The New Orleans Pelicans improved to 3-0 without DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup Sunday with a performance over the Denver Nuggets — one of the three teams between them and a playoff spot — that showcased the blueprint of the pre-Boogie era in its ideal form: A switching, feisty defense negating good offense; the pace and floor spacing opening opportunities for the supporting cast; Anthony Davis doing amazing things.
The 25-point victory was the type of game that makes you forget all of the offensive drudgery before the All-Star break and ponder an alternate timeline wherein Davis and the Pelicans double-down on small ball and divert the resources surrendered in the Cousins trade toward souping up the existing product.
Still, while the fit remains a work in progress, the addition of Cousins — at a price not much steeper than what Denver shelled out for Mason Plumlee — has presented the franchise with an opportunity to reconstitute its entire worldview.
The same team that pointed to its .500 record with Jrue Holiday on the court as evidence of its true form is starting to regain the heat brought about by a surprise run to the 2015 postseason, with the results to match: Despite meager playoff odds (0.8 percent, per BPI), New Orleans is 6-2 over its past eight games, with top-10 rankings on both sides of the ball.
“It’s the best we’ve played for a stretch really since I’ve been here,” Alvin Gentry, amid the home stretch of his second season as Pelicans coach, said after a win last week against the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans’ fifth victory in the span of six games.
That game also saw Cousins light up Memphis’ sixth-ranked defense for 41 points, marking the first time a player has gone for 40 or more with Davis also on the court. And while some of Cousins’ best stretches can feel like extended guitar solos, such an accomplished shredder may be exactly what the team’s resident superstar needs as he continues to grasp the burdens and requirements of leading an entire franchise.
Let’s say this first: Davis is incredible.
But while his rare shooting touch from midrange and athleticism for his size make him one of the game’s most dynamic players, he still functions best on offense as the conclusion rather than the catalyst. The fifth-year veteran will set career highs in scoring and games played with a usage rate befitting a lead guard, but he utilizes an assist from a teammate on two-thirds of his many, many makes.
Ball movement ranks at the top of Gentry’s list this season of oft-used talking points — behind turnovers, missed shots, turnovers and turnovers — but because of the crowd of defenders Davis draws (and as his ability to make plays for others comes along, slowly but steadily), the pre-Cousins Pelicans were prone to stagnation, particularly in the halfcourt. The Pelicans dig in on defense in crunch time like few others (98.5 defensive rating, per NBA.com/Stats; fourth in the NBA) while the offense, even while boasting the game’s fourth-leading scorer, is best observed with something to bite down on (95.0, 29th in the NBA).
“Almost everything we did went through AD,” Gentry said. “The plays that we ran at the end of the game. Most of our offense was predicated on where he was on the floor and what he was doing.”
While teammates admit the paint can sometimes become a traffic jam with two big men, especially as Davis struggles to extend his effectiveness into 3-point territory, dumping it off to a 6-foot-10 center who can find others and drill 3s just as easily as he can overpower a defender in the post is quite the upgrade over watching Buddy Hield navigate the area inside the arc as if it were a minefield.
It’s what bailed the Pelicans out against the Grizzlies, when the team scored just 34 points in the first half before letting Cousins go to work. It was also the case to a lesser extent last Friday against Houston, when a choppy start quickly gave way to an early glimpse at how a hierarchy may work itself out for those Cousins-Davis minutes: Cousins orchestrates, Davis flashes back to his early days by crashing the boards and finding a way to best utilize his speed and length while drawing out a shot-blocker or bigger body, and the shooters spot up.
Davis, with Holiday almost always by his side, then cooks during “AD Time.” And Cousins has his allotted solo time.
At times it can feel like you’re watching three different teams: the new-look Pelicans, the pre-Cousins Pelicans and the Peli-Kings, if you will. But Gentry sees them as similar approaches as a team that plays toward the specialties of individual players on a second unit.
“We have a menu of plays that we try to run with both of those guys out there. We also have a menu of plays that we run when AD’s out there. And we have another menu of plays when DeMarcus is out there,” he said. “Because I think you can’t be stubborn as a coach. You’ve got to try to look at the situation and see how you can best utilize the skill level of the group that’s out there.”
Most importantly, their main-course smorgasbord is trending in the right direction: In their 13 games together, Cousins and Davis are a net neutral, with the sort of staunch defense and lacking offense that would make the 2000 Baltimore Ravens proud. But since an overtime win in Charlotte that saw Cousins benched during the stretch run, the Pelicans come out in the black when their two stars share the floor, per NBA.com/Stats: 103.5 offensive rating and 95.8 defensive rating at a pace similar to their season-long number.
Retain Holiday this summer while upgrading the second backcourt spot, and New Orleans looks like a playoff team once again.
In the meantime, a Pelicans team originally constructed with an eye toward small ball will continue to butt up against the new reality of Boogie-Brow Ball, with instances in which one fades into an ancillary role — or taken off the court altogether, as Cousins was in Charlotte — serving as early inflection points.
To their credit, both Davis and Cousins have expressed a willingness to sacrifice their own numbers in the hope of easing the transition. But finishing with low double-digit shot attempts is surely jarring for a player around which an entire franchise orbited for six-plus years before being blindsided by a trade during All-Star Weekend.
Gentry, Cousins’ seventh coach, said he did not seek outside opinions on Cousins before the trade, hoping to provide him a fresh start with just his second NBA franchise.
“I like him. We get along fine,” Gentry said of Cousins to ESPN.com. “Are we going to have some disagreements? Hell, yeah, we’re going to have some disagreements. I have disagreements with AD. That’s all a part of coaching, I think.
“But he’s been fine. I think he’s tried to do everything he can to make this work. That’s all everybody will ask of him.”
And when it works, the Pelicans flash a top end even greater than the one that first brought them to the precipice of something special two years ago.
“We want to push the pace. We want to be running down your neck,” Solomon Hill said. “We want AD flying in for and-1s. We want Jrue getting downhill and making easy plays. That’s when the game is fun. Cuz does a great job of trailing and hitting those 3s and getting to the line as well. That pace has to continue to stay with us.”