The New Orleans Pelicans sent shockwaves throughout the NBA with its acquisition of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, but what really should be reasonable expectations in a top-heavy Western Conference?
The NBA has been trending toward small ball for some time now. Teams with one true center are the exception, which makes teams with two, or at least some form of a “Twin Towers” lineup utter aberrations by today’s standards. By sheer luck, necessity, whatever it shall be deemed, the New Orleans Pelicans are now such a peculiarity, with its frontcourt featuring perhaps the NBA’s two most dominant bigs, starting right alongside one another.
Can it work, and if so, how well? Is there a place for two gifted bigs starting together in this new era of the stretch-4, of the triple mania, of a league so pressed towards becoming a guard’s league?
(GREAT) Big men are by no means obsolete, but even today’s center has become active in the three-point hoisting — and new acquisition DeMarcus Cousins is no such exception to that rule.
Indeed, Boogie has taken a penchant towards launching threes, and for whatsoever the Pelicans may lack in overall team shooting, it now has two bigs capable of stretching the floor. That alone carries value. Teams cannot ignore Davis or Cousins on the perimeter.
But just because the Pelicans have the NBA’s best scorers from the 4/5 positions, does that necessarily mean New Orleans is promised an ascent towards the NBA’s upper-echelon of contenders? Is the sheer talent of Cousins and Davis enough to guarantee success, or will opponents continually find a way to “zig” to the Pelicans’ “zag” and reduce the effectiveness of any Twin Towers lineups that head coach Alvin Gentry plays?
Sheer necessity says that Cousins and Davis both belong on the court as starters, both playing superstar’s minutes, and both receiving plenty of touches. With the Pelicans’ lack of talent at other positions, this is all but assured. The news that Terrence Jones is on the trade block and headed elsewhere only further solidifies it. New Orleans is now a team reliant on its power forward and center to create offense. Davis and Cousins both function well as playmakers to be sure, but will this approach work or is this a move that might actually backfire on New Orleans?
It would be the strangest of takes to suggest that New Orleans got the lesser of this deal. Franchise players typically come at a premium tag, while Dell Demps was able to snag Cousins at just the cost of rookie Buddy Hield and some spare parts. The first round pick New Orleans included is top-three protected. The risk here is absolutely minimal, but Cousins is also a free agent next summer, and the Pelicans have been what they have been this season. There is a given window for this tandem to shine and show it belongs together.
There is the chance that Cousins and Davis fail to complement one another, that instead of becoming a brilliant tandem, they simply get in one another’s way and impede their respective growth. This may seem unlikely, but it has been decades since we have seen the Twin Towers lineups that dominated much of the late 1980s and 1990s. Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, these were effective pairings, but they were also effectively part of an era that simply cannot be dug from the dirt and injected into today’s NBA.
Accordingly, even if Buddy Hield does not go on to be the “next Stephen Curry” that Vivek Randavive thinks he can be, the Pelicans may simply be renting out Cousins on a wing and a prayer that he can thrive in a system that is bound to be far different from what produced his single-handed brilliance in Sacramento. As a King, Cousins was the undoubted focus of an offense that did fairly well when he was on the floor. Sacramento just could not defend, and the team was wildly inconsistent when he sat.
The Pelicans have many of these same problems, and for howsoever talented Cousins is on offense, the Pelicans now have a new set of questions that arise with his acquisition. Davis now becomes a full-time power forward, and while he has the speed and talent to check even the most lithe stretch-4s, the Pelicans do become something more of a half-court basketball team. Cousins and Davis come with their interior dominance, but for all things the pairing will be, it will not be transition dynamite. It is not difficult to envision struggles coming against the run-and-gun Houston Rockets or even the impossibly stacked Golden State Warriors.
When the pace of the game picks up, will New Orleans be best suited with a frontline that features essentially two centers? For whatever quips can be made, Davis will now be a 5 playing the 4-spot, and that is what he wants. But sometimes players’ inclinations work against their own better good, and the Pelicans will have to prove they can put three capable shooters on the court, three capable defenders —essentially the perfect complements to what has now quickly become a team with two franchise players.
This experiment can go many ways: The Pelicans could marginally improve with a far more interesting lineup; they could rise to the No. 8 spot and make a compelling series with Golden State; or, they could just as well find the insertion of a major usage player and another big utterly confusing as the team remains mired in struggles, albeit unforeseen ones and with entirely new problems that have yet to be highlighted in this 2016-17 season.
The good news out of this deal is New Orleans still has Jrue Holiday starting at point guard. Whatever Buddy Hield may or may not become as a player, one thing he was not was a huge impact player as a rookie. The loss of his shooting stroke is no small deal, and Langston Galloway being jettisoned in this deal only further impacts the lack of court spacing New Orleans now has to deal with.
Perhaps before becoming overly excited at the prospect of Davis and Cousins, we will need to see some tangible proof that the Pelicans can shoot the ball well enough to make the pairing work, to begin with. Omri Casspi will help some with that, but for as much as this move improves New Orleans, the roster is a bit unbalanced with some issues that cannot just magically resolve themselves. The Pelicans nearly have to seek some shooting when it deals Terrence Jones or anyone else, and if that means accepting less of a return to get the right fit, Dell Demps has to be smart enough to recognize this is now about filling a roster out around two young superstar bigs.
It is a challenge no other GMs in the NBA are facing right now; getting one franchise big is an enormous accomplishment, but getting two is simply uncharted waters — at least in today’s NBA.
Those with starry eyes are flashing back to the Robinson-Duncan tandem, and envisioning something really special. There is nothing wrong with this. It is just that the success guaranteed from this approach is all but guaranteed. There is amassing talent, and there is building a team. And thus far, what the Pelicans have really done is amassed major talent, two specifically, but still, two talents that have never played an NBA game together before.
Davis and Cousins may like each other very well, as NBA friends on the verge of something that can be very special, but it is going to force New Orleans to make further moves to ensure their talents are, in fact, maximized. The challenge Demps faces is both enviable and not, in the sense that he now has been gift-wrapped a second superstar, but only with the inevitable problematic tasks of making something work that simply has not in well over a decade. The Pelicans could end up being so good that it causes other NBA teams to curve, for the Warriors to add another big to have some chance of countering what New Orleans can do with Davis and Cousins together. But at this point, that is still a dream scenario. Far more likely is that the Pelicans are forced to adapt their eccentric lineup to match the pace and style of the opponents they encounter. And for that reason, staying bullish on this pairing remains relatively easy.
Until Demps gets the right parts in place, until Gentry proves he can coach a team with two premier bigs, and until the Pelicans begin to prove this is more than just a “great pairing on paper” with mega talent amassed: Then, nothing is guaranteed.
There is no doubt this move brings plenty of excitement to the Big Easy. The Pelicans were thought to be at risk of losing Davis eventually, and now there is a real chance it secures the top two frontcourt players in the Association, both before hitting their respective primes. The two former Kentucky Wildcats have every chance to go down in the annals of successful Twin Towers, but given today’s era, the odds are stacked against it.
No matter how exciting these prospects all are, the fact is New Orleans is now swimming upstream against a league built to play a different style of basketball than the Pelicans are now goaded into. It could work brilliantly, but the chance of this not being the 500-foot homer that some pundits are proclaiming it to be is just as real. This could be a failure of an experiment, which leads to Cousins heading elsewhere in the near future. Then, the ultimate loss is Hield is no longer a Pelican, a couple draft picks end up being surrendered and New Orleans is basically right back where it started trying to find the right pieces to put around Davis.
It is not an inspiring thought, but it is one well worth considering because the new Twin Span connection of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins must now go out and prove themselves.