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2017 Player Reviews: Dante Cunningham has graduated from college threes to a ‘Corner Boy’

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He should also be remembered for becoming the Designated Cutter & 5-Man Combo Glue Factory

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Dante Cunningham is probably the most deceptive member of the New Orleans Pelicans to break down from a statistical perspective. His stat line is rather ho-hum, but it’s metronome steady and stable, despite being centered in a season as chaotic as the kitchen scene from Legion — a tornado of telekinetic rage and psychotic breakdown.

Cunningham produces 6-8 points a game with 4-5 rebounds whether he is starting, coming off the bench, playing 20 or 30 minutes a game and no matter who he shares the floor with. Combine this perception with a 10.2 PER and it makes Dante seem like a very replaceable, average at best player when looking purely through a boiled milk fat skimmed surface keyhole courtesy of a quick Basketball Reference player search. However, if you are a B-Sides, 7” and compilation tracks deep cut kind of person and you dive deep into Dante’s stats from this season, his intangibles start to become very tangible.

Courtesy of Basketball Reference

Dante Cunningham is a 5-Man Combo legend. In 8 of his top 10 5-man combinations by minutes, Dante’s inclusion has produced positives in points scored — often featuring overwhelming positive numbers. Due to several roster changes throughout the season, all of these groupings are relatively small sample sizes, but two groupings that could be key going forward are very promising. Per 100 possessions the Cunningham, Anthony Davis, Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore and Jrue Holiday pairing outscored their opponents by 9.5 points. In a much smaller sample, Cunningham, Davis, Holiday, Hill and Jordan Crawford outscored the opponents by almost 24 points. If Dante is retained and Jrue is back, as I expect him to be, these two lineups could see significant court time in 2017-2018.

Looking at the point differentials of all of these groupings helps to demonstrate that while Cunningham’s stats may be Season 2 of the Wire to the average viewer, he is an integral part of the collective unit and much better than most give him credit for (though Dante’s total rebound percentage is as unlikable as Ziggy Sobotka). He’s the glue guy, which is why I gave him Fugazi’s “Glue Man” as his scoring clip back in 2014-2015 in my scoring clip redraft — he even looks like the animated character in the fan-made “Glue Man” video. His overall positives also bode well for his ability to blend with any number of player variations while somewhat silently breathing life into those pairings.

Again, as you scroll through Dante’s seasonal numbers over his career, they look almost as if they were just dragged and dropped and just as unspectacular — he’s never averaged double figures in scoring and has only reached 5 rebounds per game in one of his 10 seasons. However, this doesn’t mean he isn’t a much improved product — at least on the offensive end.

Prior to the Alvin Gentry era — or Gentryfication as I like to call it — Dante topped out at 0.4 three-point attempts per game in 2010-11 while playing in Charlotte. This past season Dante took a hair under 3 three-point attempts per game. The 2015-16 season was the first year he began to stretch his college three-point long two game out past the arc, attempting 2.2 threes per game — yet, he converted them at a sub-standard 31.6%. However, Dante has drastically increased that conversion rate all the way up to 39.2%, making him this season’s best long range marksman on the team.

Dante also helped to manifest a short-lived but Wire-inspired nickname — “The Corner Boys” — for Solomon Hill and himself with a 40% conversation rate from the corner three area during that promising “small ball” portion of the season that had Dante and Solomon flanking AD upfront. Dante takes almost 70% of his attempts from the corner three and every one of them were assisted on, which makes me think he isn’t being utilized as much as he should to create space. Honestly, it’s Luke Babbitt all over again, except Dante gives you more on court even if his shot isn’t quite as deadly as Luke’s was when he was being ignored in the corner. It’s not surprising that both players earned Fugazi scoring clips from me in that redraft. Dante could just as easily absorb Luke’s scoring track, “Margin Walker.” How much do these words once assigned to Luke fit Dante?

Fugazi were the punk rock Beatles. I worship at the church of Fugazi. I’m more of a late era Fugazi fan (In on the Kill Taker through their final album, The Argument are still heavy in my rotation), but I’m digging deep for Luke’s cut. If you look at the basketball court as a page, the 3 point line could be considered the margin. Luke lives on the edge of the 3pt line, walking the margin for the entirety of his on-court minutes. The connection goes deeper than that though.

"I'm going to set myself up at a window,

This margin walker wants a clear view,

This margin walker wants a clear shot,

And now I'm shooting it right on you."

Hanging on the wing wide-open, waiting for a clear shot, a shot that’s hitting at a 52% success rate is Luke’s game. Unfortunately, we are often leaving him hanging there at the "window,” but Guy Picciotto (vocals/guitar) also tries to give Luke an idea to help him get noticed, "I'm going to set myself on fire." Maybe some self-immolation will draw some attention.

