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Trending Up, Trending Down: Five Takeaways From Pelicans-Thunder

Both Oklahoma City and New Orleans made significant moves before the trade deadline, but while the Thunder appear to have found a new groove, the Pelicans are now staring at three straight losses since their franchise-altering deal

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

With a 118–110 loss to the Thunder on Sunday, the Pelicans moved to 0–3 since their blockbuster trade for DeMarcus Cousins. Integrating Cousins was always going to be an adjustment process, and New Orleans is running out of time to figure it out. The Pelicans are in 13th place in the West, 3.5 games out of the no. 8 seed, and they will have to jump five teams in six weeks in order to make the playoffs. Cousins and Anthony Davis have been dominant in their time together, but the lack of talent around them means the Pelicans have no margin for error.

The Thunder, meanwhile, have been clicking in the aftermath of their own deadline deal, when they acquired Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson from the Bulls for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne. None of the players they gave up had a major role on the team, so they essentially added two key rotation players for nothing. The Thunder have become much more dangerous when Russell Westbrook is on the bench, and that’s with Victor Oladipo sitting out the past two games with back spasms. Westbrook is still a one-man band, but Oklahoma City can now carry a tune when he’s out.

All three of the superstars in Sunday’s game had massive stat lines: 41 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists for Westbrook; 31 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists for Cousins; 38 points, seven rebounds, and four assists for Davis. However, for all that star power, the game came down to the supporting casts. All five players on the Thunder second unit had a positive plus-minus, while the first four Pelicans off the bench had a negative one. Oklahoma City is peaking at the right time, while New Orleans still has a lot of work to do. Here are five takeaways from a game between two teams going in opposite directions following their deadline deals:

Oklahoma City Has Found a Floor-Spacing Unit

Doug McDermott hasn’t broken out in his first two games in Oklahoma City; he is averaging five points on 33 percent shooting and he has yet to make a 3-pointer. Nevertheless, the mere threat of McDermott’s outside shooting opens up the floor, which is a huge improvement from the cramped spacing OKC has had for most of the season. When McDermott is playing with Alex Abrines, another knockdown shooter on the wings, the normally shooting-deprived Thunder run plays that resemble actual NBA offense:

Playing Abrines and McDermott together is an easy way to juice the offense, and in an admittedly tiny sample size of 10 minutes, the Thunder have an offensive rating of 138.9 with the two on the floor, the highest of any two-man combination on the team. Of course, their sharing the court would also put two defensive liabilities out on the wings. When Oladipo returns, it will be easier for the Thunder to space the floor with McDermott while also hiding him in more athletic lineups that can cover for him on defense. A five-man unit like Westbrook, Oladipo, McDermott, Jerami Grant, and Steven Adams could allow them to be competitive with the best teams in the league.

If the Pelicans Want to Survive, Cousins Cannot Get in Foul Trouble

The most amazing part of Cousins’s performance on Sunday is that he did it in only 21 minutes. He was in foul trouble all night, eventually fouling out with a little over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter after trying to contest this vicious dunk from Westbrook.

This is the second consecutive game Cousins has been in foul trouble, as he picked up three fouls in the first half of their 96–83 loss to the Mavs on Saturday. The Pelicans aren’t deep enough to have one of their two stars sitting on the bench for more than half the game.

Cousins is a magnet for contact on both sides of the ball, averaging 10.5 free throw attempts and 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes of action. Even if he was a model citizen with the patience of a saint on the court, he would still be one of the toughest players in the league to officiate. Of course, that isn’t Cousins — his hair-trigger temper can be seen every time he is on the wrong end of a questionable call, and he’s a lock to get into a heated argument with the officials at least a couple of times a game. He picked up a double technical foul with Steven Adams in the opening minutes, which set the tone for the rest of the evening:

The easiest way to guard Cousins is to send him to the bench, so opposing big men are constantly taking cheap shots at him and trying to get under his skin. After seven years of a running feud with the league’s officials that would make Rasheed Wallace proud, Cousins never gets the benefit of the doubt in those situations. He’s the boy who cried wolf. His temper is something he will have to get under control if he’s ever going to succeed in the pressure cooker of a playoff series. Imagine what would have happened if Cousins had been in Adams’s shoes during last year’s Western Conference finals.

Donatas Motiejunas Made a $36 Million Mistake

Cousins’s foul trouble opened up playing time for Motiejunas, who played 23 minutes on Sunday after getting a DNP-CD the night before in Dallas. No player on the New Orleans roster has been more affected by the trade than Motiejunas, who has seen his playing time dwindle in the past three games. At 7-foot and 222 pounds, Motiejunas has an intriguing inside-out offensive game, but he was never the most mobile player, even before a back injury that kept him out almost all of last season. Oklahoma City attacked him ruthlessly whenever he was in the game. This was my favorite of all his poor defensive plays:

The Pelicans defense has been shredded whenever Motiejunas has been on the floor this season: their defensive rating is 10 points higher when he is in (112.7) than when he is out (102.5). While he might have been able to play as a power forward a generation ago, the only way to hide him now is to play him at center, but there are no longer any available minutes at the position with Cousins and Davis on the roster. New Orleans is punting four roster spots with redundant big men — Motiejunas, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, and rookie Cheick Diallo — who don’t make sense next to the team’s best two players, and it has hamstrung their ability to add talent.

