The first 17 games for DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans were a mixed bag, leading many to jump off the bandwagon at too early a stage.
The Pelicans recorded a 1-6 record over his first seven appearances and then the team went 6-4 over the last 10, with these four losses going down to the wire. That echoes a massive improvement and is an encouraging sign for fans that have enjoyed just one playoff trip since Anthony Davis’ arrival in the Big Easy.
There were a lot of signs — both good and bad — over that 17-game stretch. The problem here is that none of us really know whether some of those are larger Boogie trends or just small correctable blips. I, along with the vast majority of NBA fans, didn’t watch enough Kings basketball during Cousins tenure to sufficiently assess it.
Luckily, the SBNation network allows us an easy way to reach out to people who’ve watched other teams more than we do. That’s why I decided to ask Akis Yerocostas, editor of Sactown Royalty, the SBNation blog for the Sacramento Kings. Despite his grief, he was more than willing to help shed some light.
Nico: Gentry, a disciple of Mike D'Antoni, has continuously preached that Boogie has the skills to thrive in an uptempo system. He reiterated this point in the Pelicans end-of-season press conference. I know Boogie played in an uptempo system during his lone season under George Karl. Do you think Boogie can thrive in an uptempo system?
Akis: No, I do not. Pace is not Boogie's friend, and while I think he can and will still put up numbers no matter what system he's in, I think slowing it down is the key to getting the most from Boogie on both ends of the floor. I still think the most successful season Cousins had was with Mike Malone, and that was in part because Cousins was leading the charge on defense as well. I feel like fast pace systems tend to exacerbate his defensive issues by fatiguing him sooner than he'd normally be.
Nico: Yeah, that was pretty clear over the 17 games he played as a Pelican. It didn't help that the rotation Gentry settled into was having Boogie play seven minutes, get a 5-minute rest and then basically play 12 straight minutes to end halves (1st or 2nd). So, the issue isn't really about Boogie not having the skills, but rather his conditioning. If Boogie got into the best shape of his life — a big if — could that work? Like if they use him as sort of the "break starter" by either grabbing the board and initiating the offense with handoffs or kicking it out into transition? Or would that still be not the best way to utilize Boogie?
Akis: I still think that wouldn't be the ideal scenario for Cousins. Boogie seems to operate best out of the high post as the focal point of an offense. But with Anthony Davis on board, he's the main guy over there. From my outsiders perspective on the Pelicans, I just view them as a matchup nightmare in the frontcourt. Both of those guys demand double teams, but you can't really afford to double both of them. Seems like there could be a way to figure out a very efficient and punishing offense that isn't necessarily focused on pace at all. Those aren't Boogie's strengths, and losing some of the size and strength he has to simply get faster probably hurts more than helps.
Nico: I agree completely. I think the ideologies of 7SOL, mainly taking the first good shot by getting as many transition opportunities, fails to maximize the Boogie-AD pairing. I think Gentry realizes this and I really hope that if he's retained, he'll continue to slow down the offense.
You talked a little about Boogie leading the charge defensively in his most successful and productive time as a King. The Pels play this sort of conservative defensive system that's heavily reliant on switches. This was successful partly because Gentry played lineups with a lot of interchangeable defensive parts, with long, quick and strong defenders like Moore, Hill, Dante and AD being able to guard a wide range of players in a pinch. Do you think Boogie can succeed in this switch-heavy defense? Because I remember watching some of those games back in 2014 and Boogie looked quick enough to cover guards in a pinch.
Akis: Boogie's a much smarter player than people give him credit for. When he's engaged, he's as capable a defender as anyone. He's not the fastest player, but he's got pretty quick lateral movement. It's one of the reasons he's so good at drawing charges. It does also depend on the personnel around him though. The Kings played a very switch heavy system last year under George Karl and while Boogie was able to pick it up, his teammates weren't as quick to do so.
Nico: It's great to know that Boogie can thrive in a switch-heavy defense. This is the first time the Pels have ranked in the top 10 defensively since AD's been here and it wouldn’t be great for this system to suddenly change because Boogie can't thrive in it. However, the word I keep coming back to in your response is "engaged" i.e. when Boogie is engaged, he's great defensively; when he's not, not so sure. This was evident when Boogie played with bench players at the start of the second and fourth quarters with the Pels. Boogie seemed to check out a lot more on on D in these lineups, complaining about every call he didn’t get, loafing back on defense or just generally being handsy on defensive switches. (This was the biggest issue in that heartbreaking loss vs DEN at home.) How big of an issue is this and do you think this a short- or long-term issue?
