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Is Bigger Any Better for the Pelicans?

The major obstacle to making Boogie and the Brow work in New Orleans is the rest of the roster

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Pelicans’ twin towers of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis might seem like an outlier in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA. As teams move away from putting even one nominal center on the court, New Orleans opens games with two players that are 6-foot-10 or taller. But Cousins and Davis aren’t typical big men. “Small ball” is the usual name for today’s preference toward fast, 3-heavy, and switchy, but several NBA executives told me “skill ball” is a better descriptor. In that sense, Boogie and Brow, two of the NBA’s most skilled bigs, fit right in—especially given the way Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry utilizes them.

Cousins (6-foot-11 and 270 pounds) and Davis (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) are both empowered to take the ball up the court. They look to score, pass, or initiate a half-court set. If a basketball fan woke up today from a 30-year coma, they’d think they were watching a different sport.

Here’s Boogie running point and feeding a hustling Brow:

Here’s Davis going coast-to-coast with the fluidity of a point guard:

Here’s the Pelicans inbounding the ball to Davis at the end of the quarter, a situation in which a guard or wing would typically be leaned on to score:

Gentry has even gotten creative with the way he’s trying to make the duo work in the half court. We’ve already seen a handful of 4-5 pick-and-rolls, in which Davis screens for Cousins then rolls to the rim. Cousins can shoot 3s off the dribble, boulder down the lane, or toss lobs to AD. They’ve also used dribble handoffs or screens to spring Davis open.

With Cousins facilitating more frequently, the offense occasionally gets inverted. Cousins essentially becomes the point guard, which means a smaller player moves into the post area of the floor.

Gentry has had an entire summer to dream up ways to maximize his big stars in modernized skill roles, and he added Nuggets assistant Chris Finch to his staff to help the cause. If anything, New Orleans is playing a normal, progressive style, but the way in which the Pelicans have gone against the grain is how they’ve assembled the rest of their roster. Cousins and Davis are surrounded by a collection of old heads, misfits, and rejects.

  • Ball Handlers: Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson, Frank Jackson
  • Wings: Tony Allen, E'Twaun Moore, Ian Clark, Charles Cooke, Jalen Jones
  • Forwards: Solomon Hill, Dante Cunningham, Darius Miller, Josh Smith
  • Bigs: Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik, Cheick Diallo

The Pelicans have a roster that NBA 2K13 dreams are made of. Their big man duo is exciting, sure, but the Pelicans are 1-3 while being outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions, and their secondary players are a primary reason. Rondo (sports hernia) and Hill (hamstring surgery) haven’t played a game yet, but is anyone really expecting them to have a major impact on this team’s bottom line?

The inherent problem of the Boogie and Brow combo is one of spacing. Since 2015-16, the season they both began regularly shooting 3s, Davis is shooting 31.6 percent from 3, and Cousins is knocking down 34.8 percent. Neither is a player defenders dread closing out on, and they won’t be until they prove that they can make a few. Knowing that, you would think that the rest of the roster would be filled with knockdown shooters to compensate.

But the Pelicans don’t have any plus shooters. Every player other than Cousins and Davis collectively shoots a combined 34.1 percent from 3 over their careers. (The Hawks shot the same percentage as a team last season, which ranked 23rd.) Ian Clark has the best numbers (37.2 percent), and only three other players (Moore, Nelson, and Holiday) shoot above 36 percent. New Orleans had only so many options this summer with limited cap space after re-signing point guard Jrue Holiday to a max contract, and won’t have many options moving forward, either. There’s no clear route to fixing this fundamentally flawed roster.

Despite all that, New Orleans has gotten off to blistering starts in games so far this season. The Pelicans have outscored opponents in three of four first quarters, but have done so only three times in the remaining 12 quarters. It’s early in the season, but the team is running into the same issues Gentry-coached teams traditionally have in the past. Once the pressure ramps up, the team gets stagnant. The ball stops moving, and they run isolations and post-ups, with only one or two passes in a possession and little-to-no off-ball movement. Gentry has a reputation for wanting to play fast, with motion and cutting, but his teams sludge through mud at a troubling rate.

Above is a compilation of instances from all four of their games this season in which they ran a basic post-up with virtually no movement on the floor. The Pelicans are outscoring teams by 10.3 points per 100 possessions in the first half, but they’re getting pummelled by 19 points per 100 possessions in the second half. The issue could even start manifesting in the first half, as well, if teams begin to adapt and figure out their game plan.

Again, the problem is their personnel. It’s disappointing watching this team force-feed Cousins and Davis, when they have a helpless point guard making $25.7 million who has yet to make any impact offensively. Holiday is a fairly reliable pick-and-roll scorer, but he’s not the most decisive playmaker, which is why Rondo and Nelson were added. The problem is that pigeonholes Holiday into a more of a spot-up shooting role. But since 2013-14, Holiday is only a 35.3 percent shooter on 221 catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com. So far this season, he’s struggled to find any rhythm at all (34.6 percent shooting from the field, and 18.8 percent from 3), and he may get even fewer touches once Rondo returns.

