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Tall Order: Pelicans Must Find New Means of Survival Without DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis created a perfect harmony with the Pelicans. Now, after Cousins suffered an Achilles injury, a bare-bones roster is left to pick up the pieces.

Every injury in sports is a cruelty, but what happened to DeMarcus Cousins on Friday was uncommonly painful. His season ended almost without explanation; as Cousins vied for a rebound with just under 10 seconds remaining in New Orleans's win against Houston, a seemingly ordinary step forced him to first hop along gingerly and then fall to the floor altogether. The Pelicans would later confirm the worst-case scenario: Cousins' Achilles tendon had torn.

There was no ill-fated contact with another player, no visible tweak or strain or buckle. Even on video replay, we can only be struck by the quiet brutality of that moment—and how much can be taken away on the most ordinary of basketball plays.

Cousins was poised to get a first taste of playoff basketball after a decade of waiting. He had just been selected to start in the All-Star Game alongside teammate Anthony Davis, a tribute to his strongest individual season yet. Come July, Cousins will be a free agent, and all of the usual Cousins skepticism will be joined by a new battery of questions. Cousins may never be the same.

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All the while, New Orleans will search desperately for means of survival. The Pelicans were finally on some sort of track. When Davis and Cousins shared the floor, New Orleans scored and defended at the equivalent of a top-10 level—posting an overall net rating consistent with a 50-win team. Those days are over. It's certain that Cousins has played his last game of the season and it's also possible that he has played his last game as a Pelican. 

All the team can do is attempt to pick up the pieces. This is a tall order. The Pelicans have consistently been one or two viable players short of a quality rotation, leaving gaps where a two-way wing or a crucial reserve should be. Now they'll have to account for another 36 minutes of play, much less the mammoth production that Cousins makes look easy. In the Pelicans' first game following Cousins's injury, Davis played 41 minutes as a matter of virtual necessity. Alexis Ajinca is not likely to play for the remainder of this year. The undersized and underseasoned Cheick Diallo isn't reliable enough for regular play. That leaves Omer Asik, effectively unplayable under normal circumstances, as the next center in line.


To clarify the situation: Cousins was involved in nine of New Orleans' 10 most-played lineups this season. The only lineup he wasn't a part of (the Pelicans' new starting five of Davis, Jrue Holiday, E'twaun Moore, Rajon Rondo, and Dante Cunningham) was outscored by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, per, thanks to some truly putrid offense. 

We saw it in action on Sunday night, when the Clippers collapsed on Davis at every opportunity and encouraged the Pelicans' worst shooters to fire away from outside:

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When Davis did attempt to score, he worked against the grain and into a packed paint. These circumstances infringe upon what makes him special. Being quicker than virtually any opposing center can prove meaningless when your starting point guard doesn't need to be defended at all and the entire opposing team seems to be hovering around you. Davis will still make things happen with length and touch alone, but no team wants to subsist on shots like this one:

But this is Davis's life now. Shading double and triple teams will follow him wherever he goes, and the majority of his teammates aren't effective enough to capitalize. Davis actually made some great decisions in Sunday's game by reading the timing of the defense and trying to make plays for others. Too many of those possessions ended in misplays from his fellow Pelicans or genuinely bad misses. Take this sequence, in which a double team denies Davis the mismatch he wants, putting the ball in the hands of Darius Miller:

And this is supposed to be the Pelicans' superior side of the ball. The reality is that Davis will have to hit tough shots, play smart basketball, and find new ways to surprise defenses on a pretty consistent basis. And even if he does—even if Davis wins every minute that he's on the floor—the Pelicans could still lose a majority of their games the rest of the way. Whatever margin for error the Pelicans' had ruptured with Cousins's achilles. If the starters don't open every game strong, New Orleans will live behind the eight ball. Then comes the creeping doubt, and with it a host of other problems.

The Pelicans could only make the rest of their shoestring roster work this season because they had two stars and used them creatively. Now they have one, a development that in itself stunts inventive play. Gone is the high-low synergy. The power of the misdirect has been sapped almost entirely, as there are harsh limits to how much attention a defense will lend Miller or Moore or Jameer Nelson.

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There was a wonderful balance in the way that Davis would distract defenses enough for Cousins to dominate inside, and that Cousins, prior to that fateful game against the Rockets, had assisted more of Davis's baskets than any other Pelican. Their dynamic worked.

And now, it's gone.