Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins might be the second-most talented pair of teammates in basketball. They’re anomalies even in the modern NBA, where just two or three roster spots remain earmarked for big men who can’t space the floor.
Davis and Cousins shoot 3s, obviously, but that evolution doesn’t come close to encapsulating the attributes that make them such remarkable players. These guys aren’t Steph Curry, Rudy Gobert or even Nikola Jokic – players whose mere presence ensures elite performance on one side of the floor. Davis and Cousins need two-way support for New Orleans to make the playoffs in an overcrowded Western Conference middle class, and this team’s latest acquisition puts a final stamp on the identity it will assume in hopes of doing so.
Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen. What’s far more certain is that the injury-ravaged Pelicans were left with no other option.
Pay no attention to Tony Allen’s age. He averaged a career-high 27 minutes per game last season at 35, when he was named All-Defense for a sixth time in seven years and finished in the top five in steal rate. The Grindfather is still one of the several best individual perimeter defenders in basketball. He fills a gaping roster hole for a team already short on playable wings before trading the perpetually sidelined Quincy Pondexter and losing Solomon Hill for six to eight months as a result of hamstring surgery in late August.
New Orleans’ most viable defender of bigger playmakers prior to signing Allen was either E’Twaun Moore or Jrue Holiday, both too small to assume that role unless shoehorned into it by necessity.
Allen is undersized, too. He doesn’t possess the game-changing length of Kawhi Leonard or Robert Covington, nor the natural heft one assumes would be a prerequisite to pushing Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler off their preferred spots.
Insanely quick hands, active feet and sheer guile learned over a decade-plus help Allen make up for those relative physical deficiencies, but they still wouldn’t be enough without a relentlessness that can occasionally border on problematic. He’s one of the league’s toughest and most aggressive players, a trait that has helped him defy increasingly long odds of staying viable despite a perimeter jumper defenses beg him to hoist.
That glaring weakness was a problem with the Boston Celtics at the beginning of Allen’s career, and certainly contributed to the Memphis Grizzlies’ consistent struggle to produce anything better than league-average offense over the last seven years. Still, it wasn’t he alone who forced Memphis to grind. The Grizzlies’ reliance on two traditional big men always put a low ceiling on their offensive capabilities. The wing playing opposite Allen often lacked the shooting and ballhandling ability to be an effective secondary playmaker.
New Orleans shares those flaws with the Memphis teams of the “We Don’t Bluff” era, and will perhaps compound them by insisting on starting both Rajon Rondo and Holiday in the backcourt. Any team playing the Pelicans was always going to commit an overwhelming amount of attention to the paint, where Davis and Cousins make hay.
That’s not a bad thing for Alvin Gentry’s team in a vacuum: Drawing multiple defenders to the ball is a foolproof way of eventually finding an open shot. Both of New Orleans’ star big men have made strides passing out of double-teams since they entered the league. Cousins, at least when when he wants, has the court vision and playmaking ingenuity to play a souped-up version of the fulcrum Marc Gasol is for the Grizzlies.
However, the sacrifice it should be for defenses to leave shooters open won’t be considered as such by the Pelicans’ opponents this season, as long as Allen and Rondo are on the floor together. It has always been a win for the defense when those guys let fly from deep. It will continue to be unless Rondo’s improvement as a spot-up shooter with the Chicago Bulls last season miraculously marked a change from a decade-long status quo. Don’t count on it.
Holiday is a streaky shooter at best, and it’s not as though Moore is a marksman defenders have to guard chest to chest away from the ball. The paint was going to be packed in New Orleans no matter what. The addition of Allen means an extra body for Davis and Cousins to tangle with down low. Not ideal.
That inevitability was real from the moment the Pelicans acquired Cousins at last season’s trade deadline. This team was never going to thrive playing inside-out; its roster just isn’t built that way. As Davis and Cousins go offensively, so will their team – regardless of what players cash-strapped New Orleans could have realistically put around them.
Defense was a bigger unknown for the Pelicans. Bringing in Allen gives a definitive answer to the question of how good they can be on that side of the floor.
Pressuring the hell out of the ball and daring offensive players to attack the long arms of Davis and Cousins is a promising defensive plan of attack. The extent of its success is what matters most, and Allen pushes that potential to a near league-best limit. New Orleans better come close to reaching it, though. If not, the abject weakness of his game could make Allen’s presence more debilitating than anything else.
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