In an age where almost the entire NBA has gone small and embraced the age of pace and space, the New Orleans Pelicans are resting their laurels on a pair of heavyweights and hoping it’s so crazy that it just might work.
When it comes to matching up with the Golden State Warriors, the Pelicans are taking the opposite approach of the Houston Rockets. And because of that approach, what if the team built to take out the champs never makes it to the ring?
Back in December, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told Ryen Russillo on his radio show that Golden State is fully in focus.
“It’s the only thing we think about,” Morey said. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with, ‘How do we beat the Warriors?'”
He doubled down following Saturday’s win over the Warriors, invoking the words of Sting to help articulate Houston’s burning desire to topple the best out West. It was a sentiment echoed by new Rocket PJ Tucker, who told USA Today‘s Sam Amick “We’ve got the perfect team [to combat the Warriors].”
If you played out the season 10,000 times, the Rockets would get their shot more often than not. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives these teams a 61 percent chance of meeting in the Western Conference finals, six times more likely than any other matchup. Conventional wisdom suggests the most likely road blocks would come in the second round for either team in potentially difficult series against an Oklahoma City Thunder team more suited for postseason play or the San Antonio Spurs with a healthy Kawhi Leonard.
And yet, even that might be looking too far ahead. The playoffs are all about matchups, and there’s one team that could present quite the interesting obstacle. Whereas Houston has built its entire team on the premise of eventually matching up with Golden State, what if it first has to go through a team built on the premise of doing the opposite? However unlikely it might be, is a team featuring James Harden as its second-leading shot-blocker susceptible to an early exit at the hands of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins?
Entering Friday, the Pelicans are just a half-game ahead of the seventh seed in the West, which would mean a first-round date with the Rockets. BPI gives them a 25 percent chance of meeting, fairly sizable odds with about 40 percent of the schedule left to be played and not many games separating the back half of the West playoff standings.
Upon first glance, the first meeting between these teams on Dec. 11 seems insignificant. Davis didn’t play and the Rockets won by seven, the type of game you might chalk up as meaningless noise amid a grueling 1,230-game regular-season slate. And yet perhaps it revealed just why New Orleans presents an interesting challenge for the Rockets.
With no Davis, Cousins operated as a lone wrecking ball, playing just more than 33 minutes and nearly logging a triple-double. With Cousins on the floor, the Pelicans outscored the Rockets by 11 points with the All-Star doing the majority of his damage against Clint Capela and Nene. According to Second Spectrum, the Pelicans scored 60 points on 43 half-court possessions in which Cousins was guarded by those two — and that equates to an offensive rating of 139.5. Though it’s obviously dangerous and probably irresponsible to read too much into one 33-minute sample, it presented a tantalizing stretch of “best-case basketball” for a team that vacillates so wildly from night to night. It doesn’t provide substantial evidence as much as a fleeting glimpse of what’s possible.
What happens when both of the Pelicans’ All-Star bigs are in the lineup? Looking at the 41 games they’ve played together, both have shared the floor about 53 percent of the time, with at least one of them on the floor 95 percent of the time. (Garbage time accounts for most of the minutes spent with neither on the floor.) Given rotations typically shrink in the playoffs, you can probably expect an uptick in time spent together unless Alvin Gentry decides to keep feeding them heavy doses operating as the lone star.
New Orleans has had success with Cousins and Davis on the floor, outscoring teams by just fewer than four points per 100 possessions. In that game back in December, the Rockets feasted with Cousins on the pine. With no Davis, Houston exploded for 47 points in fewer than 15 minutes. Insert Davis and perhaps the Pelicans don’t get blitzed. New Orleans has a net rating of plus-8.4 this season when Davis has played without Cousins, including a defense that would rank safely in the top 10.
Given that they are both starting the All-Star game, it should come as no surprise that good things typically happen for the Pelicans when they get their two bigs involved, particularly in the paint. Per Second Spectrum, there are more than 50 players this season with at least 150 paint touches in the half court. When Davis gets a paint touch, the Pelicans score 1.34 points per play, which ranks second in the NBA. The only player whose involvement in the paint leads to more efficient offense is LeBron James. Cousins isn’t far behind, ranking tied for 10th on a team-points-per-play basis.
It’s an area where Houston is susceptible. Though Capela has emerged as a more than capable rim protector, there isn’t much help. Nene is in his 16th season and far past his prime, while Ryan Anderson will never be mistaken for Dikembe Mutombo, even if his defensive limitations are somewhat overstated. Trevor Ariza and Tucker can check most 4s in today’s NBA, but Cousins and Davis aren’t most 4s.
Operating inside-out is a way to attack Houston in the half court. Only three teams have allowed a higher effective field goal percentage (eFG) this season on shots following a paint touch. The Rockets also rank last in field goal percentage allowed on contested attempts inside the restricted area. There are lots of strengths for a roster with interchangeable perimeter pieces that switches as much as anyone. Protecting the rim simply isn’t one of them.
The defense is what betrayed New Orleans in that first meeting and remains the biggest question moving forward. Cousins and Davis can each drop 40, but it won’t matter if the Pelicans can’t get stops on the other end. And for all of the damage both do on offense, Houston would certainly do its best to tire them out, running endless off-ball actions with Anderson and making Cousins in particular commit to getting back in transition.
There’s a chance that New Orleans is better defensively than what we’ve seen thus far. Although the Pelicans rank just 22nd overall in defensive rating, they’ve been a top-10 defense over the last month, ranking eighth since the calendar flipped to 2018. Being middle of the pack might be enough to tip the scales.
Of course, the Pelicans would be massive underdogs in any potential playoff series with the Rockets. BPI would give the Pelicans just a 9 percent chance of pulling the upset, but BPI doesn’t consider matchups. Given Houston’s dearth of rim protectors, as it has loaded up for a potential switch-everything title fight with the run-and-gun Warriors, the tag team of Davis and Cousins shouldn’t be overlooked as simply a walkover in a Rockets run to the conference finals.