With Dante’s newly acquired — and seemingly not flash-in-a-pan — three point marksmanship and his much improved true shooting percentage (58.6%), it would seem beneficial to start upping his usage from the minimal 10.7% to help create that space for AD and DMC to work. I’m not saying to get him in the 20s, but maybe 12-14% usage could maximize his abilities out on the corner (perhaps 4 or 5 total attempts a game) and open up lanes for everyone else, or at least make teams pay more for doubling Davis or Cousins down low. He doesn’t need a major increase as his touches mainly come out of catch-and-shoot situations or baseline cuts resulting in very quick and effective strikes like a mantis shrimp.

Speaking of Luke Babbitt and ‘90s era screamo — Dante has also become the Pelicans’ designated cutter. Off-ball movement has been the biggest disappointment for me in the Gentryfied offense. I thought I was going to see Eric Gordon and then Buddy Hield running around screens off the ball in homage to Ray Allen getting themselves open for catch-and-shoot threes. Their mapped off-ball movement should have looked like something out of a Family Circus comic instead of a Google maps pin. I thought I’d see a lot of baseline cuts from AD and our wing players. However, these came in very small doses until apparently Cunningham started listening to all those Mineral records Luke left behind and got into cutting — he drove hard to the rim in transition and more importantly in the half court when his man doubled a big.

The transition dunks are fun, but it’s actually the half court cuts that have me most excited. The Pelicans were a well documented disaster out of timeouts and generally looked like they were trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube combined with the Saturday edition of the New York Times crossword puzzle in the half court. Dante’s cutting will provide a soda water with lemon and bitters relief to all that half court congestion.

Playing in lineups with DeMarcus Cousins should only increase the potency of these cuts. Cousins is a very skilled passer. He averaged just under 5 assists per game last season — a number that I expect to grow as he gets more familiar with his teammates and is surrounded by better shooters, but the eye test also shows great passing vision and IQ. Cousins can brutalize players at the rim, but is likely best from the elbow allowing him space to drive, step back or draw a double team that will open up the rim for a cutting teammate. His passing from the elbow should really get easy touches for the role players around him. Dante has shown that he is able to make the play needed whether from beyond the arc or while running to the rim. While there isn’t much data available for on-court pairings of these two players, it’s easy to see how they can work well in tandem.

While Dante’s offensive output is seeing a bit of an uptick and looks like it could further blossom, he still has flaws. An 8.9% total rebound rate is very troubling for a 6’-8” 230lb man who is often tasked to play power forward. I like the idea of using that Cunningham and Hill small ball front line with either AD or DMC at center for stretches, but being big is now our strength and should be our identity — forcing teams to adjust to us.

Early in the season I petitioned for Cheick Diallo to absorb all of Dante’s minutes at the four mainly due to Cunningham’s rebounding issues and pre-Cousins’ trade this season being about, “The Process.” While I still like the idea of Diallo getting more run, with the team being built around two incredible bigs, I do like having Dante on the court a lot. I don’t want to see the Pelicans playing small for long stretches but surrounding Cousins or Davis with Hill and Cunningham can be useful while one or the other All-Star catches a breather. However, Cunningham would be maximized best as the three with Davis and Cousins on the floor because of his aforementioned shooting and cutting and the attention those super humans will draw. Dante can be the hooded Richard Spencer puncher on offense.

Dante’s lack of rebounding would not be an issue with those two giants feasting on the glass next to him. Cunningham’s once dirt dog defense has taken a step back over the last couple of years — though it showed improvement this past season. Moving him to small forward more consistently would allow him to use his strength and length against smaller threes while being protected by AD and DMC when he gets beat off of the dribble. Maybe our version of grit and grind will bring the nasty back to Dante’s game. In 2014-15 Cunningham had opposing players rocking the Redman tissue in the nose often with his physical play.

While Cunningham has been caught sometimes drifting effort-wise on defense — for a stretch of 2015-2016 I took to calling him, “Ante Cunningham” — he has been known to rise to the occasion. I keep this screen grab of his performance against LeBron James in a folder on my desktop that serves as my Pelicans’ players fridge worthy accomplishments.

Cunningham has the physical tools and IQ to be a high level defender, and perhaps Gentry’s style of play has led to Dante losing some of his physicality and grit on defense. However, this team should open the season with a new identity that draws from their defensive improvements and is built around being bigger and tougher than the opponent. This identity could spark a renaissance in Cunningham’s defensive performance.

However, we must not assume Cunningham will be on the squadron next season. He has a player option that would only pay him a shade over $3 million next season. That’s Tim Frazier money. In this era of the NBA, getting a 6’-8” player who can defend and shoot 40% from the corner three spot at that rate is an absolute steal. There is no way Dante doesn’t opt out and finds a more lucrative contract. This doesn’t mean that he is definitely gone, though, as the Pelicans will maintain bird rights and can go over the cap to bring him back.

I am for this move.

Dante fits well next to Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and should ease the pressure on Solomon Hill to become a better scorer, which should in turn make him a better scorer — as he is clearly a confidence driven player on that end. Dante provides positional flexibility and is the kind of role player and locker room presence any team should want — especially when he’s locked in defensively.