The New Orleans Pelicans wrapped up All-Star Weekend by fashioning a two-headed frontcourt hydra in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
By packaging guard Buddy Hield, first- and second-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft, along with Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, the Pelicans made a blockbuster deal to bring in Cousins, a three-time all-star with an infamously volatile disposition, as well as Omri Casspi.
For the long-cartoonish Kings, the move signals yet another rebuilding effort in a franchise lineage chock full of them. Cousins led the team in points (41) and rebounds (15.8) per 100 possessions, as well as player-efficiency rating (26.6), usage (37.5 percent of possessions), value above replacement (4.3) and box plus-minus (7.1).
For the Pelicans, it’s a win-now flare sent over the league. New Orleans, in its second year under Alvin Gentry, has seen its offense crater to 28th in points per possession (0.917), according to data provided by Synergy Sports. Unsurprisingly, the team is struggling to manufacture wins because of it; the Pelicans entered the break with a record of 24-33.
That said, Gentry’s club is only 1.5 games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket. Adding Cousins to the equation makes getting there attainable.
While the rise of the positionless player in the NBA is well documented, New Orleans is now presented with an interesting spacing conundrum. Cousins and Davis represent two of the league’s premier big men, athletes that draw ample attention — and frequent double teams — in the half-court offense. They’re rare breeds who oscillate between the two frontcourt positions, power forward and center.
The famously mercurial Cousins didn’t mince words when asked by Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee in October 2015 for his thoughts on the center position.
“I don’t really consider myself a center,” he said. “I’m just a basketball player. There’s so much I can do on the floor. People get stuck on the word ‘center,’ ‘big man’ and [are] kind of ignorant to the situation. I can’t really worry about that. I just go out there and do my job.”
Much has changed since those comments were made. The Kings brought in a new head coach, Dave Joerger, who, according to Basketball-Reference.com, played the 6-foot-11 Cousins at power forward 40 percent of the time this season, a career high. In Cousins’s previous six seasons, all of his minutes came at center. Davis, meanwhile, has been playing a career-high 74 percent of his minutes at center this season; he played just three percent of his minutes there during his rookie campaign.
On the offensive end, both have spread the floor more regularly this season. Davis is taking a career-low 26.3 percent of his field goal attempts from 0-3 feet while Cousins is taking just 32.6 percent of his looks from that area, the smallest portion since his rookie season. Davis is taking a career-high 23.2 percent of his shots from 3-10 feet and a career-high 19.1 percent of his attempts from 10-16 feet, showcasing a polished midrange game. Cousins, to put it bluntly, has been chucking from the outside, having already taken a career-high 268 three-pointers this season.
While New Orleans is a more efficient offensive unit in the half court (19th in points per possession) than in transition (25th in PPP), this is still a bottom-half system.
Here’s a look at the frequency of some of the teams’ offensive play types this season.
Despite Davis’s skill on the low block, the Pelicans rank in the bottom 10 in points per possession on post-ups (0.87) and barely within the top half of the league on putbacks (1.098 PPP). Cousins ranks in the 65th percentile in points per possession on post-ups (0.936) and the 72nd percentile on putbacks (1.21).
New Orleans knows what it has in Davis: A lethal, versatile player who is virtually unguardable in pick-and-roll situations. He scores a league-leading 7.2 points per contest as the roll man, according to data provided by Synergy Sports, and has contributed a whopping 383 points this season in that play type. No player is even close to that type of production. Only two teams more frequently feature a roll man in pick-and-roll sets (8.4 percent) than the Pelicans. That isn’t likely to be mitigated when Cousins is added to the picture, either — it’s too effective.
Cousins is a capable pick-and-roll player (he’s scored the fifth-most points of any player this season as the roll man), but Sacramento has elected to do its damage on the low block this season. No team is posting up more frequently this season than the Kings (8.8 percent of possessions). New Orleans ranks in the top 10 on post-up frequency, and that figure will almost surely spike with Cousins added to the attack. At some point, defensive units must choose who to double team in the paint, as unenviable a task as any.
A component often overlooked in Cousins’s game is his ability to facilitate. He ranks in the 76th percentile in points per possession on post-ups including passes (1.036) and is posting a career-high 28 percent assist rate. Under Joerger, the Kings fling passes all over the court, ranking third with 324.4 per contest; the Pelicans throw significantly fewer.
Defensively, New Orleans can claim a top 10 defense (104.7 defensive rating), while Sacramento was one of the six worst (108.6). The Kings allowed nearly six fewer points per 100 possessions when Cousins left the floor. But that’s a tad misleading; Cousins ranks in the 89th percentile in points allowed per possession on isolation plays (0.636) and in the 74th percentile in points allowed per possession on post-ups (0.773).
New Orleans doesn’t need much support defending post-ups; only three teams allow fewer points per possession. But, conveniently, Cousins can certainly assist a team that ranks 18th in points allowed per possession on isolation plays.