New Orleans wiped out the Trail Blazers on Saturday to complete a dominant four-game sweep that shocked pundits and fans alike. But it’s impossible to watch the Pelicans without imagining how they’d fare with DeMarcus Cousins, who ruptured his Achilles on January 26. Instead of figuring out how to make lineups featuring two of the best big men in the NBA work, New Orleans instead has turned to smaller, multiple-guard looks. Against Portland, the Pelicans used a shooter at the 4 (usually Nikola Mirotic) around one big (Anthony Davis, or sometimes Cheick Diallo), and even went without a true big, with Mirotic at center, in the few minutes that Davis sat in Game 4. It worked: Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo hounded Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum the entire series, and Davis protected the paint like a sentry.
If the Pelicans didn’t have your attention before, they do now. And with a second-round series against the Warriors still likely, despite the reigning champs dropping Game 4 in San Antonio on Sunday, the spotlight will only get bigger. But lingering over the Pelicans’ explosion this postseason is the question of what to do with Cousins, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It’s a hard question to answer without knowing how Cousins, just two months into rehab for an injury that has complicated players’ careers, will perform after returning next season. But there’s no denying that the Pelicans play differently without Boogie, especially on defense; that’s what fueled their sweep of the Blazers, and it’s their ticket to pushing a Warriors team that may or may not have Steph Curry to the brink.
Had Cousins been available against Portland, it would’ve been harder, if not impossible, for New Orleans to play as aggressively as it did against Portland’s guards. Holiday or Rondo would team with another defender—often Mirotic guarding Jusuf Nurkic—to trap the ball handler on the pick-and-roll, like they do in the play above. But Cousins is slower moving laterally, so the traps likely would have been less effective. Or the Pelicans would have had to put Davis on Nurkic, which would have taken him out of the role he played in this series as a roamer able to wreak havoc in the passing lanes.
It doesn’t look like it, but Davis is defending Al-Farouq Aminu in the play above. The Pelicans dared Aminu, a career 33.6 percent 3-point shooter, to launch shots all series. Aminu did well, hitting 13 of 30 attempts. But no other Blazers player matched Aminu’s success.
The point wasn’t just to force Aminu to shoot, but to limit penetration from greater threats like Lillard and McCollum or rollers and cutters; in the play above, Davis quickly slid over and shut the door to the rim. The Pelicans used the same strategy against Draymond Green in their last matchup with the Warriors 16 days ago, a 126-120 Pelicans win.
Keep your eyes on Davis and Green. As Kevin Durant posts Holiday, Davis lurks in the paint, where he’s in range to help in case Durant attacks, or when Klay Thompson slices through. Meanwhile, Green is open the entire time. The Pelicans are fine with that. Davis sags because they want Green, a career 32.9 percent 3-point shooter (including the playoffs), to take that shot.
But while New Orleans was better equipped without Cousins against Portland, which ran the fifth-most pick-and-rolls this season, a new challenge likely awaits in a second-round series against Golden State, which ran the second-fewest pick-and-rolls, per Synergy. Opportunities to trap will thus be reduced, and there’s even less incentive to do so if Curry remains out, considering the playmakers left to trap would be Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, or former Pelican Quinn Cook. They’ll instead need to focus on screens and cuts, and ball and player movement. Lose sight for one moment and this can happen:
The Warriors may have lost to the Pelicans in their last meeting, but they had success generating open looks on off-ball cuts and screens. Rondo had some lackadaisical moments racing through screens to stick to Cook, and Green took advantage in the clip above. There were numerous other instances when Green should’ve cut, but didn’t. Green will need to look for those opportunities when Davis is doubling or shading toward another player.
You might’ve noticed that Holiday was defending Durant in both clips above. That could be the case again in the second round. Holiday was matched up against Durant for 33 possessions in the teams’ last meeting, compared to 44 possessions against every other player (including 19 times against Hill and 11 against Davis). The Pelicans baited the Warriors into post-ups and isolations, which stagnated their offense and helped lead to a New Orleans victory. In the closing minute, Rondo stripped the ball from Durant to clinch the game.
