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New Orleans Pelicans

Why you should watch the Pelicans in 2017-18

FILE - This April 7, 2017 file photo shows New Orleans Pelicans forwards DeMarcus Cousins, left, and Anthony Davis joking with each other as they sit on the bench and watch the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in Denver. The Pelicans' back-to-the-future experiment, centered on the All-Star front-court duo of Davis and Cousins, begins in earnest now. The stakes are high and immediate, because a third-straight non-playoff season could spell regime change, as well as an exodus of players, including Cousins, who are in the final season of their contract. Davis says Pelicans players know they’ve got “one year to basically figure it out.” Cousins says he senses a “special season” coming. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Never have two big men with the collective size, athleticism and skill of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins played for the same side. The last time a team opened the season with two All-NBA-caliber centers on its roster was 1998, when David Robinson passed the San Antonio Spurs’ baton to rookie Tim Duncan. We know how that worked out: The Spurs won the title a year later, and another in 2002-2003 with Robinson as a bit player before he retired at 37 years old.

That was a different time, one in which a Twin Towers approach of stars was the envy of every team in the league. It’s not anymore, of course, and the reasons why have grown obvious enough that they don’t warrant further explanation. But the pairing of Davis and Cousins with the New Orleans Pelicans represents something different from Duncan and Robinson.

As a tandem, there isn’t anything asked of big men in the modern NBA that these guys can’t do. They score from the post, from the elbow, and from the 3-point line. They protect the rim with early rotations and soaring weak-side blocks, and are just as equipped to do time-honored, two-way dirty work as the things that propelled them to stardom.

Watching Davis and Cousins work together and make sacrifices for the other almost qualifies as basketball performance art for the highbrow. Coach Alvin Gentry has routinely begun possessions in the preseason with one of them stationed in the corner, before flying off a screen, catching and looking to attack — a role normally reserved for playmaking wings, not a 6-foot-11 alien or the human manifestation of a Grizzly bear.

Davis and Cousins are also encouraged to bring the ball up themselves after securing defensive rebounds. One will run off pindowns for a quick catch-and-shoot while the other draws eyes on the block. A big-big pick-and-roll that exploits Davis’ quickness advantage over more traditional centers, and Cousins’ strength advantage against rangy power forwards, will be utilized more often this season:

 

A lack of spacing among New Orleans’ guards and wings complicates those actions. So do the realities of one superstar big man stepping outside his comfort zone to accommodate another. Davis and Cousins aren’t quite switch-proof, for instance.

When circumstances call for the Pelicans to pick up the like-sized opposing player nearest them, Cousins will often get stuck chasing stretch fours around the floor, a matchup that tests his engagement and activity as much as his ability to fight through screens and close out under control.

Davis isn’t consistent enough beyond the arc to make defenses respect him out there. He shot just 30.2 percent on 1.7 catch-and-shoot triples per game last season. New Orleans’ perimeter players will face more flak for their team’s inevitably cramped half-court offense, but Davis is also part of that problem.

Still, there’s already enough evidence to believe that Davis and Cousins have the symbiosis to keep New Orleans afloat in a loaded Western Conference middle class, most important of which is the team’s net rating of plus-2.8 with both of them on the floor last season, a playoff-worthy number. Their effectiveness increased with increased familiarity, too. Lineups featuring Davis and Cousins outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions in the last eight games both players appeared. Cousins shot a scorching 66.7 percent on passes from Davis over that same timeframe. Their next step is finding one another more often, especially with Cousins as the beneficiary.

Another reason for optimism: The Pelicans didn’t fall victim to the expected defensive pitfalls of playing two traditional big men simultaneously. New Orleans allowed 29.7 3-point attempts per 48 minutes after the trade, the exact same number the team gave up with Davis and Cousins on the floor. The Pelicans permitted fewer free throws under the same circumstances, too. Defense, it seems, won’t be the biggest prohibiting factor to the success of this pairing, though New Orleans must find a way to better protect the arc. Gentry’s team ranked in the bottom five in that category a year ago.

This isn’t an ideal fit, as anyone with the Pelicans would be sure to admit when pressed. It’s not helped by the front office’s inability to find players who can space a floor crowded by two premier interior scorers. Cash-strapped New Orleans didn’t have a choice in giving Jrue Holiday a five-year, $126 million contract, but then limited his influence with a few noteworthy veteran signings to come. Holiday shot a dreadful 30.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s in 2016-17; just how valuable can he be with Rajon Rondo initiating the offense and running ball screens with Davis and Cousins? The ninth-year veteran isn’t his team’s stopper, either, not after the Pelicans brought in Tony Allen for the minimum last month.

Rondo has been a better shooter over the past couple seasons than people remember, but that doesn’t mean defenses won’t go under picks and treat him as a non-threat away from the ball. Allen won’t be guarded at all, and teams will encourage Holiday to launch from deep rather than commit extra help to stopping the two-headed monster inside. Ian Clark and Jordan Crawford are best suited as bit players, but at least they don’t compound the Pelicans’ shooting problems like Solomon Hill, who’s set to miss much of the season due to a hamstring injury.

It’s never good when the performances of journeymen E’Twaun Moore and Dante Cunningham, bless them, loom so large in a team’s prospects. Rondo’s recent surgery for a sports hernia actually may not hurt New Orleans much to begin the season; the task of reintegrating him in four-to-six weeks could prove more detrimental.

Then there’s the future to consider. Cousins is a free agent after this season, and Davis, just 24, has finally reached the stage of his career where winning takes precedence. If the Pelicans stumble in November and December, calls will come for both players. The problem: New Orleans has no leverage whatsoever in any potential deal for Cousins, and trading Davis at the very beginning of his prime would be unprecedented for a reason. Could the Pelicans really stomach a divorce with an obvious generational talent before that player reaches his ceiling? The recent going rate for traded superstars suggests that they should hold onto Davis until the situation becomes completely untenable.

Davis and Cousins probably won’t be teammates for long — that’s reason enough to tune into the Pelicans this season. If they are playing together beyond this season, it will be because Davis and Cousins overcame obstacles of personal fit, roster construction and in-conference competition to make the Pelicans a legitimate threat.

In that case, have the popcorn ready.

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