The Golden State Warriors recently completed their second title run in three years, often employing a “Death Lineup,” which, of course, features small ball and Draymond Green as the big man. The Warriors revolutionized this era, perhaps defined it, despite precursors to stretching the court dating perhaps back to the mid 2000s.
This is why New Orleans Pelicans’ entire team philosophy focused around a game converse, inverse, directly in opposition of the most dominant three-season win total in NBA history by choice is so interesting yet scary at the same time.
The Warriors stacked the deck with multiple MVPs in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, who both — not coincidentally — are perimeter threats. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, alternatively, can function adequately on the perimeter, but one would never say that was necessarily the primary focus of either.
For New Orleans to succeed, it is going to have to swim at least somewhat counter to a current insistent on small ball lineups, stretch-4s, and plenty of three-pointers. The lineup card theorizes the Pelicans should seek to slow the tempo and take the most of each possession. Lastly, one wonders if Jrue Holiday can deftly employ the tone and tempo amid the game’s two most dominant bigs, no matter the selected identity.
Well, New Orleans just bet definitively that he can, re-signing the point guard this offseason despite speculation the Pels might search for a cheaper option. Ultimately, Holiday is now charged with a lot of varying responsibilities: running the offense, providing spacing at the two and drawing the toughest defensive assignments even at times on 3-men like Andrew Wiggins (who he absolutely tortured).
The Pelicans can succeed, but it requires Holiday almost becoming a lynchpin to that success: Without him being able to impose his will on a game and control the pace, teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors will blow New Orleans out of the gym.
If Holiday plays like the All-Star caliber player he is and affects the game with his defense and ball handling, then the chance is still there that New Orleans could ultimately “zag” to the league’s current “zig,” to borrow the phraseology of Zach Lowe during a podcast with J.J. Redick.
The Pelicans did amass two amazing talents on one roster, but the bold warning here is that such is probably not a requisite and determinate factor of necessary success. New Orleans may still struggle. The Western Conference is again loaded at perhaps another pinnacle to its already long-standing dominance, and the Pelicans will have to beat out a number of rising teams to even secure postseason standing.
That threat remains even with Davis and Cousins remaining predominantly healthy.
The Actual Difference Maker
The fact that New Orleans is now dependent on Holiday playing more like a star is really where the questions begin. He can be that good, but he has had his own injury history, and the Pelicans probably still need some more shooting and better wing players alongside, unless mini-miracles pop up — like Quincy Pondexter returning to form and being an effective “three and D” player that the lineup has sorely lacked.
Even so, one has to assume that if Cousins decides to stay, that would mean Davis is in it for the long haul, too. (So, let’s dispense with all the potential trade trade already, Boston!) The best pairing for a team’s best two players has almost always been in some form of an inside-outside tandem, a guard and a big, a wing and a big, whatever. Rarely is it a guard and a guard or a big and a big. Some balance is needed that New Orleans just seems to lack on a profound level, even if Holiday somehow managed to average 20 points per game.
The scoring prowess of the top teams in the West is absolutely disparate with what the Pels can muster, and the defense will have to also adjust to lineups that do trot out much smaller power forwards. Teams are not going to simply bend to New Orleans’ will and play two centers in response to it. Sure, that outcome will happen at times, but do not think teams will go out of their way to match size with size. That just has not been the trend over the last 10 years really, and to expect Davis and Cousins to be good enough to reverse a league trend seems like expecting an awful lot. Maybe some blessed day down the road but not tomorrow.
Sell Analytically Based Stories at the Next Station
I’m not going to break down per-possession stats. Real-Plus Minus. Any of that. Analytics are not going to overwrite the directive logic that no twin tower lineup has really experienced great success since perhaps David Robinson and Tim Duncan — almost 20 years ago now. Sure, some good middle-tier pairings happened, but nothing where two Hall of Fame caliber talents were starting at the 4/5, both more 5 than 4.
Davis and Cousins are a new sort of oddity from the towers of the past, thinking even of duos like Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, who still featured a player whose game was finesse based in the pairing. While Davis uses plenty of finesse, he still likes to operate from 18 and within, where Cousins is also at his best.
There is no sense pretending that it would be a horrible thing to flip DeMarcus at the trade deadline for a premier small forward.
It might upset some that an experiment was not thus given its full due.
The point asserted here is that time cannot be stalled indefinitely, and if Cousins is not looking like a path to getting to true contention, then he ultimately just provides a tantalizing, but unbalanced, complement to Davis.
The Pelicans gathered plenty of hype in obtaining Cousins, but without the right backcourt play, this will fail all the same. The NBA game is so guard-influenced at this juncture, and values shooting so much, that gaining Cousins for mostly the cost of just Buddy Hield was entirely within the realm of things that actually happened. Sacto gambled on a shooter and a guard, while the Pelicans stacked the frontcourt.
“We’ll see how that works out for them, Cotton.”