Can the Cousins and Davis Experiment Work?

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The trade announcement that shocked the NBA came after the all-star game Sunday night was that NBA superstar center DeMarcus Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans with Omri Casspi for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway,  and 1st and 2nd round draft picks.

This trade was surprising on many fronts: the fact that Cousins was traded after Kings General Manager Vlade Divac publicly said he would not be, the fact that of all the places Cousins was traded to, the team with the highest paid big man in the whole league, Anthony Davis, made the move for Cousins, as well as the simple fact that Sacramento could have simply gotten for such a unique talent like Cousins.

Cousins is a once in a lifetime level player. In fact, only one other player in NBA history has – over the course of a full season – averaged 27.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game with a box plus/minus of +7.0. That player was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who did that only once in his entire career during the 1975-76 season in 6.8 more minutes per game than Cousins needed.

Kelley L Cox / USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox / USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis has been just as good, if not better. Funny enough, the only other player in NBA history to match Davis’ 27.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game for an entire season is, again, Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76.

These players are two extremely impressive talents, but they have never had adequate talent around them. The Kings organization with Cousins has just been terrible. They fired coach after coach thinking that was the issue, but the real issue was likely that they never let a coach stay long enough to implement his system. Their roster underwent similar mismanagement; productive players like Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas, and Patrick Patterson were let go of, and high draft picks were wasted on Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, and Nik Stauskas.

The Pelicans have been slightly better, but still have made poor roster decisions. Greivis Vasquez, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Robin Lopez were all on the roster when Davis first joined New Orleans, and they all walked away in free agency for nothing to play considerably better for other teams. Trading Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holiday was debatable, and whether or not it has worked out is too since Holiday has averaged 15.8 points, 6.9 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, but has missed 122 games since joining New Orleans in 2013. Trading a 1st round draft pick for Omer Asik, however, was a definite mistake.

NBAE via Getty Images
NBAE via Getty Images

Now Davis and Cousins have eachothers talent around them, as well as the former all-star Holiday’s, and they have some interesting role players around them as well. Starting alongside those three will likely be E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill, who average a combined 16.5 points per game and can both hit the three pointer. Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Tim Frazier, Omer Asik, and Dante Cunningham are also going to have roles on this team. With this new group, whoever else they pick up off waivers, all coached under Alvin Gentry, will they be successful?

Here is how some big man heavy teams have done historically with big men of their level:

Team Player 1 (PTS/RBS) Player 2 (PTS/RBS) W-L
1977 Blazers Maurice Lucas (20.2/11.4) Bill Walton (18.6/14.4) 49-33
1986 Rockets Ralph Sampson (18.9/11.1) Hakeem Olajuwon (23.5/11.5) 51-31
1986 76ers Charles Barkley (20.0/12.8) Moses Malone (23.8/11.8) 54-28
1997 Rockets Charles Barkley (19.2/13.5) Hakeem Olajuwon (23.2/9.2) 57-25
1998 Spurs Tim Duncan (21.1/11.9) David Robinson (21.6/10.6) 56-26
2011 Jazz Paul Millsap (17.3/7.6) Al Jefferson (18.6/9.7) 31-23*
2013 Grizzlies Zach Randolph (15.4/11.2) Marc Gasol (14.1/7.8) 56-26
 * – 2011 Jazz record w/ Jerry Sloan AVERAGE WINS: 52.9

History is definitely on the side of the Pelicans. Not only in the regular season, where the average wins in an 82 game season among those teams is 53, but also in the playoffs. The ’77 Blazers won the NBA Championship, the ’86 Rockets made the NBA Finals, and the ’97 Rockets and ’13 Grizzlies made the Western Conference Finals. All of these teams, save for the 2011 Jazz, won at least one playoff series. The Jazz only did not because their organization blew up mid-season because of conflict between guard Deron Williams and Head Coach Jerry Sloan, both of whom were gotten rid of before the end of the season.

That answers the question about whether ball dominant big men can play together – they can. The variable in all of this is the supporting cast. The Pelicans lost their 1st round and 2nd round picks in 2017, so it’s about free agency for them.

Jrue Holiday, Terrence Jones, and Donatas Motiejunas will all be free agents in 2017, and Dante Cunningham has a player option which he may or may not take. That leaves the Pelicans with 87.4 million dollars on the books for next season, and the salary cap is projected 102-108 million. Here is an example of what the Pelicans could do this offseason:

Pelicans Depth (Salary)
PG Shelvin Mack (4.0) Frazier (2.0) Aaron Brooks (1.2)
SG Moore (8.4) Anthony Morrow (3.0)  C.J. Wilcox (2.4)
SF Hill (11.7) James Young (4.0) Pondexter (3.9)
PF Davis (23.8) Cunningham (3.1) Diallo (0.9)
C Cousins (18.1) Asik (10.6) Ajinca (4.9)
Cap = 102,000,000
Payroll = 102,000,000

These are just examples, but the general guidelines are that the Pelicans are not going to have too much money to spend. The best move would be to see if there is a team willing to take on Omer Asik’s contract, if that’s the case, then New Orleans could try and retain Jrue Holiday or go after another higher quality point guard like George Hill, but these cheaper options in the back court and at the three are the best call for the Pelicans if they can’t find a trade partner.

This team is not perfect, but it can definitely compete with two high level talents like Cousins and Davis. If Solomon Hill or James Young can come into their potential offensively, then this team has a chance to make the playoffs next year.

There is also the question of the attitude on this team, but many of Cousins’ attitude issues stemmed from a Kings organization that refused to surround Cousins with adequate talent. On New Orleans, Cousins arguably won’t even be the best player. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will have each other to help carry the offensive load, the question is whether there are enough touches for the both of them, which there will be with this ball non-dominant back court.

There is definitely hope for this Pelicans team. When New Orleans gets some more contracts off the books, then maybe they could form a big three with a back court star entering free agency, but even in the present, the playoffs a reality for New Orleans.

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