Durant turned the ball over three times in the final six minutes, but for the game he still scored 41 points, on 26 shots, and had 10 rebounds and five assists. Holiday and Rondo had the size advantage against Lillard and McCollum, but Durant towers over them. It was an MVP-caliber performance by Durant, and we’ll see more of that kind of showing if the two teams meet in the next series.
The Pelicans should at least experiment with putting Davis on Durant, since he has both the size and quickness to make life hard on KD. Mirotic could then sag off of Green and entice him to shoot. It’s nice to have these options, because New Orleans wouldn’t have them if Cousins were available, which is essentially the source of any concern about bringing him back. The Pelicans played the Warriors straight up in their first three meetings, and all three ended in Pelicans losses. Those three games all happened before the new year, so it’s difficult to read too much into them, but Cousins spent 86 percent of his possessions matched up against one of Golden State’s bigs, per NBA.com/Stats. That’s not a shock, since Cousins’s feet move like he just rolled out of bed. He’s not as effective on defense as Mirotic, so the Pelicans would take a hit when it comes to trapping, blitzing, or even simply helping against an attacker.
Cousins’s absence also puts Davis at center, a position he’s been reluctant to play full time in the past (he once said he’s “definitely” a power forward). But he’s now playing the best basketball of his career on the best team of his career; it can’t be hard to see the benefits both on defense and offense. Before Cousins got hurt, per NBA.com/Stats, the Pelicans outscored teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when Davis and Rondo were on the floor without Cousins, compared to being outscored by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. On-off data can be shaky, but it’s certainly compelling.
The NBA set a record for 3-point attempts this season, and pace was at its highest since the 1990-91 season, so the Pelicans were going against the grain with their two-big setup, even if both Cousins and Davis can shoot 3s. With Cousins on the floor, the Pelicans posted a pace of 100.7 possessions per 48 minutes, which would rank eighth in the NBA. But since the injury, their pace is 104.3, which ranks first. They played at a top-10 pace either way, but Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry wants to go fast. Their new personnel allows them to do just that, while also playing a more aggressive defensive scheme with Davis at center.
But different doesn’t always mean better. It’s easy to forget that the Pelicans were starting to figure things out just before Cousins went down; they’d won seven of eight games, including wins over the Rockets, Celtics, and Blazers. Cousins’s mere presence forces opponents to keep a big man on the floor, which can, in turn, help their defense if it means a shooter gets taken off on the other end. And though Cousins’s loafing slowed down the Pelicans’ speedy offense, the game naturally decelerates in the playoffs, so it’s possible his iso scoring would end up being of the most value in a series.
That’s the big question about this current Pelicans lineup against the Warriors: Can they score? Holiday and Rondo were outstanding against the Blazers. Rondo has opened the floor for everyone, especially Holiday, who is better suited to score from the passenger seat than from the driver’s seat. But going from driving against Lillard and McCollum with Nurkic protecting the rim to the Warriors, with their plethora of elite defenders, is like changing the difficulty setting in NBA 2K from rookie to superstar. There were even spurts against the Blazers when they ran out of scoring steam, like at the end of Game 1, when the Pelicans allowed a 10-point lead to dwindle to one.
Cousins, meanwhile, was having the best season of his career, averaging 25.2 points and career highs in true shooting percentage, rebounds (12.9), and assists (5.4). Before getting hurt, Cousins opened up easy scoring chances for Davis, and their unique 4-5 pick-and-roll was a hard wrinkle for defenses to contain. The Pelicans wouldn’t be able to play the way they are now with Cousins, but having both him and Mirotic (who they still might’ve traded for had Cousins stayed healthy) would’ve allowed them to at least have the option of playing two-big lineups, and the ability to play small just by taking Cousins off the floor.
Instead, the Warriors would need to worry about how they match up against just Mirotic using some combination of JaVale McGee, Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, and David West. If the Warriors continue to play West, who is likely too slow to stick with Mirotic, the Pelicans should attack that matchup. Looney also had issues staying in front of Mirotic in the teams’ last game, which means the onus could be on Bell. The Pelicans can get buckets, and in the previous matchup they attacked Looney and Cook, two of the weakest defenders in Golden State’s rotation. But it’s another thing to do it over a full series, with Golden State’s intensity turned up to 12.
