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How the Pelicans and Thunder Adjust to Major Injuries Will Shape the Playoffs Out West

New Orleans and Oklahoma City may have lost DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Roberson, respectively, to season-ending injuries, but there are still changes that would help them make the most of their playoff push

Andre Roberson and DeMarcus Cousins AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Western Conference playoff race was shaken up over the weekend. DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles tendon Friday, and Andre Roberson followed him Saturday, rupturing the patellar tendon in his left leg. Boogie’s injury will have huge long-term ramifications for the Pelicans, as well as the free-agent picture this summer, but Roberson’s absence could have a bigger impact this season. The Thunder, who have won eight in a row, were just starting to find themselves after a rocky start. Roberson is their best defender, and he has the highest net rating (plus-10.0) in their rotation.

Neither team has much flexibility to replace what they lost at the trade deadline. New Orleans has the seventh-highest payroll in the league ($118.5 million), and it can’t afford to add more salary if it wants to retain Cousins in free agency. Oklahoma City is in a similar boat, with the third-highest payroll ($130.1 million) and Paul George expected to hit free agency this summer. The teams might make minor moves around the edges, but they will both likely have to make do with what they already have. Here’s a look at how Billy Donovan and Alvin Gentry adjusted their rotations in their first games without their injured players, and what other options they can try.

Who’s the Next Man Up for the Pelicans?

Few teams are in a worse position to deal with a major injury than the Pelicans, who have leaned on Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Jrue Holiday to do everything this season. They have rarely played meaningful minutes without either Cousins or Davis on the floor, and no one in their rotation outside of their Big Three has a usage rate higher than 16 percent. The near-historic combination of pace, minutes, and workload may have played a factor in Boogie’s injury, and now the Pelicans will have to ask Davis, who has a long history of injuries of his own, to do even more. Not only will he be playing more minutes, he won’t have Cousins to help him bang against bigger players inside.

Gentry didn’t hold back Sunday, playing Davis 41 minutes, including the entire second half, in their 112–103 loss to the Clippers. Davis finished with 17 rebounds and played the whole game at center, with Dante Cunningham and Darius Miller as small-ball 4s next to him. New Orleans didn’t have much size outside of its Twin Towers, and now it has the smallest starting lineup in the NBA without Cousins. The Pelicans are starting two point guards (Holiday and Rajon Rondo), one shooting guard (E’Twaun Moore), and a combo forward (Cunningham) around Davis.

Holiday will have to pick up the rest of the slack, as he is now anchoring the second unit with Davis out instead of Cousins. It’s rare to see him as the lone star in the lineup: Holiday has played only 88 minutes without either of the Pelicans’ two All-Star bigs. The biggest ray of hope for the Pelicans is that they have played well in that time, with an offensive rating of 116.3, a defensive rating of 97.7, and a net rating of plus-18.6. They were plus-12 in his seven minutes alongside Miller, Ian Clark, DeAndre Liggins, and Omer Asik on Sunday, although they were going up against an injury-ravaged Clippers bench with multiple G-League players.

Holiday is having the best season of his career, but playing without either Davis or Cousins will be a huge challenge. His usage percentage skyrockets from 18.8 with both in to 34.7 when he is by himself. He is more deliberate than explosive off the dribble, and he can’t take over a game out of the pick-and-roll. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he is in only the 54th percentile of players leaguewide when scoring out of the play this season. The Pelicans will have to be more unconventional with Holiday running the show. One intriguing option would be inverting the offense and playing through him in the post. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he can bully most point guards, and he took rookie Tyrone Wallace right to the block on his first possession without Davis on Sunday:

The domino effect in their rotation means Gentry will have to blow the dust off Asik, who has played only 96 minutes this season after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease this offseason. Asik’s offensive game has slowly deteriorated over the past few seasons, but he can still anchor a defense. New Orleans won’t ask him to do much beyond catch and dunk at the rim, and he was effective in that role against the Clippers when playing with four 3-point shooters around him. The team will need either Asik or second-year big man Cheick Diallo to be the roll man for Holiday in the minutes that Davis doesn’t play.

