In his age-28 season, Dante Cunningham is in the midst of a mini-breakout campaign. After having attempted 38 three-pointers in his first six seasons, in a total of 8,765 minutes, he has hoisted 109 attempts in just 1213 minutes during the current 2015-16 campaign. Barely registering a blip on the three-point attempt totals throughout his career, Cunningham is now averaging a healthy 3.2 3PA per 36 minutes. What's more, he has knocked down 34.9% of his looks.
He's a man with a new plan, going from his traditional role at power forward and hanging out in the midrange area of the floor to spending most of his minutes at small forward and attempting the greatest percentage of his offense from behind the arc.
Why the change? Because he had to make himself relevant in order to remain in the league.
Have you ever heard of the phrase, "a leopard cannot change his spots?" If not, it's an interesting story that can be traced back to the Bible, specifically from the passage in Jeremiah 13:23. In essence, it is a parable teaching the doctrine of man. For this discussion, we're not going to delve into it's complete meaning, rather, I want to focus on the word, adaptability.
By nature, leopards are not the fastest nor strongest member of the cat family. Their claim to fame is they possess the strongest ability to adapt to any surroundings, living in environments ranging from deserts to rain forests. In the animal kingdom, it's all about survival -- a premise not too dissimilar from professional sports. Those who perform well inside the competitive battlegrounds reap handsome rewards; those who do not, fall by the wayside.
On top of it's ultra-cutthroat nature, the NBA is proving to be an ever-evolving game. Sometimes it's not enough that a player remains one of the strongest or fastest gladiators at his position. Over the last five or six seasons, the league has increasingly moved towards small ball. It's en vogue that at least four of the five positions be able to effectively shoot the perimeter three-point shot.
Upon entry into the league, Dante Cunningham's meal ticket was considered to be his proficiency from 15-19 feet out. Welp, analytics ate his lunch money, and most recently, was threatening to kick him out of the league. With Monty William's departure from the Crescent City, Cunningham suddenly looked like a potential relic on the roster. There existed a strong possibility he could have been pushed down the bench further than Luke Babbitt because Alvin Gentry was synonymous with high octane offenses and loads of three-point bombs.
For his sake, Cunningham claimed he spent hours and hours in the gym during the last offseason, working on extending his range. Really though, did anyone expect that Dante's work would translate into valuable results? I can even remember Gentry saying early on that the floor could be spaced for the Pelicans with long two's, indicating he was also unsure of how the Cunningham experiment would unfold.
It appears to be on a path of raging success and the timing couldn't be better. 3-and-D perimeter players are in incredibly high demand. Back in October, many believed the Pelicans had just one player who fulfilled these character traits: Quincy Pondexter. His season-long absence has been notable, often being cited as a major contributing factor to the Pelicans lack of success.
Babbitt exemplifies offense only; Alonzo Gee just defense. Cunningham was thought to reside somewhere in between but much nearer Gee's skill set. Game after game, he continues to prove this theory wrong, as though he has somehow found a way to change his spots. Even the Gods are with him.
Going forward, Cunningham will remain with the Pelicans at least through the 2017 season. He has a player option for the 2018 season.
With Ryan Anderson excited to enter free agency, there is a good chance he may leave for greener pastures. Thankfully, Cunningham might be able to serve as a certifiable stopgap for the foreseeable future. For even the harshest Dell Demps' critics, Cunningham looks like one feather in the general manger's hat that can't be taken away.
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