Pelicans’ future riding on results of Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins experiment | NBA


CHICAGO — The 2017 offseason saw a historic amount of movement of star players, but one of the most high-profile and intriguing such moves actually dates back to last year’s trade deadline.

It will be fascinating to see how Jimmy Butler fits in Minnesota, how Carmelo Anthony and Paul George fit in Oklahoma City, how Chris Paul fits in Houston and how Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving fit in Boston. But this coming year will also serve as a full-season trial run for the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing in New Orleans, one that comes at a crucial time for the franchise and for both players.

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The Pelicans acquired Cousins last February from the Kings, giving them arguably the two most dominant big men in the NBA as the rest of the league went smaller. They finished the year 34-48, 10th in the Western Conference, but the Davis-Cousins tandem showed some promise.

When the two All-Stars were on the court together, the Pelicans scored 102.5 points per 100 possessions while giving up 99.6. It was always going to be a tough ask, in the loaded Western Conference, to integrate a player who commands as much attention as Cousins into an offense in the middle of the season.

Now, a year out from Cousins’ free agency and as Davis’ name continues to swirl as the next superstar who could eventually appear in trade talks, New Orleans has a full training camp in which to better integrate their two stars with each other.

“We’ve been able to start off fresh and figure out what we want to do,” Davis said Sunday after the Pelicans’ preseason win over the Bulls. “It’s tough to do that midseason when you’re fighting for a playoff spot. Now, we know how to use him, how to play off of him.”

In a Western Conference that only gained more star power over the summer, the Pelicans are fighting an uphill battle to stay relevant. With Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Minnesota all but penciled into the postseason with their big names, New Orleans figures to be in the mix with teams like Utah, Portland, Denver, Memphis and the Clippers for the final three playoff seeds.

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Some things will have to break their way health-wise, and the Pelicans are already behind in that regard. Their biggest offseason signing, veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, is out between four and six weeks after undergoing sports hernia surgery this week. Forward Solomon Hill will also be out until at least February with a torn hamstring. Davis himself played 75 games last season, but he has a long history of missing time with various injuries.

The hope is that the sheer overwhelming talent of Davis and Cousins, along with newly re-signed point guard Jrue Holiday, will be enough to sneak the Pelicans into the postseason conversation and keep together a group on the verge of falling apart before it could really get off the ground. Cousins’ contract is up next offseason, and with Russell Westbrook now off the market, he’ll be arguably the top free-agent name available.

If New Orleans doesn’t make progress this season, he could leave, and if he does, Davis (who is under contract until 2021 but can opt out in 2020) could be close behind.

“They really want this to work,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said. “Both of those guys are really unselfish players, both are willing passers and both of them want this to work. So when you have those things out there, I think they’re going to do everything they can to be successful.”

Building an offense around Davis and Cousins is a risky proposition in an increasingly positionless NBA where the reliance on big men is decreasing by the year. But Davis and Cousins are so talented that it may prove worth bucking the trend to go big.

“Obviously, everyone likes going small,” Holiday said. “But when you’re small and you’ve got these guys on your back, what are you gonna do? Foul them. Having them in the post and trying to guard them, it’s pretty much unstoppable.”

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It doesn’t hurt, either, that Cousins has greatly improved his efficiency from behind the 3-point line. He shot 36.1 percent from beyond the arc last season, including 37.5 percent in 17 games with the Pelicans after the trade. If he can keep opposing defenses respecting his outside shot, it could prove a deadly pairing with Davis’ post and midrange dominance, especially with both star bigs’ willingness to make plays for others.

“I try to pick and choose my spots,” Cousins said. “We’ve got a lot of threats on this team and I know I draw a lot of attention. So just finding those wide-open guys makes the game easier for everybody.”

In a season full of intriguing storylines, how the Davis-Cousins experiment plays out will be worth keeping an eye on. If this works, it could keep both stars in New Orleans for the long haul. If it flames out, we have our next round of trade rumors. For now, everyone is staying optimistic.

“I don’t think we really have a ceiling,” Cousins said. “I think we can be as good as we want to be. I feel like we’re on the right path.”



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