The New Orleans have a tough road to the playoffs in the Western Conference. There are probably five teams fighting for the last three spots with no clear cut favorite. There’s one factor that clearly favors the Pelicans among these teams: star power. While lacking in plenty of areas, no one else in the middle of that pack can match the duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. They just have to figure out how to work together, and fit the rest of the team around them.
Just Give It Time
By acquiring Cousins at the deadline last season, New Orleans hoped to make a playoff push. That…did not happen. But last 10 or so games of the season showed the possibilities of this front line. On paper.
There was always going to be growing pains among these two superstars. Coalescing two big men is a challenge in this perimeter-centric era of the NBA. The Pelicans took a risk by attempting it, betting that sheer star power could overcome any issues with fit. After a full offseason and the start of another campaign, the two have made great strides working together and sharing the massive load their team requires of them.
The Rest of the Roster Is A Mess
Davis and Cousins need to be great together, because nobody else can do all that much. Davis has a 33.7 PER so far. Cousins has himself a 28.3 The next closest regular player? Jrue Holiday, at 13.0. Davis and Cousins are also the only Pelicans to have a positive Box Plus/Minus. So, not ideal.
It’s not like the roster is hopeless, though. Holiday needs to be better – he’s getting paid $25 million, after all – but his PER is the same as Draymond Green’s right now. He’ll settle in. Ian Clark is handling his larger role competently and might be the team’s best shooter right now. E’Twuan Moore is right there with him. You don’t want to rely on Jameer Nelson in 2017, but you kind of have to admit that Nelson is reliable. Alexis Ajinca, Rajon Rondo and Solomon Hill have yet to see the floor. They can soak up some minutes going to less reliable players right now.
But It All Revolves Around the Big Guys
I know that the names in the last paragraph don’t exactly inspire confidence. Especially against the best of the West. That’s why the two stars need to be brilliant. Here’s some of what they’ve done to get there.
Cousins is spending a lot of time handling the ball above the arc, functioning as a point guard (or center, or whatever). It’s a convenient way to give him and Davis both space to work. He’s increasingly comfortable handling the ball and shooting threes, so it makes sense, but his passing from out there is far behind what he’s capable of while in the post. He tries tricky post entries and ill-advised fast break lobs. Cousins is averaging 5 turnovers per game, which would easily be a career high. He hasn’t been over 4 per game since the 2014-15 season.
His two best options from up top are to bully straight to the rim against mismatched or out of position defenders or just anyone, really:
Or initiate a handoff/pick and roll game with a guard:
The Pelicans with only Cousins on the floor are outplaying lineups with only Davis on the floor, however. All of these are skewed by small sample size, but my theory goes that Boogie can more easily take over a game on his own through his sheer size and physicality. The Brow is not that type of brute yet, and may never be close to Cousins. They may have differing styles but their stat lines through 8 games are darn near identical:
AD 27 PTS, 3 AST, 12 REB, 2 BLK, 2.3 TOV, 53/35/80%
DMC 30 PTS, 6 AST, 13 REB, 2.3 BLK, 5 TOV, 48/36/80%
Cousins has taken 61 threes already this season, Davis only 20. But Davis is increasingly comfortable off the ball and outside the arc, and his length will forever be a problem in a pick and roll. With both players so versatile and dynamic, there ought to be plenty of easy ways to use them together. One is out of the “horns” set, with both big men at the elbows:
Simple screen action using players that can hurt you inside and out is ruthlessly effective, and this gets Holiday involved in the action as well. Will enough plays like these challenge any of the real killers in the West? Probably not. But New Orleans has both these guys; they have to try.
The defense is a whole separate issue. The Pelicans are 19th in the league with a 105.2 Defensive Rating. The frontcourt isn’t exactly the problem, but their individual Defensive Ratings are only slightly better than the overall team’s. Opposing teams use the same tactics the Pels use with their big men to stretch opposing defenses past their comfort zone. Cousins and Davis are still better scoring from 24 feet out than they are defending. At times, Boogie still doesn’t really even try. Tony Allen and Clark are helpful defenders, but lack of depth is just as much an issue on this side of the ball.
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These problems won’t go away all year. It’s gonna be an uphill battle, but an all-important one. The results of this season may decide what happens to Cousins in free agency. And hell, maybe even Davis on the trade market. Every bit of strategy, effort and luck will be needed to change the fortunes of this franchise. Especially from their two stars.