The Pelicans signed Dante Cunningham on December 4, after a domestic abuse case was dropped against him because of inconsistencies in his accuser's story. Monty Williams had coached Cunningham while serving as an assistant in Portland, and relayed the duties to him.
"He's pro, he's been around. He understands what I want from him because I've coached him already. He's watched our team so he knows what we need."
Those duties were rather straightforward, as Cunningham was expected to be a reliable defensive forward who could dive on loose balls, chase down fast breaks, and not be Asik-awful offensively. He could also throw in a few nice dunks in the process.
From what Cunningham had shown me when I had previously seen him play, he'd mainly score in transition and on backdoor cuts. Occasionally, he'd hit a jumper from the top of the key or a floater. For other teams, he would more regularly play the role of a undersized power forward, who could competently defend a multitude of positions, make energy plays and wheel up some momentum, not unlike a Jeremy Evans for Utah. However, his role as a small forward was totally different.
In New Orleans, Cunningham's offensive contributions were primarily as a space-filler, screen-setter, and open-shot maker. He still set screens for shooters and forwards to come around, but he would rarely venture into the post. He would usually flare out after setting a screen and scan the defense for an opening. When he saw the seam, he would venture to the opening and pitch his tent. Not to diminish his work rate, but he did not run the defense into exhaustion nor did he do anything especially well. He just did everything especially smartly.
You see, Cunningham has a rare basketball brain of knowing where to be and knowing his limits. He made one three this year and shot 10. Cunningham, although frequently in the 15-20 foot range, only ventured beyond the 3-point divide by necessity. So, when he found the open space in midrange, he'd be content with that, and any coach will take that eight days a week, especially when the player shows a propensity to consistently convert said attempts. Cunningham did.
Here's some stats to back me up: DC attempted 84% of his shots without even dribbling, and a good 75% of those were pull-up jumpers. Five of his ten 3-point attempts came in late-clock situations where the alternative was no shot at all. And those zero-dribble shots, he shot 47% on those. All of those stats point to a player who knows the toughest simple skill of the game, knowing your role and limits.
Moreover, Cunningham gave the Pelicans a versatile defender with long arms and a revved-up engine. Although he is not the quickest nor the most athletic, his mental map of the floor again compensates for any lack of skill.
Cunningham knows what paths to take to get around screens. He knows when to front and when to hold his ground. He knows the measure of space he needs to be between the ball and man.
Cunningham is not an elite defender because his spring and bounce don't translate into first-step quickness; otherwise, we'd see a few more multi-dribble field goals at the other rim. However, his intangibles and instincts do let him play decent post defense against stronger opponents, help, and snare rebounds. And while his intelligence and the intricacies of his game were imperceptible to anybody but avid analysts, his effort was even visible to my endearing, demented grandma.
It's amazing how far effort goes when it comes to professional athletes, despite their immense talent. Effort is the one thing that coaches preach (even since back in my grandma's day) but can't teach. Cunningham several times this year injected a life serum into the Pelicans with a chase-down block, good floor-running or a well-timed putback.
Considering all of the positive things I had to say about Cunningham, when I looked up Cunningham's stats for this year, my immediate reaction was, "That's it?" Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised that an average strength, slightly above-average athletic guy who can't shoot, dribble, or pass particularly well lacked stats.
But he seemed to provide so much more than the 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, and a lot more than 0.6 blocks per game. I guess that's what makes Dante Cunningham himself, though. His energy, intelligence and reliability make him appear so much better than he is, and allow him to change games.
If I were Dell, I'd re-sign him in a heartbeat. Pen a two year, $4.5 million contract and not have to worry or think about Cunningham. Because you know he will bring enough effort and you know he'll do whatever the coach asks him to do. You know he's a veteran who rebounds well, knows where to be and when to be there, and can defend multiple positions.
You also know he'll never score 20 points in a game (he only has four times in a career) and he will not be the small forward Pelicans fans have been awaiting.
But that shouldn't deter the Pelicans from resigning a player who was an unsung hero in the playoff push. The cunning Cunningham gave the Pelicans a reliable role player off the bench, someone who will never shoot 124 threes in a season at a miraculously HIGH 27.4% (remember our good friend Aminu?) because he knows the extent of his talents, and a team player. I'd love to see him treat the Pelicans to those same conveniences next year.
Let's just hope that the Pelicans open up the bill for this man, and swoop him up.