Can the Pelicans keep their Twin Towers together in small-ball era?

ABS-CBN Sports on Jan 20, 2018 07:45 AM
Can the Pelicans keep their Twin Towers together?
FILE - This April 7, 2017 file photo shows New Orleans Pelicans forwards DeMarcus Cousins, left, and Anthony Davis joking with each other as they sit on the bench and watch the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

The city they represent is world famous for mixing ingredients in a bold and often unconventional way to concoct a phenomenon that steals your nostrils and taste buds. In a sense, then, the Pelicans are taking a cue from New Orleans by daring to do what others won’t or can’t:

Create a contender by using two bigs in a league that’s going small?

Surround them with the right mix of talent?

And here’s the kicker: Stick to the plan by keeping Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins -- Boogie and ‘Brow -- together for the long haul?

Let’s address that last issue first, since it seems to be a point of contention. Apparently, the basketball world -- rival teams and GMs and media mainly -- believe the Pelicans are unfit for Davis and that it’s in their best interest to trade him. Forget for a minute that he’s under contract for at least two more years (therefore, no urgency yet) and that he loves New Orleans and has expressed nothing but confidence (at least publicly) in the plan.

By constantly banging that drum beat, the noise suggests Davis, at 24, is wasting his prime years in an organization that assembled an average collection of help for him and Cousins and will be on the doorstep of salary cap hell once Cousins is re-signed this summer. And that’s assuming Cousins wants to return.

At this point, the team and Davis seem weary of it all, with coach Alvin Gentry saying on the team’s recent visit to Boston that they’ll trade Davis to the Celtics “for the New England Patriots” and Davis merely laughing when the subject was raised for the gazillionth time.

“It’s funny to me,” he said.

Standing a few feet away at the next locker, Rajon Rondo interjected and said it would be a huge mistake to send Davis or Cousins on their way.

“They can be the two best bigs who ever played on the same team,” Rondo said.

It’s not like the Trade Davis Now movement is totally unfounded. He’s played only four playoff games in his career, and only one series, and could be the league’s best player with a losing record for his career. There’s the perception of instability floating above the Pelicans, with Gentry’s job status a constant source of NBA water-cooler debate along with that of GM Dell Demps. His teammates, outside of Cousins and maybe Jrue Holiday, aren’t particularly impressive or impactful. And the Pelicans could get a reasonably nice haul for him, especially from the Celtics, who are stocked with young players and potentially high draft picks as bait.

But: There’s nothing forcing the Pelicans’ hand, and Davis isn’t applying any pressure.

Besides, they appear committed to keeping Davis and Cousins, who were both named All-Star starters on Thursday (Friday, PHL time), together like red beans and rice.

That’ll come at a steep cost. Cousins will command a salary in the range of $30 million a season starting in 2018-19. New Orleans gave Holiday, a good guard paid like a superstar, roughly $26 million a season last summer and Davis could be eligible for the “super max” when his current deal can be renegotiated in two summers. Imagine: Three players making $85-$90 million a season, a hefty slice of the cap. That’s understandable if you’re the Warriors or a team with a realistic shot at going deep into the playoffs or a franchise as profitable as the Knicks. But the Pelicans are currently fighting for one of the last three or four playoff spots in the West.

How will the small-market Pelicans, also stuck with poisonous contracts given to Solomon Hill and Omer Asik at least until 2020, add more talent without drunk-stumbling into luxury tax land? In that scenario, their best and perhaps only hope is to nail their draft picks and pray that cheap young talent is good enough to contribute right away. Even then, does Demps, with a spotty record as GM, inspire enough confidence in ownership to pull those triggers?

All are questions and issues with some degree of validity. At the moment, however, the Pelicans are trying to comprehend why they can beat the best team in the East (the Celtics) one night and then blow a 19-point lead and lose to the worst (the Hawks) the next.

Davis went from scoring 48 and 45 to getting only eight points, and Cousins was sloppy against the Hawks, which only serves to magnify how much they mean to each other and the Pelicans’ chances of winning on any given night. When they’re struggling, and on the same night which rarely happens, New Orleans is roadkill.

They’ve been together now for almost a calendar year and endured an initial rough patch last spring soon after Cousins arrived from Sacramento, to now, where the Pelicans are a respectable 23-21 on the season. The great pairing is starting to fulfill all the hopes from a chemistry standpoint. Cousins is averaging almost 26 points and 13 rebounds while Davis is 26 and 10. This isn’t a 1-2 punch; it’s 1A and 1B.

They complement each other through friendship (those Kentucky Wildcat roots run deep), mutual respect and similar styles of play that don’t clash. Cousins said there was never any question in his mind that they’d be a match made in hoop heaven.

