Anthony Davis wants DeMarcus Cousins back, but should Pelicans feel the same?

Things change quickly in the NBA. When DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season with a ruptured left Achilles on Jan. 27, it was a total gut shot. The Pelicans had been rolling, winners of seven of eight, including a win over the Rockets on the night Boogie went down with 12 seconds to go in the game. They proceeded to lose five of their next six and were promptly written off. 

They haven't lost since. 

There's a lot to unwrap about this 10-game win streak the Pelicans are riding, which continued on Wednesday with a win over Sacramento and has vaulted them to No. 4 in the West. For starters, Davis left against the Kings with what looked like an ankle roll. Let's see how that plays out and hope it's nothing serious. Beyond that, their schedule hasn't exactly been a Murderer's Row, as along the streak New Orleans has wins over Dallas, Brooklyn, Phoenix, the Lakers, Detroit and now Sacramento. 

That said, wins are wins, and Davis has been out of his mind, averaging 35.8 points and 13.6 boards during the streak, while Jrue Holiday has established himself as one of the best players in the league that nobody talks about. Rondo is balling. Nikola Mirotic is balling. The Pelicans are playing at a pace that conjures images of 1990 Loyola Marymount, running and gunning like they were shot out of a cannon. 

And all the while, Cousins looms in the background. 

We all know the deal: Cousins is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and could well be in the market for a max contract even coming off an Achilles tear. Davis, for his part, wants Cousins back, and is confident that Boogie will indeed return to New Orleans. From Mark Stein's New York Times NBA newsletter:

"That's a decision [Cousins] has to make," Davis told Stein and Shauntel Lowe. "I'm pretty confident that he'll stay. From what I hear, he plans on it. But I'm going to keep selling the dream here. I'll be very involved -- I want him here."

Here's what's interesting about this situation: It's always painted as if the decision rests entirely in Cousins' lap, like it's the Pelicans and Davis who bear the full burden of selling him on a reason to come back. Truth is, the Pelicans still have to decide if they want him back, particularly given what he'll likely cost. 

For some, this is very simple: Davis wants Cousins back, and New Orleans is not an organization with nearly enough clout to go against the public wishes of the player who holds the fate of the franchise in his hands. For that reason alone, you offer Cousins whatever it takes to get him back and take your chances that the momentum he and Davis were just starting to build was actually a real thing, rather than the wishful-thinking byproduct of a small sample size. 

Keep in mind, it's not like Cousins and Davis just came together a few weeks ago. They've shared the court for almost six months of NBA action, and during that time, in games in which both Davis and Cousins played, the Pelicans are 31-28. If you're the Pelicans, you have a choice: You can focus on the two-week stretch before Cousins went down when you went 7-1, or you can focus on the 20-plus weeks before that when you were 24-27 with Davis and Cousins on the court together. 

It doesn't take a genius to see that there's a lot of evidence to support that Cousins and Davis, for all their individual talent, are at best a mediocre combination. Fact is, the Pelicans, with Davis on the floor, have been almost exactly the same offensive team with or without Cousins all year long -- 108.4 points per 100 possessions with him, 108.1 points without him entering Wednesday, per NBA.com. 

Over this nine-game win streak, the Pelicans' offensive rating has shot up 111.7 points per 100 possessions entering Wednesday, and the 126.1 points they've been averaging over that same stretch is by far the top mark in the league. The defense has gotten almost two points better per 100 possessions as well. Now, if we're going to qualify the eight-game run the Pelicans were on prior to Boogie's injury as a small sample size, we have to do the same for this current streak. And again, the schedule has been soft. 

But let's forget about the numbers and the schedule for a moment and just talk basketball. From the start there were questions about how Davis and Cousins would co-exist as relatively redundant players. They can both shoot, so the floor isn't as clogged as you might think it would be with a pair of bigs like that, but it's not as spaced as it could be either. 

You can play your offense through whichever one has the better matchup, but given the pace of today's game, not to mention all the switching and ball and player movement that goes on, that's a tough thing to consistently decipher on the fly. It's easy to settle into a my-turn, your-turn daze, which leads to an inherent lack of clarity as to who's the No. 1 guy.

With Cousins out, there's no such confusion. With the likes of E'Twaun Moore, Holiday, Darius Miller and the newly acquired Mirotic, they're putting shooters around Davis and simply letting perhaps the most freakishly gifted player on earth go to work. Also, we have to talk more about this pace they're playing at. New Orleans has been playing fast all season, but without Cousins, New Orleans is playing at a breakneck pace, tops in the league in fact, with Rajon Rondo and Holiday pushing the ball relentlessly and everyone passing ahead. 

Davis is far more athletic than Cousins and thus suited to run like this consistently, and he's nearly impossible to match up with in the open floor. He establishes early position on the block. He runs the lane. It's really something to watch. 

If you're committed to playing fast, a twin-tower lineup seems, well, less than optimal. At the same time, when just about everyone in the league is going small, you would think New Orleans would be able to take major advantage of those mismatches and pound teams inside, commit to crashing the glass on both ends, and just physically beat teams up, wear them down and get them in foul trouble. Indeed a lot of people were very curious to see some of the problems they might pose in this year's playoffs. 

And really, that's what we're talking about here. The playoffs. Nobody cares if the Pelicans can figure things out enough to put a nice little regular-season run together. When Davis and Cousins joined up, it was about competing for a title or at least clearly moving in that direction. In today's game, it's nearly impossible to compete for a title with just one star. Look at the Rockets. When they put Chris Paul next to James Harden, some people had the same questions about them that they did Cousins and Davis in terms of their ability to co-exist as pretty similar players. That seems to be working out fairly well. 

Why? Well, for starters, the Rockets have a ton of shooting, and the Pelicans, whether they keep move forward with Cousins or not, could still use more shooting. But ultimately, the Rockets simply beat you with the talent of Paul and Harden. They play more isolation than any team in the league, and this is a model the Pelicans could choose to follow. Just give the ball to the two best bigs in the world and take your chances. There are worse plans. 

In the end, the chances of New Orleans letting Cousins walk for nothing are slim. Again, Davis wants him back, and if you rub Davis wrong, your franchise goes up in smoke. Plus, they're over the salary cap next year anyway, so it's not like they could take the money they would save on Cousins and go after, say, Paul George. They can sign Cousins because they have his Bird Rights, but if they let him go, they're just another team with no money and only one star. 

Davis has been a monster unleashed without Cousins. There is no doubt about this. It's a lot to ask of one guy to maintain that level of energy and production over the long haul, and especially in the playoffs, but if he does it, if the Pelicans go into the playoffs and make real noise, and genuinely look like a clearer, faster, more dangerous version of themselves with Cousins in street clothes, it won't just be Cousins who has a big decision to make this summer. 

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