The New Orleans Pelicans find themselves on national television tomorrow night against the San Antonio Spurs. In the interests of ESPN's television schedule, tip-off moves back from the traditional 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM — just another example of how ill-fitting this franchise is in the Western Conference.
DeMarcus Cousins has put up enormous numbers since being traded, yet the Pelicans are 0-3 in games Cousins has played. Does Cousins fail to impact winning? Are his stats hollow?
New Orleans is still far more comfortable playing small than fitting in two big men. (I discussed this in depth when the Pelicans were linked to Jahlil Okafor and Brook Lopez.) No where is this more evident than on defense, where Cousins presence disrupts a switch heavy scheme.
It would be an error to blame Cousins for the terrible defense (111.5 DRtg when he's on the court) alone. Communication through screens has become more complicated as the "switch everything" defense Darren Erman has carefully constructed must adjust to playing two big men more often. Open shots have rained from behind the arc as lapses in communication create weaknesses for opponents to exploit.
None of this is to say Cousins is blameless. He too has failed to adapt and remains unwilling to press higher on ball screens, electing instead to sag at times all the way to the foul line extended. This adjustment, on defense, is where we should focus the majority of our attention tonight. San Antonio is a good match up for New Orleans to learn about their starting unit as Gregg Popovich traditionally plays two stereotypical big men.
No Spur presents a bigger challenge on this front than Patty Mills, who will anchor San Antonio's bench units beside Manu Ginobili. Both are willing to pull up when defenders elect to go under or fail to get over ball screens. Boogie, who has been the fulcrum of Pelicans second unit, and the defenders around him (Tim Frazier and Jarrett Jack most particularly) will be tested.
Offense is far easier. Both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have been amazingly efficient. The others around them have quite simply missed shots. I remain concerned that the desire for pace is having an additional negative impact on Cousins on defense, but the offense is fine. Absolutely fine. Open shots are being created. The relative explosion on Wednesday had far more to do with hot shooting and fewer turnovers than anything with Boogie's absence.
What to watch
Kawhi Leonard on defense: Putting Leonard on Solomon Hill frees Kawhi to create havoc all over the floor. More troubling for the Pelicans would be if the Spurs choose to go small (unlikely in the regular season) and have Leonard guard Anthony Davis. One reason Houston (Trevor Ariza) and Dallas (Harrison Barnes) had success against BoogieBrow is the presence of big wings to guard AD. Davis has yet to consistently punish these size mismatches and Leonard is one of the best defenders on the planet.
Don't be bashful role players: Dante Cunningham and E'Twaun Moore are both flirting with shooting 40% behind the arc. If you watch either, you wouldn't guess it. This isn't a matter of turning into Langston "Green Light" Galloway, but the Pelican role players must demonstrate a willingness to shoot when remotely left open.
Move it, move it: New Orleans wants to move the ball and too many role players, as discussed above, elect to pass on good open shots hunting for the perfect open shot. More troubling is the habit of standing and watching post ups and isolations by either Cousins or Davis. Stagnation allows the opposition to help; relocating around the arc or cutting along the baseline makes attempts at helping more hazardous. Cunningham has his moments, these moments must become more frequent and widespread.