January 20, 2019

One year ago, Dell Demps pulled off what might have been the heist of the decade.

On Feb. 20, 2017, the New Orleans Pelicans sent Buddy Hield, a 2017 first-rounder, a 2017 second-rounder, and salary filler to the Sacramento Kings for DeMarcus Cousins. A versatile and explosive offensive talent, Cousins had been a volatile trade piece for years.

While his scoring prowess is undeniable, there were questions about his locker room presence, his ability to control his emotions and the effect he had on an organization.

Those factors, combined to the Kings decade-long struggle to build themselves into something more than the Western Conference doormat, meant a bargain for Demps and the Pelicans. The trade was a mega-blockbuster, the first in a string of superstar swaps that took place over the last 12 months revolving around small market teams trying to rebuild and refusing to conjure up the dreaded super-max. Even the NBA league offices took notice, moving up their trade deadline ahead of the All-Star Game so they’d avoid the awkwardness of Cousins finding out he’d been traded during the game.

In a league specifically shifting towards small ball, New Orleans was all of a sudden jumping all-in on bucking the trend. Cousins and New Orleans’ resident superstar Anthony Davis would become a nightmarish duo down low, paralyzing opponents in the paint and stretching them with their perimeter playmaking. The tandem worked because both Cousins and Davis were such incredible passers and finishers, and they abused teams down low and on the offensive glass. It wasn’t the style head coach Alvin Gentry expected to be employing when he took the job in New Orleans, but it’s one that proved effective.

Then in late January, Cousins stepped wrong after a free throw attempt in the fourth quarter of a nationally televised duel with the Houston Rockets and tore his Achilles. Suddenly the organization and the future of its newest gem were in flux. Achilles tears are no small matter and can ravage a player’s career – especially one as big and nimble as Cousins. As he approaches free agency at the end of the season there is no clear path to how much money he’d command on the open market, how much New Orleans is willing to invest given the injury concerns, or how his camp would proceed in negotiations.

Caught in the middle is the rest of the roster, clinging for life onto a playoff spot they were able to put themselves in position for with a very strong January. Now entering the All-Star Break, the Pelicans are only a game and a half out of the five seed… they’re also a game and a half ahead of the 10th best team in the West.

The question is whether the Pelicans have done enough early in the season to wade through the West and hang onto a playoff birth. The resurgence of the Utah Jazz, a constant push from the Los Angeles Clippers and more balanced rosters from their competitors make New Orleans as a trendy pick to fall to ninth. Will they be able to avoid the luxury tax to keep DeMarcus Cousins? How do they improve their roster this summer? Without biting off more than is chewable, perhaps the most pertinent question right now is this: How much more can Anthony Davis carry on his shoulders?

Davis is used to carrying the load almost entirely upon his shoulders, as he’s done it since he entered the league back in 2012. How much has he shouldered as their franchise cornerstone? The Pelicans have zero of their own first-round draft picks currently on their roster. Cousins is his first teammate to be selected to an All-Star game. The most points per game a healthy teammate has averaged throughout a season (not counting Cousins): 17 from Ryan Anderson during the 2015-16 season.

The idea of acquiring Cousins a year ago was to lighten that load from Davis and give the Pelicans a unique one-two punch. Since being drafted in 2012, his Pelicans have not won a single playoff game, only making one appearance. This was supposed to be the season they made a huge push forward, going all-in on the Brow-n-Boogie connection for a run in the stacked Western Conference. Expectations were raised.

The loss of Cousins might change or lower those expectations, but the strong body of work from earlier in the season puts the Pelicans in a bind. They’re in too deep to this season not to try and win. But it only feels like deja vu watching Davis push through the Western Conference fold on his own.

Fans seem to be ready to move on from third year head coach Alvin Gentry, yet the Pelicans coach has done a wondrous job in what are incredibly difficult circumstances. Think back to nearly three years ago, when Gentry was hired by New Orleans, with the intent of installing a smaller, more up-tempo ball movement-heavy system. The thought was to try and turn the Pels into the Warriors.“Why can’t we be the Golden State of next year?,” Gentry asked during his introductory press conference in June 2015, the same time he stated that I think one of the first things you’ll see is that we’re going to play a lot faster and get [Davis] the opportunity to get into the open court.”

The roster never took shape in the way he surely hoped. Instead New Orleans threw a five-year, $58 million contract at Omer Asik and locked Davis into the power forward spot long-term. Then in the historically overpaid summer of 2016, GM Dell Demps paid E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill large deals. New Orleans then lacked the flexibility to add players to their reformatted roster once they made the blockbuster Cousins deal. The most notable absence from Gentry’s well to draw from: shooting.

So Gentry, a coach brought in to run an up-tempo, run-and-gun, small ball scheme, found himself with two dominant seven-footers, a lack of outside shooting, no young players or draft picks of note, and increasing postseason expectations. Tack onto that some terrible injuries, the signing of notorious non-shooter Rajon Rondo this summer, a huge overpay to point guard Jrue Holiday and the end of the roster turning over more than a rotisserie chicken, and you start to understand just how high the odds have been stacked against ole Alvin.