“Our relationship is strong,” he said. “It’s one thing to be good friends when you’re on separate teams, and it only gets better when you’re on the same team. We stay on the same page. We’re good.”

The Boogie-‘Brow bond is why the Pelicans believe Cousins won’t bolt this summer through free agency. Well, that, and the fact he’d be leaving around $40 million on the table if he did.

The goal is to cause matchup hell for the other team and this is starting to occur on a nightly basis. With the game drifting away from the big man in the NBA, and fewer seven-footers serving as the engines for their teams, Cousins and Davis are putting pressure on front lines everywhere.

“It’s tough for teams to switch smaller guys on ‘AD’ and DeMarcus because they can play inside or out,” said Gentry. “We’re built a little bit different. We can play at a fast pace because they can rebound and push it and they’re good passers. Or we can play at a slow pace.”

The uniqueness of the Pelicans’ approach, and how it contrasts with virtually every other team in the league, puts them at certain advantages, Gentry said.

“No one’s going to dictate how we play. We may be going against the grain in the league but it gives us the best opportunity to win. We play the way we play. We like our two big guys on the floor as much as we can have them. AD is capable of guarding any stretch player people want to put out there. It’s not like we’re going to adjust to a team and say, ‘oh, we’re going to take one of them out because they’re playing with a stretch player.’ Our feeling is they got to guard us on the other end of the floor, too.”

Davis said: “We’re two guys who can handle, pass and command the double team (Rondo interjection: “Triple team!”). We complement each other. We space the floor, one guy’s inside and the other is outside, set screens and even run the pick and roll or pick and pop. It’s tough for bigs to play against that. Most ‘four’ and ‘fives’ aren’t used to that.”

Cousins and Davis shoot almost three times as many threes as their next-closest teammate and make a respectable 35 percent, and their range sets them apart from other celebrated twin bigs. David Robinson and Tim Duncan didn’t have that, nor did Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, but of course those were different times, when the NBA teams didn’t emphasize (or want) their seven-footers standing 25 feet from the rim.

Their ability to shoot threes is an advantage because it opens passing lanes and the floor, but also can work against Cousins and Davis because it negates their height advantage. When they’re standing beyond the three-point arc, suddenly they’re 6-2. For example, Cousins spent a good portion of the Hawks game on the perimeter, which perhaps came as a relief to an Atlanta team that lacks a strong paint presence (Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala). In that sense, by staying away from the rim where he could shoot layups, gobble offensive rebounds and draw fouls, Cousins played right into the Hawks’ shivering hands.

There’s also the issue that’s beyond their control: Help. Holiday has picked up his game lately, and Rondo does well in limited minutes. Otherwise, the Pelicans aren’t getting much, especially at the swing positions. E’Twuan Moore is inconsistent and Hill isn’t expected to make his season debut until February from a torn hamstring.

Cousins and Davis are also lacking the important ingredient of winning experience. Cousins has never made the playoffs and Davis is confined to being on the wrong end of a sweep, courtesy of the Warriors. That’s one reason the Pelicans signed Rondo, to serve as a mentor.

“Once I signed up I told them I probably will be your most constructive critic and teammate you’ve ever played with because I see the potential,” Rondo said. “I want to push these guys as much as possible. I don’t know how much they’ve been pushed by teammates in the past, but my expectations for them are extremely high.”

One name that comes up in conversation is Kevin Garnett, a personal favorite whom Rondo uses as an example.

“His mindset going into the game set him apart,” Rondo said. “He never took any possessions off. The most unselfish guy I ever played with. I try to give these guys what I was passed down from my great veterans. I’m here to give them knowledge and help them anyway possible, whatever they may need. I’ve had a lot of great minds around me so everything I’ve received, I’m sharing.

“Look,” Rondo said, “for these two guys, it’s just a matter of getting to the promised land and getting over the hump. The only thing keeping them back is championships.”

There’s a road to be traveled before Davis, Cousins and the Pelicans can think about titles. And think of the potential potholes: Cousins refusing to re-sign, the Pelicans blow a draft decision or two, a front office and/or coaching shakeup, a roster that doesn’t produce and finally, Davis gets frustrated and asks for a meeting.

For now, the plan is to keep going against the trend and out-big the competition with Davis rising to an MVP level (lately, anyway) and Cousins being a top-five center once again and the Pelicans playing their way into playoff contention.

Because winning will silence the Trade Davis Now protests that are raging outside of New Orleans. For now, anyway.

Ultimately, with this much talent between their franchise players, this bold experiment and size advantage must deliver better results than what the Pelicans have shown so far since Davis arrived. We’ll soon see if keeping Davis and Cousins together translates into a Big Improvement or ends up being a Big Miss.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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