I’ve beat this drum before — it’s almost impossible to build a roster that will beat the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets at their own game. Small ball and shooting are the heavy metal band t-shirt of basketball trends.
If you walk into an Urban Outfitters or an H&M, you will see racks of Metallica, Slayer and Iron Maiden t-shirts. These are being marketed to hipsters who have no emotional connection to or even much knowledge of these bands’ discography or history — it’s superficial flossing. There only connection to heavy metal is the giant hoop earrings hanging from their lobes. The NBA is full of such teams trying to play pace and space without having the genetic makeup to pull it off. Everyone wants to be part of a trend while pretending to be a trend setter — being different just like everyone else.
I have a strong affinity for sub-cultures and love how they shape society from art to culture to political and societal reform. This was ingrained in me at an early age as I fell in love with skateboarding when I was eight-years-old, which then lead to a love of underground music — punk, hardcore, indie rock and hip hop. Decades later, I found myself teaching a course on sub-cultures and their impact on society and design at a small design school in Singapore. It was my favorite subject to teach and I opened every term with a 3-day intensive presentation that included the following quote from Paul Watson who is the renegade anti-whaling anti-illegal fishing ocean conservationist captain of Sea Shepherd from the amazing film, “Sharkwater” (definitely check this out if you are conservation minded and/or love underwater cinematography):
The point being, the status quo will never change anything because it’s the comfortable current of what’s accepted. It takes small groups or individuals to create ripples, build dams or to swim upstream shifting those currents. Keeping in-line with sea life, you can look at how predators, like sharks, dolphins and sea gulls, have forced the evolution of schooling behaviors in fish — generating bait balls that help entire species survive being eaten into extinction.
In basketball terms think about how revolutionary the 7 seconds or less offense was when it first appeared on the scene. Think about how detractors like Charles Barkley would say that a team built around jump shooting couldn’t win a title... until it did. Jump shooting and playing a traditionally three-sized guy at the four and four-sized guy at the five was once the revolution. However, it is now the norm. When you face two mirrors together they just reflect each other and don’t expose anything new.
This is why the Pelicans find themselves — along with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks (whom I also see as suited to be their Eastern Conference counterparts) and even to some degree the Cleveland Cavaliers — to be the bandanna over the face hooded sweatshirt wearing spray paint can wielding revolutionaries to actually challenge the establishment. While the title of this article is slightly tongue in cheek — as I believe we have enough shooting already to win with this new identity — the key to being that irritant to the elite rosters in the league is to double down on defense, own the glass, be big and have play-making from multiple positions.
Building a wall that even Mexico would be willing to pay to watch
With the current New Orleans roster, there is no other choice except to play to very big together for most of the game. Luckily for the Pelicans, this isn’t going to be the uncleaned grease trap backing up into the kitchen of a Popeye’s during Mardi Gras week because the grease trucks can’t get passed barricades or crowds to empty them kind of congestion that we saw with the Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith frontcourt in Detroit a few years ago. In my recent interview with Jordan Crawford, he said this about playing the current en vogue style of offense with the team being built around two bigs:
This is very true because while you get the bonus of their size and their rebounding abilities, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins do not cause the same problems for their own team that a trio of Drummond, Monroe and Smith caused for the Pistons.
Cousins and Drummond are identical in size. Drummond is known for being one of the best rebounders in the league, but when you look at numbers and scheme, Cousins isn’t too far off. Drummond posted a 36.3% Defensive Rebound Percentage, which is incredible, but isn’t that far above Cousins’ 32.2%. Drummond kills Cousins when it comes to Offensive Rebound Percentage because Drummond strictly lives under the basket — it’s the only place where he is useful. Cousins often operates around the elbow or further out playing a bit of a stretch five role — a role that earned him, “Splash Mountain” status for his 37.5% from beyond the arc — which doesn’t put him in position to feast off of put-backs. Even with a huge disparity in their ORP numbers Cousins still averaged just 1.3 rebounds per game less than Drummond in a Pelicans uniform. This is clearly because DMC played more minutes per game — because he is able to stay on the court. In close games, Drummond is a liability due to his well documented struggles from the line and overall lack of an offensive game — even in the post. Cousins converted on 77.7% of his free throw attempts last season and has a handle, playmaking ability, post moves and range out beyond the arc to keep him on the floor no matter what the game situation. Cousins doesn’t have the same athleticism as Drummond, but he has the ability to cover the four and five spots and play some centerfield while protecting the rim from driving wings.
Greg Monroe was a failure in Joe Dumars’ vision of a giant front line. Monroe is far from being a respectable defender, even at the five spot, and he certainly does not have the foot speed to hold his own against the smaller, more athletic fours he had to guard in this era of the NBA. Monroe also has a very close to the basket, old school offensive game. During the 2013-14 season, Monroe took 326 (32%) of his shots from the 3-10 foot range and converted just 36.8% of those attempts. In total he took 84.5% of his field goal attempts from 10’ to the rim. This shows how cramped the lane was when paired with Drummond, who took all but 10 of his attempts in that same range.