Motiejunas signed a one-year deal with the Pelicans after a months-long standoff with the Rockets. He was a restricted free agent who refused to sign the qualifying offer Houston had extended to him, and he wouldn’t report for a physical when the Rockets matched the four-year, $36 million contract he signed with the Nets in December. The idea was for him to rebuild his value with New Orleans, but that’s not going to happen if he’s rotting away on the bench while Alvin Gentry goes small around Cousins and Davis. He will likely have to sign another one-year deal this offseason, and his history of back injuries means he may never get another lucrative long-term contract. He could end up joining Lance Stephenson, another player who had a brief stint with New Orleans this season, as an example of a guy who should have swallowed his pride and taken the better deal in front of him.

Jerami Grant and Taj Gibson Might Be the Answers at the 4

The Thunder traded for Gibson in order to help fill the hole at power forward created by the Serge Ibaka trade before the start of the season. Domantas Sabonis is averaging 6.1 points per game on 40.9 percent shooting, and he’s the only starter with a negative net rating when he’s on the floor (minus-1.9). Gibson is a much better defensive player than Sabonis, and he’s more capable of punishing teams in the post, but he can’t solve all of their problems at the position. Gibson lacks much range on his jumper and he’s more comfortable banging with bigger players than guarding 25-plus feet from the basket.

Their most interesting option might be Grant, whom they acquired from the 76ers in a trade earlier in the season. At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Grant is a freakish bundle of fast-twitch muscles who can play above the rim and guard almost every position on the floor. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Grant is in the 72nd percentile defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, the 80th percentile defending the roll man, and the 89th percentile defending the post. His outside shot has improved considerably, as he is shooting 37.6 percent from 3 on 1.5 attempts per game after shooting 24 percent from 3 in Philadelphia last season, and he always has been a high-level finisher in the pick-and-roll:

According to the positional estimates at Basketball-Reference, Grant has spent 53 percent of his time in Oklahoma City at small forward, a position where he’s much less effective due to his lack of polish on offense. Billy Donovan played him at power forward in the fourth quarter Sunday, and it’s something we might see more of as the season progresses. The Thunder have a lot invested in Sabonis over the long term, but a platoon of Gibson and Grant at power forward would be more effective for now. It’s an easy adjustment that would make them a much more dangerous team in the playoffs.

All Eyes Will Be on Jrue Holiday for the Rest of the Season

The key adjustment Donovan made was putting Andre Roberson, his best all-around defender, on Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, and hiding Westbrook on either Hollis Thompson or Solomon Hill. Holiday was the only source of perimeter offense in the New Orleans starting lineup, and the Pelicans have almost no chance of winning if he can be hounded into a bad game. He finished with six points and eight assists on 3-of-9 shooting, including five turnovers, and Roberson was responsible for a number of them:

A lot of teams could end up copying Donovan’s strategy and putting their best perimeter defender on Holiday, regardless of the position. There’s no reason to fear putting a bad defender on Thompson, who’s currently on a 10-day contract, or Hill, an inconsistent offensive player who has only really found success as a small-ball power forward so far in his NBA career. E’Twaun Moore is their best offensive option on the wing, and his usage rate of 17.9 this season means the Pelicans almost never ask him to create his own shot.

New Orleans has one of the most lopsided rosters in the NBA; the team possesses All-NBA talent at power forward and center, but almost nothing at shooting guard and small forward. Aside from Thompson, who is currently starting for the team, the Pelicans have two other guys on 10-day contracts, Jarrett Jack and Reggie Williams, and neither has been an effective NBA player in years.

Before the game in Dallas on Saturday, Gentry said the Pelicans considered signing Quinn Cook, whom the Mavs had just signed to a 10-day contract, instead of Jack, but they decided to go with the more experienced player. Cook probably isn’t Yogi Ferrell, an undrafted rookie who is now starting for the Mavs at point guard after signing a 10-day contract earlier in the season, but he’s averaging 26.1 points and 6.7 assists per game in the D-League this year — there’s at least a chance he could be good. Jack is a 33-year-old on his sixth team in seven seasons (including a second stint in New Orleans), and he’s coming off an ACL injury. This, from Saturday’s game against the Mavs, might be the worst Eurostep of all time:

And it’s an example of just how dire the reserve situation is for New Orleans. The Thunder guarded Davis and Cousins one-on-one for most of the game on Sunday, effectively conceding the two stars their points, and focused on shutting everyone else down. Holiday has to be great for them to be competitive, and he’s going to have to do it against the teeth of the opposing team’s defense. Cousins and Davis can play together, but it’s still hard to win when two of the other guys on the floor can’t play at all.