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The Center Cannot Hold: Are the Pelicans Maximizing DeMarcus Cousins?

Boogie, one half of New Orleans’s fearsome Twin Towers, has been having a career season. But the Pels’ defense craters when he isn’t playing alongside his partner. There’s a way to fix that.

Two identical images of DeMarcus Cousins facing back-to-back Getty Images/Ringer illustration

DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans are at a crossroads. New Orleans is stuck in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, hanging on to the no. 8 seed with a 17–16 record, and Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Anthony Davis is starting to grumble, and the only thing worse than trading the best teammate Davis has ever had would be watching him walk for nothing. As the calendar flips to 2018 and the February trade deadline gets closer, the Pelicans have to find an answer to the dilemma that has plagued Cousins his entire career: how to translate his eye-popping individual stats into team success.

New Orleans has been running in place since it acquired Cousins at the last trade deadline. The Pelicans’ statistical profile has turned 180 degrees over the past 10 months. They went from having the no. 26 offense and the no. 9 defense last season to the no. 7 offense and the no. 24 defense this season. The numbers started to change after the Cousins trade. Their offensive rating was three points higher in the last 25 games of the season, while their defensive rating worsened by a point. The transformation is now complete. New Orleans is a more talented version of the teams Cousins played on in Sacramento. The Kings had a top-20 defense exactly once in his seven years there, and it was in Cousins’s rookie season.

Cousins is the common denominator in a long line of bad defenses. A clear picture of what’s going on emerges when you separate out his playing time from Davis. Alvin Gentry staggers the minutes of his two star big men so that one is almost always in the game. The Pelicans have played only 147 minutes without either Davis or Cousins in. There are essentially three versions of the team: the lineups in which Davis and Cousins play together, the ones where Davis plays without Cousins, and the ones where Cousins plays without Davis. Almost all of their defensive issues come when Cousins is by himself:

Pelicans Lineup Efficiency

Lineups Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Lineups Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Cousins and Davis Together 690 107.6 104.3 Plus-3.3
Davis w/o Cousins 292 109.9 100.9 Plus-9.1
Cousins w/o Davis 471 108.2 112.9 Minus-4.7

Cousins has been on the floor for 76.4 percent of the minutes Davis hasn’t played, and those are the minutes that are killing New Orleans. Their defensive rating goes from 103.2 with Davis, which would be no. 7 in the league, to 113.9 without him, which would be the worst by a margin of 4.4 points. The difference between the Pelicans without Davis and the Kings, the no. 30 defense in the NBA, is the same as the difference between the Kings and the no. 15 defense.

For as much as it seems like Cousins and Davis are playing two-on-five on many nights, offense is not the problem in New Orleans. Cousins, Davis, and Jrue Holiday are all averaging at least 18 points per game, and the Pelicans are second in the league in assists per game (26.4) and top-five in 3-point percentage (38.4 percent). They just aren’t getting enough stops, and the easiest solution is to stop asking Cousins to get them.

Cousins is a 27-year-old in his eighth season in the league. He may never figure it out completely on defense. He has gotten better since his rookie season, when he averaged 1.1 blocks and 5.2 personal fouls per 36 minutes of playing time, but his progress on that end of the floor has stalled. There are some things he can do well. He can be a good individual defender: According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Cousins is in the 77th percentile when guarding isolations, and in the 83rd percentile when defending post-ups. What he can’t do, at least not consistently, is cover for his teammates.

Cousins has been miscast as a traditional center. He has the size (6-foot-11 and 270 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) and bruising low post-game of one, but he has neither the lateral agility nor the desire to anchor a defense. He doesn’t have the same margin for error on that side of the ball as Davis, who can stay in front of guards at the 3-point line and rotate across the court to block a shot in the blink of an eye. Cousins has to be fully engaged to get himself in the right position to make a play, and there are too many situations when he isn’t.

The Pelicans’ 130–123 loss to the Rockets on December 11, which Davis missed with a groin injury, is a perfect example. New Orleans played four 3-point shooters around Cousins, allowing him to pick apart the Houston defense. He finished with eight assists, while the Pelicans went 54.5 percent from 3, hitting a franchise-high 18 shots from deep. It was one of the best offensive performances in team history, but it doesn’t matter how many points you score if you give up even more. Cousins was caught in no-man’s-land trying to guard the pick-and-roll: He was dropping back to protect the paint without actually protecting the paint. He wasn’t really guarding anyone at all, and the result was a layup line for Clint Capela, who had 28 points on 13-for-14 shooting. The tape from this game is a cry for help. All these plays were just in the first half:

Cousins is not the only traditional big man who struggles against the Rockets, who spread the floor as well as any team in the league. However, he has had trouble guarding the pick-and-roll regardless of who he’s facing. He’s in the 41st percentile when defending the ball handler in the two-man game, and in the 37th percentile when defending the roll man.