Anthony Davis is everything Greg Monroe isn’t. He’s an athletic freak with good defensive instincts. He can guard multiple positions and is adept at guarding smaller players on the perimeter, allowing for a switch-heavy scheme. While Davis can still improve on his dribble drive moves and traditional post scoring, he has a silky smooth jumper out to 22’, can finish through contact and can score from all over the floor from all kinds of angles with his unorthodox and seemingly unnatural ability to contort his body. His three point shot (29.9% this past season) still needs to improve if it will be a big part of his game, but having that college three range up to over 40% provides enough spacing for Cousins to work and wings to penetrate.
I’ve already detailed how our own tweener SF should be retained to fill the what I really don’t want to call the “Josh Smith” role in my Dante Cunningham season review. Both players can play the three or four and both have have good size and athleticism. (Obviously, I’m talking about the 2013-14 version of Josh Smith). However, Dante is a much better and more in control shooter, converting 39.2% from deep and 40% from the corner three spot. In that failed “
Big Three”...ummm...”Three Big” attempt in Detroit, Smith was not that. Smith converted just 28.5% from deep and took 16 shots per game — 3.4 from three. Dante only took 5.4 shots per game with 2.7 of those coming from beyond the arc. Cunningham may actually defer a little too much, which is better than taking shots away from the foundation of Davis and Cousins. Still, with the attention that Cousins and Davis will draw and with Cousins’ passing ability, you’d like to see Dante bump those shot attempts up around 8-12 shots a game with them all being open corner threes or dunks in transition and off of baseline cuts — making him a threat that the defense will have to ponder whether it is beneficial to sag off of him or not.
Another benefit to going big, and focusing more on defense — especially defending the rim — is that with Davis, Cousins and Cunningham up front, defense should easily convert into offense due to the shot blocking, rebounding, and ball handling skills these three provide. This should result in a very potent transition attack.
In fact, it was the Pelicans defense that kept them in the playoff hunt for a portion of the season. It was oddly their strength under an offensive-minded head coach. Scoring was often hard to come by pre-Boogie. We saw a lot of isolation plays with Anthony Davis, making him bear the brunt of the scoring load. Boogie helps offset that with his offensive skills, but turning defense into easy offense should be effortless with the rotations the Pelicans can deploy. With the size and ability of Davis, Cousins and Cunningham to protect the rim, there should be very few easy opportunities near the basket.
I will detail roster additions in the coming parts to this series that will further enhance the Pelicans’ perimeter defense, but if Jrue Holiday is retained, you have his elite defense and still can add in E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill to take away perimeter scoring. All of these guys can run the floor and handle effectively enough when the opponents shot is snuffed out and gobbled up by the frontcourt to create instant offense. Hill, Davis, Moore, Holiday, Jordan Crawford and Cunningham can all get to the rim and finish and/or play make well enough to hit a trailing DeMarcus Cousins for a transition three or find a Dante, E’Twaun, Jordan or Jrue on the perimeter for an open three. Transition scoring is key for this team which struggled mightily out of timeouts and often in half court sets this past season.
In that Dante Cunningham season review, I detailed how Dante and DeMarcus Cousins could really help solve the Pelicans’ out of timeout and half court scoring woes — which would also ease Holiday’s creating burden — a burden that has much of Pelicans’ Twitter’s feathers ruffled.
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 indigestion.
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.
When Cousins first arrived, I remember everyone asking if Jrue Holiday was the best point guard he’s ever played with in the NBA — I think DeMarcus Cousins is actually the best point guard DMC has ever played with. Making DeMarcus Cousins your primary playmaker, or at least 1B to your traditional point guard’s 1A, helps to not only unlock the Pel’s half court offense, but also to unlock the Anthony Davis and Cousins’ pairing. Putting the ball in Boogie’s hands keeps him involved. He’s a smart enough player to know when to get his and when to create for others. Anthony Davis has already enjoyed Boogie’s playmaking with some pretty devastating alley-oops from big to big.
An off season of working together to develop better chemistry will have this pairing causing opponents to stain their compression shorts while having to decide whether to play their undersized players against these monsters or to play bigger guys together that drastically alter their offensive identity. Also, when smaller players have to guard much bigger men, you typically see a lot of fouling. This will force the opposition out of the personnel groupings they prefer while getting the Pelicans into the bonus earlier.
Minutes should be staggered so that both of our bigs play big minutes together, but also in a way that has one of them on the floor at all times. When AD rests DMC should go from point Boogie to get his mode — but point Boogie is a role that should keep him engaged even if Davis is the focal point of the offense while they share the floor. The March 29th game against Dallas shows how effective DeMarcus can be in that point role and how well Davis plays off of him.
In tomorrow’s second part, I’ll delve into the Pelicans current roster and specifically focus on why bringing Jrue Holiday back next season is vital for the rest of my offseason plans.