The Pelicans defied all expectations, but now the DeMarcus Cousins problem looms this offseason
New Orleans has a big choice to make regarding the centerpiece of a 2017 blockbuster trade
After DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in the final seconds of a game against the Houston Rockets at the end of January, the Pelicans were thought to be sunk. They were eking their way into the playoffs at the time, and many thought that it was time to pack it up and start thinking about next season after they had Cousins locked up on a max contract.
What did the team do instead? Dell Demps unloaded Omer Asik's nightmare contract to the Bulls to pick up Nikola Mirotic, they ripped off 20 wins in their last 28 games (including a five-game win streak to end the season), and they made the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. There, they shocked everyone by sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers before losing in five games to a Warriors team that's, in a word, better. They ended the season with a furious fourth quarter against the Warriors in Game 5 that saw them outscore Golden State 29-18.
But now, things get hard. The Pelicans aren't ready to play with the best teams in the Western Conference, and this season was always going to come down to the Warriors and the Rockets. But the Pelicans showed that they can play great basketball. Anthony Davis is locked up until 2020 with a player option that would keep him through 2021, and Jrue Holiday is signed until 2021 with a player option for 2022 as well. Both players have more than earned those contracts. But Cousins is an unrestricted free agent, which raises the question: Should they risk giving Cousins a max contract, and how would that shake things up for the Pelicans moving forward?
The case for Cousins
Boogie can be a game-changer. He and Davis were on a historic pace playing together, and his injury forced the Pelicans to change the way they play. Yes, Mirotic was excellent when he was plugged into the starting lineup at the end of the regular season -- and he was a huge reason for the Pelicans beating the Trail Blazers in four straight games -- but when he went cold against Golden State, it showed. Mirotic went back to a 40 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but it was his streakiness that got the Pelicans into trouble. On top of that, in Game 5, the Pelicans had just four offensive rebounds to the Warriors' 12, a problem that dated back to 2016 that Cousins assuaged, hauling in 2.2 offensive rebounds per game in the games he played this year.
There's also a bigger-game factor in signing Cousins: It placates Davis on a few levels. Anthony Davis can opt out in the summer of 2020, and even if he wants to stay in New Orleans, there's little reason not to opt out, because he will have looks from every team if he does. Davis has long said he doesn't want to play a true center game, and he's expressed a desire to keep Cousins in New Orleans. Before the All-Star break, around the time of Cousins' injury, Davis had 9.6 touches per game in the paint, 6.4 post-ups, and 4.5 elbow touches.
Cousins allowed Davis to play stretch in a way he wasn't able to in his career. However, after the All-Star break, Davis had 11.3 paint touches, 6.7 post-ups and four elbow touches. Forcing Davis to play in the paint all game takes away one of his defining traits, which is the ability to spread the floor and play four-out one-in with Cousins inside.
The other part of this is a relative lack of depth at center. The Pelicans have Alexis Ajinca and Mirotic on contract next season, but coach Alvin Gentry was reluctant to put Mirotic in the starting lineup. Once he did it paid dividends, but the ability to play him off the bench is beneficial for New Orleans. The lineup of Rajon Rondo, Holiday, E'Twaun Moore, Davis and Cousins played 26 games together in the regular season, going 17-9. That lineup could be within their grasp next year, and having Holiday, Davis and Cousins together creates that "Big 3" everyone is so obsessed with in today's NBA.
The case against Cousins
Money, plain and simple. The arguments about Davis and Cousins not being able to coexist have largely been put to bed, although there is a question of how much better the Pelicans are with them both on the floor. New Orleans scored 111.3 points per game before the All-Star break and 112.6 per game after it. Davis and Cousins are both decent enough shooters that they can space the floor -- this isn't the 2014-15 Pistons with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe -- and Cousins is one of the best passing bigs in the NBA. The real question is how much better does Cousins actually make the Pelicans when Davis ends up essentially replicating his production alongside whoever ends up playing the five? Cousins was averaging 25.2 points per game, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists alongside Davis' 26.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and and 2.5 assists. After Cousins went down, Davis lost his mind, putting up 30.2 points per game and 11.9 rebounds.
More than that, the Pelicans had some floor chaos alleviated. The ball was proliferated better, and with four-out one-in and Davis in the paint, they played better on the perimeter while giving Davis post-up isolation. The biggest thing we saw in the postseason was the Pelicans pushing the pace constantly, going on runs that way. That's how they beat the Warriors in Game 3. The Pelicans averaged 13.3 fast break points per game before the All-Star break. After the break, they led the league with 19.9 fast break points per game. At the time of their exit, they led all postseason teams with 18.1. The had the fastest pace of any team in the playoffs. Cousins can't run the floor the way that that pace dictates, and coming off of a torn Achilles that's going to be even more of an issue.
ESPN's Zach Lowe reported during the postseason that the Pelicans are unlikely to offer Cousins a max deal due to their success without him. If another suitor enters the fray -- remembering what is presumed to be a limited market for Cousins -- the Pelicans may find themselves unable to compete if they're only willing to offer a two or three-year deal. Also, keeping in mind that the Pelicans have never had the opportunity to shuffle a Davis-Cousins-Mirotic trio, that opportunity may help, but it also may not be worth the risk if a team starts offering four to five year deals for a player that's been in the league for eight years, even if he will only be 28. The Pelicans would be pushed up against the tax in that situation, which Demps has avoided in the past.
Where it gets messy
Letting Cousins go isn't a trade-off. They can't use a bunch of saved salary cap money to go and get players to fill out a bench that needs filling out or another top-tier wing. They may dangle Moore as a trade piece, but that's a whole other conversation. The Pelicans are in a salary cap bind with Holiday and Davis tying up most of their cap. That isn't a bad thing, both players have played up to their contracts, but even with all of the talk about stylistic fit with Cousins, the bottom line is this: He makes the Pelicans more talented. This is a small-market team that showed it can, if nothing else, get itself into a position to play the elites of the conference. The Warriors' series likely doesn't end different if Cousins can play, but it does change the conversation around the series from "can Mirotic keep shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc" to "how does the Pelicans' Big 3 stack up against the Warriors' death lineup."
The Pelicans have built their team different from the NBA norm. Where the Rockets and Warriors have loaded up on shooters and small ball while the league has followed suit, the Pelicans have added size to their roster. The problem with that strategy, of course, is that three points is still worth more than two.
New Orleans was built under the assumption that Davis is the future, and it traded for Cousins during the 2017 All-Star break to help solidify that future. Cousins' presence allowed Davis to play happy and in a style that he liked. However, now the Pelicans must walk that balance between keeping their superstar happy and doing what's best for the team. Should they let Cousins walk, Davis may not be thrilled at the front office defying his wishes. However, as we saw at the end of this season, it could allow the Pelicans to play their best basketball.
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