How Will Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins Play Together?

Posted: 02/20/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

Last night, the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans made a trade. DeMarcus Cousins is now a Pelican. The Kings probably didn’t get enough for DeMarcus Cousins. In fact, a package of Tyreke Evans (salary filler), Langston Galloway, Buddy “Next Steph Curry” Hield, and a first and second round pick almost certainly isn’t a big enough coup for one of the best players in the NBA. But the Kings getting fleeced in a trade is not worth writing about, because it’s a common occurrence at this point. Yeah, the Kings have no real talent left and are probably screwed for a long time. No, they may not be able to reap the benefits of a top pick this year (if their pick ends up being better than the Sixers’, they have to swap). No, they don’t have a 2019 first round pick (also heading to the Sixers, who are the sneaky winners of this trade). But the Cousins-Kings relationship was never going to end well, and that’s not the most interesting part of this trade. Pairing fellow former Kentuckians Cousins and Anthony Davis, though… that’s fascinating.

In an era of more and more floor spacing and smaller and smaller lineups, this is what the NBA needed. There may not be much intrigue over who wins the title this season, but now we get to see the two best big men in the NBA on the same team. The question is: can Cousins and Davis hold up against smaller and quicker power forwards?

First of all, it’s worth noting that neither Cousins nor Davis is just a big brute who scores through sheer physical dominance. These two guys are both extremely skilled players who rank fourth and fifth in the league in scoring. Cousins has developed into a 36% three point shooter. He’s also third in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, and he hits them at a 77% clip. And while he’s listed at 270 pounds, he’s not the kind of player who is going to clog up the paint every time the Pelicans have the ball. He leads big men in touches per game (81.9, Davis is second at 76.5). He averages 1.05 dribbles when he gets the ball, also tops among bigs. He gets more than twice as many touches at the elbow per game (10.5) than in the post (4.5). His 2.3 touches per game in the paint rank 25th among the 26 centers who have played at least 25 games and average 25+ minutes. Sometimes to a fault, Cousins has tried to play like a guard. His 7.6 drives per game are more than double any other big man’s. He’s averaging 4.8 assists per game, which is behind only Draymond Green and Al Horford among power forwards and centers. He’s become a great interior passer, something that will certainly pay dividends now that he’ll be playing next to a fellow tremendously skilled big man. So I find the idea that this won’t work because Cousins will ruin New Orleans’s spacing to be nonsensical.

And Davis is famous for his seven inch growth spurt as a high school junior and senior that transformed him from a 6’3″ guard with no scholarship offers to a 6’10” big man who ranked second in the recruiting class because the guard skills he had never vanished. He’s averaging 2.2 assists per game and isn’t the facilitator that Cousins is, but he’s a good dribbler and can shoot from midrange and from the line (80%). He doesn’t have a three point shot just yet, but he is shooting 44% on 15-19 foot shots and 47% on 10-14 footers. He’s also deadly from the elbow, putting up .586 points per elbow touch. Among bigs, that’s the top mark in the league by far, as Nikola Vucevic is second at .432. Davis isn’t the offensive fulcrum that Cousins has been this year, but that’s a good thing, because it makes it less likely that the offense will become dysfunctional. I’ll be interested to see how Davis plays as the 1b option.

Both Cousins and Davis have been criticized for becoming more pick-and-pop players than pick-and-roll players. But whereas that may have been a problem when each player was the centerpiece of his respective offense, it’s now probably a positive, because it will ensure that the paint remains relatively open for drives from either of the big guys or point guard Jrue Holiday. Will we see a lot of 4-5 pick-and-pops, with Cousins as the ball-handler and Davis as the screener? I think we may, because that could be the best way to utilize DeMarcus as a playmaker and Davis as an off-ball menace. Neither of these guys are Hakeem Olajuwon, obviously, but the last time two scoring bigs of this magnitude played together may have been the Dream and Ralph Sampson in Houston. There are obviously a lot of differences (Olajuwon is a top-10 player ever, Sampson is 7’4″, Cousins and Davis are better creators and shooters from distance), but those two both averaged 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in 1984-85, their first season together (also Hakeem’s rookie year). They went 48-34 that year, went 51-31 and made the Finals the next season, and went 42-40 the next year before trading Sampson. So there’s evidence that putting two great bigs together can work but that, even in a much more big-friendly era, it wasn’t enough to get the Rockets over the hump (it wasn’t until almost a decade later, when Hakeem was fully in his prime, that they won consecutive championships).

The Pelicans rank 27th in offensive efficiency. It’s hard to imagine them not being at least average the rest of this year with Cousins, whose Kings have scored 108.1 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the court and just 97.7 with him on the bench. How about the defensive end? Well, they rank eighth in defensive efficiency, largely because Davis is a defensive anchor who is averaging 1.3 steals and 2.5 blocks per game. Davis is tied for seventh in the NBA in Defensive Rating (an estimate of individual points allowed per 100 possessions) at 101. He’s super long and has quick feet, which should allow him to stay with smaller power forwards. But I think he’ll make less of an impact with Cousins, who isn’t a very good defender, beside him. One thing’s for sure: their rebounding is going to improve. They currently rank 29th in the league in rebounding, as they’re collecting just 47.5% of misses. Davis is averaging 11.9 rebounds per game, but most of those are uncontested. He’s still not strong enough to nab some of the really contested rebounds, and until now he didn’t have much help, as Terrence Jones ranks second on the team with 5.9 rebounds per game. Enter Cousins, who averages 10.6 rebounds per contest and is big and strong enough to collect some of those pivotal boards. So if the Pelicans get a bit worse defensively, they should make up for it by snuffing out a few possessions with improved rebounding.

There’s no question that the Pelicans are better now than they were yesterday. DeMarcus Cousins is a really, really good player, and he may well be a motivated one now too. If I were the Warriors, I would be praying that the Pelicans miss the playoffs, because I wouldn’t want to have to go up against Davis and Cousins in the first round. Golden State would still obviously win the series, but a physical series like it’d be wouldn’t be good for the Warriors in the longterm. But how about moving forward? If the Pelicans can re-sign Cousins, will they be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference for years to come? I think they’d be a likely playoff team, but I’m not sure that building a team around Cousins and Davis will push them over the hump, just as Houston never won a championship with Olajuwon and Sampson. I don’t think Davis can reach his full potential with Cousins next to him, just as Olajuwon didn’t play his best basketball until Sampson was gone. With that being said, New Orleans had to do this trade. When you can get an elite talent for cheap, you do it, and you figure the rest out later. Besides, Davis and Cousins’s offensive games aren’t incompatible. At their best, they’ll be downright unstoppable. One thing’s for sure: I’ll be watching the Rockets-Pelicans game on Thursday night. It’ll be interesting.

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