Instead of being a drain on their potential, Gentry has been the faucet, dripping life into this incongruous group throughout the season. When Davis and Cousins were sharing the court, the Pels still managed to be top-five in the league in pace! The sets Gentry ran for them both were brilliant, using Cousins as a playmaker at the top of the key and Davis as a screener, decoy and isolation threat closer to the baseline.

As the season progressed and the chemistry between the two increased, the Pels began to rely on their own version of the unguardable ball screen: Boogie as the ball handler, Brow as the screener:

Big-to-big ball screens are some of the trickiest ones to maneuver from a defensive perspective. Post players spend their whole basketball lives covering other big men, learning how to guard the screener and never the ball handler. Plays like this are run so infrequently that NBA coaches won’t spend hours trying to rep these actions in practice… they have bigger fish to fry. Still, any time two of the biggest, slowest defenders on a basketball court get together there’s bound to be breakdowns on the ball, no matter how much repetition there is. Away from the ball, the three smallest defenders are left to scramble on the back side and become secondary defenders at the rim should something go wrong. That’s where rolling big men lick their chops the most.

There’s no good way to guard it, especially when coaches are stingy and want to preserve their original defensive matchups, insisting their players don’t switch. Switch those actions and you give slips to an offensive team, where they establish inside position by a simple reverse pivot and holding their defender off. Cousins and Davis got so good at lobbing it over the top any, throwing it to where only Davis could go get it and out-jump anyone that dared approach:

Both are really strong mid-range shooters and hitting more than a third of their three-point attempts. Staying lane protected, doing everything possible to prevent the lob, isn’t a sound strategy, either. Because the action takes place in the dead center of the floor, a pick-and-pop to the top of the key leaves no clear rotation for anyone else to help and a brutally long closeout for a plodding big to recover to:

All it takes to get this started is the bull in a china shop lowering his shoulder and driving hard to the rim, something Cousins does best. The Pelicans knew Cousins would be among the tops in the NBA in turnovers per game (in fact, he’s still the leader in that category), the price they pay for putting the ball in the hands of a big man who uses force over finesse to create offense. Despite the errors, Cousins will finish this campaign with a positive assist to turnover ratio for only the second time in his career.

Thanks to the lack of three-point shooting outside of their twin towers, Gentry had to get creative with his sets. He elected to keep the ball in the middle of the floor as much as possible, playing through Cousins and Davis at the elbows. Much of their work was done with Horns formations, hitting one of the bigs and running some sort of combination screening action for the other. My favorite: a legitimate bulldozer from a point guard onto a center, trying to clear out space for a nifty cut into the lane by Boogie:

The big-to-big ball screens between the two couldn’t become the nexus of their offense – their effectiveness came from their sporadic nature. Instead he threw in Jrue Holiday or Rajon Rondo as the ball handler, using constant screens from the bigs to ping the defense back and forth while scrambling to figure out exactly which superstar the play is designed for.

I mean, how are you supposed to guard this?

Cleveland manages the actions about as well as they can. First they sniff out the ball screen to the flare screen for Cousins, a dangerous three-point shooter in an action that gives opposing bigs a nightmare. Instead of throwing the ball to Cousins over the screen, the call is for Anthony Davis to sprint into a quick pick-and-pop into an isolation on the wing. It’s so easy to botch the communication on the defensive end, and the combination of screens and movement from MVP-caliber big men puts a huge onus on defenders not to give even a sliver of room to either.

Gentry’s creativity contributed to the team running a bunch of flares for Cousins, using his three-point shooting, a bunch of guards screening for him, and the unorthodox thought of a seven-footer chasing Cousins over the screens as a way of generating easy buckets. Counters out of their early offense sets along the sidelines would lead Boogie into easy catch-and-shoots:

Now that Cousins is done for the year, this has been the biggest role Mirotic has held since joining the Pelicans. Watch them run the exact same Flare set for him, utilizing his three-point prowess as a 6’10” forward in the same way they’d spring their All-Star free:

Mirotic is a long-term big man who should open up countless other sets in combination with Cousins or Davis, giving either a bit of a reprieve from the constant wear-and-tear the nightly NBA grind puts on the body of a seven-footer. But Mirotic, much less adept with the ball in his hands and not as dynamic an offensive threat, can’t be utilized the same way as Cousins in every facet. Sure, the flare screens are an easy fix with the offense the team already has in, but Gentry has to get more creative with how he uses Mirotic on offense.

As a mid-season stop gap, the Pelicans have simply placed Mirotic in the corner and hoped his gravity as a three-point shooter opens up the lane more for other players. Nikola is in single-side corners as a raise man when Davis sets a side ball screen and rolls, or when he drives on one side of the floor. Essentially it dares Mirotic’s defender to leave a 40 percent three-point shooter open in the corner and help on Davis, or stick with Mirotic and let the Brow dominate down low.

In one of his first games with the team, a thrilling overtime victory over the Brooklyn Nets, these single-side bumps and situations Mirotic was placed in helped spring Davis for a career night:

It doesn’t take much from Mirotic in terms of playbook understanding to stay in the corner and be ready to catch-and-shoot. But in the short term or long term, that’s not the skill the Pelicans gave up a first-round pick to acquire. Sure, he’s gunning (he has seven three-point attempts in four of his first five games in New Orleans), though that doesn’t mean optimal usage. Gentry certainly has more up his sleeve.