If the Pelicans end up getting toasted by the Warriors without Curry—who won’t be playing “anytime soon,” according to Steve Kerr—it probably makes the question of whether to keep Cousins easier to answer. But if they win the series, or even just push Golden State to rush Curry back, it’ll raise more doubt about Cousins’s place in a system that thrives with smaller lineups that can play pressure defense and space the floor. But the Boogie dilemma is ultimately a question of his talent post-injury, which is an unknown.
Players who have ruptured their Achilles return to the court with varied results. Elton Brand and Wesley Matthews were never the same, but Dominique Wilkins played seven more high-level seasons. The Pelicans will need to weigh the risk of a less-nimble Cousins against whatever salary he demands. Cousins’s agent, Jarinn Akana, tried to dissuade teams from trading for him last year by saying Cousins wouldn’t re-sign with whoever dealt for him; Akana wanted his client to sign the super-max (worth more than $200 million over five years) and the Kings were the only team able to give it to him. Now there’s significant risk to giving Cousins any long-term contract until he proves that he’s close to the same player.
At the time of the injury, executives I talked to were skeptical that Cousins would receive a long-term contract. That hasn’t changed. But it really doesn’t mean anything because all it takes is one team willing to take the risk on an undeniably elite player by offering him a full four-year max deal. Maybe that team will be the Pelicans, but if they try to get fancy by offering a one- or two-year “prove it” contract, another team could always swoop in. It’s worth noting that of Akana’s 12 NBA clients, two are current Mavericks (J.J. Barea and Kyle Collinsworth), three are former Mavs (Erick Dampier, Manny Harris, Delonte West), and one played for their G League team last season: Cousins’s brother, Jaleel Cousins. The Mavericks will have max cap space and weren’t afraid to sign Chandler Parsons, one of the most injury-prone players in the NBA, or to trade for and extend Matthews, who like Cousins also tore his Achilles. With Dirk Nowitzki coming back for his 21st season, and Dallas being one of a few teams with a load of cap space, there’s at least some incentive to spend now, rather than to wait for the 2019 offseason when more teams have money to blow.
But by all accounts, including feedback from league executives, Cousins seems happy with the Pelicans. They are winning, and adding him to the equation would make them an even more intriguing threat against the Warriors. You could also argue that New Orleans shouldn’t bother messing around with offering Boogie anything less than the full max, considering its lack of options. Even before re-signing any of their unrestricted free agents (Cousins, Rondo, and Ian Clark), the Pelicans have $92.3 million in guaranteed salary. Current projections of the salary cap for the 2018-19 season peg the number at $101 million, so there’s really not much they can do in free agency. They’re without a first-round pick this year because of the Mirotic deal, and they lack high-value young assets, so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to mine talent on the trade market.
Re-signing Cousins could be a necessary risk, no matter what happens against the Warriors. But I would be cautious if I were Pelicans general manager Dell Demps. In decision-making positions, you must consider all possible outcomes. One of them includes Cousins returning and lacking the same blend of power and finesse that has allowed him to be a dancing bull on offense, which means he’d probably be even worse on defense. Were that to happen—even if the team signed him to just a four-year deal for max money, instead of a five-year deal—Cousins would become an albatross that could prevent the Pelicans from ever taking the next step as a franchise.
The Pelicans have proved this postseason that they can compete at a high level without Cousins. But there’s a point where the risk in re-signing Cousins is worth it. They don’t have many other options this summer to acquire a player anywhere close to his level, and there’s still a certain appeal in zigging by going big while the rest of the league is zagging by going small. I wouldn’t go any further than a two-year deal, which would make Cousins a free agent in 2020, the same summer Davis can opt out of his current deal. It could be sold to Cousins as a two-year window, because if Davis left, that’s all it’d be anyway. But if they can hit the 2020 offseason with Davis as the centerpiece, and the option of either keeping Boogie or finding an upgrade, New Orleans could become a key free-agent destination.
It’s easy to get swept up in the success they’re having now without Cousins, but the Pelicans are better with him in uniform, not cheering from the sideline, in cabana wear, going forward.