Akis: This is surely one of his biggest issues and I'd have to say a long-term one because I haven't seen much change in seven years on this front. Boogie gets easily frustrated and emotional, and when things don't go his way, he tends to get taken out of his game. His teammates and coaches will need to do their best to keep him focused. He also needs to stop gambling for steals, especially in the backcourt. He picked up so many unnecessary fouls over the years trying to get a steal that 9 out of 10 times won't happen. He's got great hands, but he probably shouldn't swipe as much as he does. It should help that Boogie isn't the alpha in New Orleans. Now that he can take a step back from having all the attention on him, perhaps he can focus more on his role instead of expecting everyone else to fit in around him.
Nico: Yeah, it has really helped that he has AD now to hold him back and bring him back to the game when he checks out or gets frustrated. Consider that he's only been called for two technical fouls (one was eventually rescinded) in 17 games. That comes out to around 8~10 techs in a season — a far cry from the 16+ he was getting in SAC.
Let's switch topics: Jrue Holiday had to make the biggest adjustment with Cousins’ arrival. Considering Boogie's played with three point guards who are completely different from Jrue (Isaiah Thomas, Rajon Rondo & Darren Collison), what or who do you think is the ideal PG for Boogie?
Akis: I'm still pissed the Kings didn't try to build around Cousins/Thomas, but Thomas was too score-first for the team's liking. I actually think Holiday is close to being an ideal fit alongside Boogie as he can both shoot and defend. Anybody that plays with Boogie has to be able to hit their open shots so guys that he can play pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop with seem ideal. You also want someone who can defend and give Cousins time to rotate and help. If I could choose any PG in the league to pair with Cousins, not including the perennial All-Star guys, I'd probably go with Mike Conley. Conley also has experience playing with talented big men.
Nico: Oh, what I wouldn’t give up to get Conley—a player I believed in even when no one did — to be in a Pelicans uniform next season. If the Pels can re-sign Jrue, what do you think is the ceiling of a Jrue/Boogie/AD-led lineup? Its floor? And do you think that's enough to convince Boogie to re-sign when his contract is up in the summer of 2018?
Akis: I think that's one of the more talented 3-man cores in the league. It reminds me of the Conley/Z-Bo/Gasol group in Memphis, except perhaps better thanks to the athleticism that Davis provides and the fact that New Orleans' group is younger. The real concern with that group is getting the right pieces around them and playing winning basketball. Cousins has said repeatedly that he wants to win. I think he'll have a good shot of doing that in New Orleans, and if the Pelicans make a run next year, I think there's a very strong possibility that he re-signs. He almost certainly won't be able to go anywhere in free agency that will give him a partner as good as Davis. However if the team struggles, for whatever reason, I'd expect him to explore his options. I just can't see New Orleans being all that bad with that much talent to build around and a full training camp under their belts though. We'll see.
Akis really helped enlighten me (and hopefully you!) about the path forward with Boogie. I know, from the hundreds of pre-game, post-game and practice interviews I’ve watched, that Alvin Gentry is not adverse to playing slow. How much of that is lip service, we’ll never really know but his pre-PHO days of coaching do show he’s coached “slow” teams. If he does get retained (a big if), I really do hope he slows the pace WAY down.
The other thing that I was worried about was Boogie’s defense and how he fits with Erman’s switching schemes. Akis echoed the things I remember seeing from Boogie back in his best defensive set of games so I decided to re-watch some of those games when the Kings started 9-5 back in 2014-15. There’s this one play where Boogie gets switched onto a wing player and he was able to not only impede the drive but force a dribble pick up (with his quick hands) that forced an offensive reset. Boogie is deceptively quick, when motivated. That’s the operative word here of course: “motivated.”
The biggest issue — Boogie’s focus — seems to be a career problem. No, this isn’t to say that Cousins loses his focus per se, but more he lets his frustrations get in the way of performing at his best in a number of games. Boogie kept this largely in check during his first stint with the Pelicans, with just the one technical foul credited to his name. That was largely because everyone on the Pels’ bench — players and coaches alike — did their small part to keep Boogie calm. But the complaints after a call/no-call that didn’t go his way, led to some pretty easy transition opportunities for opponents.
The good thing to remember is that Boogie has the help and tutelage around him to be a better two-way player. Don’t forget the same thing can be said of Davis by having a true peer alongside. With a lighter load on offense, both players should theoretically now be able to spend more energy on the defensive end.
How many of this career trends and 17-game insights become true next season is anyone’s guess. But you can’t deny, the future is bright in New Orleans and that isn’t some load of BS that the marketing department of all NBA teams spout in the offseason.