The question is if he can empty those deep pockets and get enough help from the rest of the roster to keep New Orleans ahead of the playoff hunt out West. A constant carousel of players in and out of the lineups has tied Gentry’s hands, and unfortunately no end appears in sight.

Injuries, wasted roster spots and financial concerns have forced Demps and Gentry to get incredibly creative, both with their roster management and their rotations and play calls. The Pelicans currently have 15 players on their roster. One of them, Emeka Okafor, is on a 10-Day contract and wasn’t on the roster at the start of February, while another is Charles Cooke on a Two-Way deal. Three others (Frank Jackson, Alexis Ajinca and Solomon Hill) haven’t suited up all season, while DeMarcus Cousins is out for the rest of the year with that torn Achilles.

The Pels have been fighting the luxury tax threshold all season too, currently standing just a smidge more than $1 million underneath that level as they head into the All-Star Break. They only have 13 active contracts guaranteed for the rest of the season, juggling the balance between trying to find the right veterans to help now on 10-day deals and keeping their options open for the buyout market. Many pundits expected there to be a multitude of veterans available after buyouts, looking for homes and playoff contenders to scoop them up.

New Orleans fancies itself as a destination for those players, still able to offer a chunk of change that gets them nudging up with the luxury tax line thanks to still having a portion of their pro-rated Non-Tax MLE. That chunk of change, if used before the first game back from the All-Star Break, would be worth a cool $667,800 – an improvement over the roughly $450k other teams offer on veteran minimum deals this time of the year. For their other roster spot, their DPE from Alexis Ajinca, worth about $2.75 million in full, could get them to right to the hard cap (a little under $1 million). Other than a slight and nearly unnoticeable difference in salaries, there’s not much that the Pelicans offer that’s attractive to many veterans.

The roster is mismatched, there’s no guarantee of making the postseason and there are still so many non-shooters on the roster that winning a postseason series might appear too tall a task. Other teams that have open roster spots and are looking for veterans can likely make leaving a few extra hundred-thousand on the table, chump change for an NBA veteran, an easy decision.

Emeka Okafor has played admirably on his 10-Day contracts. Even guys like Charles Cooke, Mike James and DeAndre Liggins were effective in their short stints with the club. But players like these don’t really make the Pelicans feel safe about their playoff pursuit. They need a splash on the buyout market. That market, thought to be robust, is shaping out to be fairly dry for teams that aren’t serious title contenders.

The Cleveland Cavaliers still have two open roster spots, the Houston Rockets signed two players after buyouts. Oklahoma City, Portland, Toronto and Minnesota all have open roster spots and more stable situations than New Orleans. Joining the Pelicans for a potential first-round matchup against the Warriors or Rockets is a tough sell.

Next year’s cap situation is even murkier for the Pelicans thanks to the uncertainty around Cousins’ Achilles injury. The Pelicans currently project to have $1.16 million in cap space, standing $30.16 million beneath the luxury tax. The max salary that Cousins would be eligible for, $30.9 mill, already sends New Orleans into paying the tax. It’s likely that Boogie takes a one-year deal, rehabs his injury, proves his worth once he returns next Winter, and then bargains for the max during the summer of 2019.

Nobody knows what price tag would accompany a one-year pact for Boogie’s rehab run, nor how much room might be left for the Pelicans to fill out their roster. With several other open roster spots, no other Bird rights and no 2018 first-round pick, we could be in for another season of creative roster usage and squeezing under the luxury tax to delay their payments until Cousins is fully healthy.

That means the Pelicans have a decision to make again this summer regarding hard-capping themselves. They could spend the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, estimated at $8.8 million, which is widely anticipated to be a chunk of change that can land a serious difference-maker. But doing so would mean the Pelicans cannot exceed the tax apron. As long as they use less than $5.45 million of the MLE, which would be their Taxpayer MLE, they can go above that luxury tax level. But the difference between the two salaries, and the types of players they attract, could be fairly drastic.

We’re going to see a great deal of two-year deals, with the second season being a player option, signed this summer at or around the MLE. The market will correct itself in July 2019, and New Orleans has the unfortunate task of trying to figure out just who the hell they’ll be next season after the Cousins injury. Demps gave away a first-round pick in order to turn Omer Asik into Nikola Mirotic – a necessary deal for a team trying to make the playoffs this season. But with the hard place and the rock that Demps may find himself stuck between this summer, that aggressive move could come back to bite them.

For now, the Pelicans have to cling onto Anthony Davis and his generational-type talent and hope it’s enough to weather the murky waters of their cap situation, poor drafting habits and unfortunate injury history. You can never count out a team that has a superstar player like this.

When it comes to the Pelicans, you can’t ever count on them, either.


Adam Spinella

Adam is a college basketball coach at the Division III level. He is a contributor for other NBA and coaching sites such as NBA Math, FastModel Sports and Basketball Intelligence.

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