If the NBA decided to downsize to two-on-two basketball, few duos would be able to top what the New Orleans Pelicans have in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The elastic big man with the futuristic game and often furrowed unibrow, and the throwback, low-post bruiser with the Rasheed Wallace-level love for shooting threes and collecting T’s have the size, versatility, shooting range and athleticism to give any other pair the business — like on the classic video game, NBA Jam — on a nightly basis. They could take turns going one-on-one, play off each other with their passing ability, and hold their own against big men, little men and everything in between.
Problem is, the NBA is five-on-five. And more often than not, Davis and Cousins find themselves playing two-on-five because their supporting cast can only ensure that the Pelicans remain just pedestrian enough to tease. The intriguing aspect of a more mediocre than expected Western Conference is that the Pelicans will be in contention for a playoff spot for most of the season, with little separation between teams seeded four through nine.
But for a team that has two of the league’s five best big men on the same roster — a team that could lose Cousins in free agency and already has sharks circling around franchise cornerstone Davis — is just being middling and going out in the first round worth a much longer commitment? Davis and Cousins didn’t have much time to jell after they were tossed together last February. But the Pelicans have played 56 games since making that deal and the team is 26-30, despite two players with Hall of Fame potential.
The experiment has been daring, moving away from the rest of a league that has mostly either ignored, marginalized or transformed the expectations for big men. But all Davis and Cousins have proven is that they won’t stand in the way of the other posting ridiculous stat lines. They thrive as individuals when free to roam on their own and the team does better statistically with just Davis on the floor. My-turn-your-turn basketball is great for fantasy team owners but doesn’t work when the best offenses move the ball, with weak-side action keeping the heads of defenders on a swivel. Too often, the Pelicans are paralyzed watching their stars shine one at a time.
Cousins was caught off-guard last February when the Sacramento Kings traded him after telling him he wasn’t going anywhere. He’s done trying to prove to people that he’s a good guy with a decent heart whose passion for winning gets him in trouble. In his eighth season, Cousins knows he can’t shake a reputation that, unfairly or not, has already been bumper-stickered to him. But he’d love to shed the label of being a player who can’t win.
Blame went both ways in Sacramento but the constant organizational dysfunction gave Cousins a mini pass. New Orleans is only slightly more stable and likely wouldn’t have been Cousins’ first choice because while the move placed him with an elite teammate for the first time, it didn’t put him on a quality team. Dallas, which whiffed on Dwight Howard in free agency and had DeAndre Jordan renege on a free-agent deal in 2015, remains in pursuit of a next-level center. The Los Angeles Lakers have promising youngsters but could use some serious star power to rebound in the post-Kobe Bryant era. They would appear to be more attractive destinations should Cousins take control of his career next summer. Whenever Cousins is in Washington — where New Orleans lost 116-106 on Tuesday night — he’s always asked about the possibility of playing with close friend John Wall, but the Wizards have never been interested in making a serious move for him and certainly don’t have the financial means with three players on max contracts.
Davis is the piece that concerns the Pelicans the most — a homegrown, foundational and generational piece who has patiently waited for the franchise to surround him with the talent required to win. He’s repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the organization but has begun to hedge some, given his unfulfilled desire to win. And he recently acknowledged that he’s aware that other teams, especially Boston, want him. The Pelicans have until 2021 to do right by Davis, which gives them some incentive to hold on for a while and find the right combination.
Coach Alvin Gentry is in his third season with the Pelicans after riding a championship run with Golden State as an assistant into guiding the game’s most coveted young talent at the time. Injuries mostly prohibited the team from going anywhere, then general manager Dell Demps used a little launch angle swinging to aim for the fences with the Cousins deal. Demps had to go for it because the Pelicans sacrificed very little to acquire an All-Star talent who can be moody and mercurial. Gentry was on the hot seat before the Cousins deal and the temperature on those butt warmers has only increased as the collaboration sputtered.
Further complicating the pairing is that Davis and Cousins are teammates fighting for the same prestige and recognition. The Pelicans’ uninspiring play makes it difficult for both to earn All-NBA or All-Star recognition. Last season, Davis made first-team All-NBA while Cousins averaged more rebounds and assists and was just a hair below Davis in scoring but didn’t make the second or third team. Davis and Cousins are the only tandem currently in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocks.
Checking the box score after each game might cause heads to snap back because the duo is putting in serious work. The team, however, isn’t. New Orleans grossly overpaid Jrue Holiday last summer with a five-year, $126 million commitment that ensures he’ll be theirs for a while. The remaining pieces have either been scrapped together from the bargain bin or are contract albatrosses that limit the team’s ability to surround two stars with the necessary support.
The Pelicans have benefited from a conference in which nearly every team aside from Golden State and San Antonio is undergoing a significant transition following a dramatic summer of upheaval, with only Houston doing so smoothly. They are also confronting the same dilemma facing Oklahoma City with Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers with DeAndre Jordan. They have a player who could bolt in the summer, leaving them with nothing in return if they don’t make a move at the trade deadline.
After that initial jolt of of Mardi Gras-level excitement with Cousins’ arrival, the Pelicans have been fine. Cousins could finally have his career-long playoff drought end and Davis could make his return to the postseason after spooking the eventual champion Warriors in the first round in 2015. But there is no satisfaction, not from Cousins, not from Davis, with just being average. They want more. The Pelicans should demand more, too. They need a team, not just two.
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