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How Will the Pelicans Use Davis and Cousins Together?

New Orleans has the two best big men in basketball; now what?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

New Orleans and Sacramento had the fourth- and fifth-best odds of winning the lottery in the Anthony Davis Sweepstakes of 2012. While there was only a 7.6 percent chance of the Kings landing the no. 1 pick, it was difficult as an impartial fan not to imagine just how incredible it’d be to watch DeMarcus Cousins pair with Davis, a physical and athletic anomaly who seemed to have every single tool necessary to cover for the faults that Cousins betrayed on the front line. It was a different time then, when size was still paramount and twin-tower lineups weren’t considered liabilities.

Of course, the Kings were locked into their no. 5 spot, and the then–New Orleans Hornets ascended to nab one of the most coveted no. 1 picks of the past decade. It hasn’t even been five years, and yet, between Cousins and Davis, the two John Calipari disciples have dealt with just about everything young stars could possibly experience in their first few years in the league — except for postseason success. Through injuries, coaching changes, maturity issues, a sharp ascent to golden-boy status and an even quicker tumble, and playing for some of the most dysfunctional front offices in the NBA, Davis and Cousins never let the league forget that they were talents of the highest order.

And now the league will have to figure out what the hell they’re about to do together. Just after Davis walked off the news conference podium following his 52-point MVP performance at the 2017 NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night, news broke that the Kings and Pelicans agreed to trade DeMarcus Cousins for … it seriously does not matter. The Pelicans have Brow and Boogie anchoring their team. Bring out the jazz bands, chief. Mardi Gras is starting a week early.

We’re living in the age of unicorns, and both Davis and Cousins have found themselves part of the old guard instead of the vanguard. That isn’t to say their games aren’t compatible with the modern NBA, but they both arrived before the entire league’s sensibilities made a sharp left turn toward the corner. Here’s the thing about the unicorns we’ve lauded over the past two seasons: Most of their teams suck and are years away from building the kind of roster that would best complement a player like 2017 skills challenge champ Kristaps Porzingis. As much as they represent the future, the league needed new examples of how to throw a wrench in the now. What better way to accelerate the future than allowing two franchise big men to exponentiate their multidimensional talent?

Before the season began, our own Jonathan Tjarks made the case for Boogie as a transformative player not only for his team, but for the way opponents would have to account for him whenever he landed on a better team. “There’s a battle between size and speed at the center position, and speed has been winning in the last few postseasons,” Tjarks wrote. “Cousins could change that, but he has to get to the postseason first.” The Pelicans are only 2.5 games behind in the chase for the 8-seed, and there is officially no team I’d rather watch go to war with the Warriors in the first round.

It’s hard to know what to expect. We are creatures of habit, so in the drollest of scenarios, the Pelicans will probably carve out a lot of post-up possessions for the new guy in town (Cousins is second only to Marc Gasol for most post-up possessions in the league), and a lot of pick-and-roll action for the incumbent franchise player (Davis leads the league in possessions as the roll man by a mile).

But this is also a time for Alvin Gentry to allow his two stars to show the breadth of their creativity. Is it too indulgent to imagine a 5–4 pick-and-roll with Cousins handling and Davis rolling to the rim? Probably, but I would love to see the exasperation on the opponents’ faces the first time they try. Boogie has become a solid 3-point marksman, and Davis is one of the best midrange shooters in the league, with percentages good enough that his shooting doesn’t hurt the team from a productivity perspective. It might not be Warriorsesque, but there will be enough spacing on the front line for interesting off-ball action, and I’m personally looking forward to Boogie being a playmaker from the top of the 3-point line, especially now that there is another superstar for other teams to account for. Jrue Holiday, who is quietly having an excellent year and is currently the only player on the team who has a positive net rating, should have a field day operating in space with two of the best big men in the league.

The Pelicans are currently a top-10 defense, which means a lot less this season than in years past, but the 104.7 points they allow per 100 possessions is still a better figure than the Kings have seen in all seven seasons Cousins has been in the league. This is finally an opportunity to appraise Cousins’s actual value on defense, which, depending on who you ask, is either underrated or catastrophic. Between 2014 and 2016, the Kings were a much better defensive team with Cousins on the floor than when he was off, but that trend has been incinerated this season — though if you consider the burden he’s carried on offense with the roster he’s had to play with, it’s not a total shock. With Davis’s versatility on defense, Cousins’s ineffectiveness on switches is mitigated a bit, and while he doesn’t look the part of an elite rim protector, opponents still shoot worse than their season average against Cousins. In Boogie, Davis gets an answer to his prayers and slides back down to the 4, where he’s spent only 26 percent of his minutes, according to Basketball-Reference positional estimates.

Is any of this enough to ensure a return to the playoffs? No, but the Pelicans were foundering and made a trade without compromising the rest of their team. The battle for the 8-seed out West is now a strangely exciting second-half story line, but that isn’t the biggest draw of this trade. In an era when teams are downsizing to fit in and skilled giants are left on an island waiting for reinforcements, New Orleans took a leap of faith and brought a thought experiment to life: What happens when you pit two unicorns against the Lineup of Death? Let’s hope we find out.