both of whom need consistent touches in order to truly find their rhythm. There were some growing pains in the pair’s 17 games together last year—the Pelicans went 7–10 in those contests—but those should subside as the 2017-18 season begins. The two big men are both versatile offense weapons—the question is where they can thrive next to one another. Both can take over the game in a variety of manners, but they'll need to dominate together, on the same nights, for New Orleans to realize its potential.
But the focus in New Orleans shouldn't be on the team's twin-tower experiment. Rather, the worries should be about the rest of the roster around them.
Ideally, New Orleans would surround Davis and Cousins with an array of capable shooters along with an effective pick-and-roll point guard. Let the two big men suck the defense in, and kick out to marksmen for open threes. However, when looking at the Pelicans' roster, those kind of talents are nowhere to be found.
Let’s start in the backcourt. Along with trotting out two de-facto centers, New Orleans projects to start two point guards together, Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. The addition of Rondo—who signed a one-year, $3 million deal this summer—was particularly confusing with Holiday signing a five-year, $131 million contract this summer. Defenses sag off Rondo to an alarming degree, packing the paint in attempt to encourage a jumper. Davis and Cousins’s lob opportunities may come few and far between if Rondo can't keep defenses honest.
With Holiday, the Pelicans are banking on the eight-year vet to provide a serious perimeter threat. However, it’s unclear whether Holiday can evolve into one of the league’s upper-echelon scoring guards. The UCLA product has a shifty game going to the tin and he executes well out of the pick-and-roll. However, he averaged just 15.4 points per game in 2016-17, and has never canned 40% of his threes in a season. A transition off the ball may prove more difficult than New Orleans expects.
Things are far more dire on the wing. Solomon Hill underwent surgery for a torn left hamstring in late August, and Quincy Pondexter was traded to the Bulls last week. New Orleans desperately needs to add talent at the forward positions, or be forced to rely on three-guard lineups with the likes of E'Twaun Moore, Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark for the entirety of the season. Not exactly a recipe for success.
New Orleans won’t have much time to manufacture a roster that maximizes Davis and Cousins’s unique talents. Boogie is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and there aren’t many valuable assets on the roster aside from the Pelicans’ three large contracts. If Cousins bolts in a year, New Orleans would be faced with a difficult rebuild. Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and middling wings won’t move the needle, especially in the insanely–stacked West.
The Pelicans’ only path back to relevance now rests on the broad shoulders of Davis and Cousins. Not many teams have one big man capable of stopping Davis or Cousins, let alone two. Maybe their offensive dominance can cover up the holes in New Orleans’s deeply-flawed roster and carry the Pelicans to a top six spot in the West standings. But that’s a lot to ask, even for two of the most talented bigs in the league.
If all doesn't go right, there’s a good chance the Pelicans will find themselves out of the playoff picture when April rolls around—and maybe lose Boogie two months later. If things go south early, trading Cousins might be the best bet. He’s still a valuable trade piece, and desperate teams—possibly Cleveland and its newly-acquired Nets’ pick—could jump at the chance to land a franchise center. Accepting failure from the twin-towers pairing would be a tough pill for New Orleans to swallow. But an even worse outcome would be losing Cousins for nothing 10 months from now. The clock is ticking.