The bigger issue may be the minutes when Davis doesn’t have Holiday. Davis has not been asked to carry the offense much, either: He has played only 152 minutes without the other two members of the Big Three. New Orleans has a net rating of minus-5.3 in that time, and it was minus-8.0 when Holiday was out Sunday. There weren’t many offensive threats on the floor: Miller and Cunningham were at the forward positions, with Rondo and either Moore or Clark in the backcourt. Solomon Hill is expected back from a torn hamstring soon, and the Pelicans will need him to create offense, which might be asking a lot from a guy who shot 38.3 percent from the field last season when he was healthy.

There isn’t an obvious replacement on the Pelicans roster for Cousins as their third scorer, so they will need to change their identity on the fly. Their best option is rediscovering their defense: They rank 23rd on that end of the floor in the NBA this season after finishing at no. 9 last season. Most of the damage on defense came when Cousins was in without Davis, when they had a defensive rating of 109.6, which would be tied for no. 28 in the league over the course of season. Gentry may have to slow the pace, start getting stops again, and squeeze every last drop of offense out of Davis and Holiday.

Roberson May Be Down, but the Thunder Have a Hidden Weapon

The Thunder’s domino effect after losing Roberson won’t be nearly as dramatic, as Roberson was playing only 26.6 minutes per game and had a microscopic usage rate of 8.7. He ranked no. 276 in usage out of the 279 players who played enough to qualify for the minutes leaderboard this season. Roberson spent 48.4 percent of his time on the floor with the starting lineup of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams, and 63.7 percent of his minutes with Westbrook, George, and Carmelo. It’s no wonder his net rating was so high. Roberson wasn’t being asked to stretch himself much.

Roberson was one of the backbones of a defense tied for no. 5 in the NBA, and the combination of Roberson and George on the wings allowed them to hide Westbrook and suffocate opposing teams with length and athleticism. George is an elite perimeter defender in his own right, so he should be able to replace Roberson’s role of guarding the best player on the opposing team. The drop-off will come from the guy who takes George’s place guarding the second option.

Oklahoma City replaced Roberson in its 122–112 win over Philadelphia on Sunday with rookie Terrance Ferguson, the no. 21 pick in this year’s draft. Ferguson spent his only season after high school in Australia, and he’s still a raw player on both sides of the ball. At 6-foot-7 and 184 pounds, he doesn’t have the frame to deal with bigger wings on defense, and he’s still adjusting his 3-point shot (29.2 percent on 2.1 attempts per game) to the longer NBA line. Ferguson is a placeholder that allows Donovan to keep the rest of his rotation in place, but that may not be sustainable. The Thunder have a net rating of minus-5.4 in the rookie’s 161 minutes with the rest of their starters this season.

Jerami Grant will likely see the biggest boost in playing time; he played the last 6:25 of the fourth quarter Sunday with the other four starters. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Grant is bigger and longer than Roberson and has the athleticism to match up with players at all five positions. Like Roberson, he’s an inconsistent 3-point shooter (24.6 percent from 3 on 1.4 attempts per game this season), but he’s more capable of putting the ball on the floor, making plays off the dribble, and threatening the defense when he’s not in the paint. Grant mostly stayed out of the way on offense during Oklahoma City’s 21–9 run to close out Philadelphia, but he made plays Roberson never could, like this drive on Dario Saric:

Grant is a better option than Ferguson to replace Roberson, but Donovan may not want to take him out of his role on the second unit, where he provides some needed athleticism next to Patrick Patterson as a small-ball 4. The other replacement option is Josh Huestis, a third-year swingman who is getting his first real bit of playing time in the NBA this season. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Huestis is a Roberson starter kit, with a raw offensive game and the physical tools to slide among multiple positions on defense. Huestis is averaging only 2.4 points a game on 35.4 percent shooting, but he has managed to find a way to help the team when he is on the floor. The Thunder have a net rating of plus-6.5 in his 631 minutes this season.

Their struggles without Roberson may have been as much a function of asking Ferguson to do too much this early in his NBA career, and Huestis is more capable of holding his own in limited minutes next to George in the starting lineup. Grant, meanwhile, could thrive in a bigger role. He’s a versatile defender who can switch screens and protect the rim, and he’s a significantly better offensive player than Roberson. The Thunder have more upside when they close games with Grant, and how he meshes with the rest of the starters might determine how far the team can go this season. Donovan may not have been willing to roll the dice with Grant if he had a more familiar option available. There is a scenario in which Oklahoma City will improve without Roberson.