Cousins isn’t a minus defensively in every situation. He just needs to play with someone who can protect the rim, which is why his partnership with Davis is so interesting. When Davis is patrolling the back side of a play, Cousins can be a little more aggressive, knowing there is someone behind him who can protect him. For the first time in his career, Cousins is playing with someone who can clean up the messes he creates instead of being responsible for cleaning up the ones his teammates make. Watch how Cousins extends out on Steph Curry for a half second on a ball screen, knowing that Davis will cut off Zaza Pachulia as the help-side defender:

Cousins is one of the most polarizing players in the league. His attitude and on-court antics have always been blamed for his team’s failures, but the underlying problem may have been that he was playing out of position. A center’s most important job is on defense, and no team with Cousins at center has ever been able to play any. He is a combo forward trapped in the body of a center. Defenses have to respect him on the perimeter: He is shooting 35.3 percent from 3 on 6.2 attempts a game. Just because a 5 can shoot doesn’t mean he can play the 4, but Cousins has a complete offensive arsenal: He can put the ball on the floor, shoot off the dribble, and make plays on the move. He’s a rumbling locomotive who can grab a rebound and go coast-to-coast, and he can catch-and-shoot 3s as easily as he can bulldoze his way to the rim.

When the Pelicans traded for Cousins, they were bucking the leaguewide trend toward small ball. Pairing two traditional big men together almost never works anymore, but Cousins and Davis are the furthest thing from traditional. Twin Towers lineups can succeed when both 7-footers are as multidimensional as those two. The reason New Orleans is still stuck in a rut is what happens when they go smaller: Cousins can’t handle the defensive responsibilities that come with being the only player his size on the floor. Instead of asking him to carry offensive-minded players on defense, the Pelicans should see if he can carry defensive-minded players on offense. The only thing left for them to do is to double down even more on big lineups.

One option would be to pair Cousins with one of their other centers when Davis is out, although both have flaws. Omer Asik missed the first month of the season after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and he has played only 75 minutes since returning in mid-November. Asik can’t score in an empty gym, and his block rate has steadily declined over the last six seasons. Cheick Diallo, a second-round pick in 2016, has played only 323 minutes in the NBA. Diallo is an athletic big man with a 7-foot-4 wingspan who had a 11.9 percent block rate in college, but he may be too inexperienced to anchor a defense.

The other option would be to play Cousins and Davis more together, and let Holiday anchor the second unit with Asik or Diallo as the center. Holiday is having a career season, averaging 18 points and 5.4 assists a game on 48.5 percent shooting. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans have an offensive rating of 117.5 in the 73 minutes he has played without Davis or Cousins. In the 50 minutes Asik has played with Holiday, New Orleans has a net rating of plus-28.5. Those numbers would go down in a bigger sample size, but the Pelicans wouldn’t need much from those lineups. They just have to find a way to stop bleeding points when Davis is out.

New Orleans doesn’t have to make major changes to make noise in the postseason. The Western Conference is wide open after Houston and Golden State; the Pelicans just need to avoid the bottom-two seeds in the playoff standings. Even a matchup with San Antonio shouldn’t frighten them: The Spurs play two traditional big men for most of the game, too, and they wouldn’t be able to attack Cousins and Davis on defense in the same way as the Rockets or the Warriors. The Pelicans beat the Spurs by 17 in a game in November, albeit without facing Kawhi Leonard. New Orleans doesn’t have to solve all its problems this season. It just needs to show some progress to keep Cousins in town long term.

It would be a shame if the partnership between Davis and Cousins broke up because of what happens when Cousins is by himself. Davis is the perfect frontcourt partner for Cousins. He can space the floor and play high-low on offense, while also being able to protect the rim and guard smaller and faster 4s on the perimeter. If Cousins doesn’t stay in New Orleans, his new team should have a unicorn of their own, and they should keep him far away from the center position. It’s the closest thing there is to a solution to the DeMarcus Cousins dilemma.