The best possible shooting lineup the Pelicans can put on the floor might not even have Holiday on it. If both Cousins and Davis are in the game, spacing is probably maximized with Nelson, Clark, and Cunningham. If you take Nelson or Clark off in favor of defense (with Holiday or, theoretically, Rondo), then spacing is hurt even more. It’s crucial that Holiday find a way to contribute when the ball isn’t in his hands. They need a third player to step up, and it’s unfair to expect castaways like Nelson or Rondo to do it.

When Davis and Cousins share the floor, the team has a plus-9.1 net rating. When just one of them is on, the net is minus-7.9, per data calculated via NBAWowy.com. They’ve played only nine minutes without either of them. But now Davis has another left knee injury, his third since the end of the 2015-16 season, though he’s only considered day-to-day. Davis played an average of 67 games through his first five seasons. His 2015-16 season was ended by a left knee injury, which required the first surgical procedure of his life. His 2016-17 season was by far his healthiest but he was shut down because of a “sore left knee” soon after they were officially eliminated from playoff contention. While Davis played a career-high 75 games last season, he left 12 of them early and returned in only seven of them, according to data provided by The Ringer’s Justin Verrier. Even if Davis plays through small dings, it’s still keeping him away from game action. The longer Davis is out, the more pressure ramps up on Cousins, who has already had to deal with carrying a team for far too many years.

Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018, which looms large over the Pelicans franchise. I tend to be quite a Cassandra when it comes to pending free agencies of star players on non-contenders; if Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward can leave their respective teams, anyone can. There is no loyalty in sports, which Cousins knows. Boogie recently told The Undefeated his biggest regret was not leaving Sacramento when he had the chance. “I wanted to give it a chance because my representatives told me I shouldn’t stay,” Cousins said. “I guess you could say I was stubborn and loyal.”

Marc J. Spears also reported that Cousins’s representatives told the Kings after the 2014-15 season that Boogie wanted to be traded to the Lakers. That summer, Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Lakers and Kings had discussed a framework for a trade. On the night of the trade to New Orleans this February, Boogie’s agent, Jarinn Akana, said his client wouldn’t re-sign with the team that trades for him. It was likely just a threat to Sacramento’s leverage in a trade, thus maintaining Boogie’s chances of earning a super max with the only team allowed by the new CBA to give it to him. But Woj also reported that Cousins could go to the Lakers as a free agent, and that L.A. had even discussed a trade for Boogie but was unwilling to give up Brandon Ingram.

At the very least, there’s a lot of noise going back to 2015 regarding a Boogie-to-Lakers move. I’ve heard similar rumblings in recent months. A reunion with John Wall in Washington also seems plausible, but that’d require a sign-and-trade. Wall previously told The Undefeated that Cousins “said he would come to D.C.” Regardless, if Cousins isn’t “stubborn and loyal,” he’ll have a chance this summer to sign with any team that wants him, though the number of teams with the requisite space may be limited. Cap projections by ESPN’s Bobby Marks reveal only six teams (Lakers, Hawks, Nets, Bulls, Mavs, and 76ers) that can realistically create a max slot. Cousins is already schmoozing with LaVar Ball, and if the Lakers are to attract LeBron James, they’ll need to add at least one more star. LeBron has already called Cousins the league’s best big man. “It starts with the head of the snake and that's Big Cuz,” LeBron said in January 2017 when asked about the challenges of facing the Kings. “He’s the best big man in our game. His ability to not only play in the interior, but he handles the ball extremely well. He’s shooting 3. He gets his guys involved at times too.”

Multiple front-office sources I spoke to said they’re expecting the Pelicans to ride it out this season, unless they’re an unsalvageable disaster once the trade deadline rolls around. “Trading Cousins would mean the end of Davis,” said one executive. “Keeping Cousins gives them more time if he comes back.” But the Lakers are expected to have the cap space to sign two max-contract players, and could easily add a third using a combination of salary fillers and prospects. No matter what LeBron decides to do, I’d be nervous about Cousins leaving to start anew in Los Angeles.

Pelicans fans don’t want to hear it, but neither did fans of the Kings, Bulls, or Pacers. New Orleans has shown some flashes of potential during this young season. The Davis and Cousins combination could theoretically work at the highest of levels. They are, after all, two of the most skilled big men in the NBA. But the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. It’s exhilarating watching Boogie and Brow try to figure it out. But it’s unfair to judge this big man experiment when the environment they’re operating in is incompatible.


Speaking of the Kings …