They might embark tonight on a lengthy losing streak, get completely wiped off the floor other nights by one of the league heavyweights, take a tumble in the standings and miss the playoffs and yet still have the foundation of a championship team.
That doesn’t seem rational by anyone’s definition but we have just described the enigma known as the New Orleans Pelicans.
“Our potential is scary,” said DeMarcus Cousins.
Yes, but what kind of scary.
Here we are at post-All-Star break, and Kevin Durant’s knee hurts, and the Cleveland Cavaliers somehow came out ahead at the trade deadline without making a single trade, and Lou Williams is turbo-charging the supercharged Houston Rockets, and the subject du jour is the Pelicans? Well, kinda sorta. Those teams have long shelf lives and will be worth examining weeks from now. Until then, let’s momentarily indulge the Pelicans now, in March, with the title contenders in sleep mode while prepping for April.
And let’s begin with a curious question: How many teams would you trade, right now, straight-up, for the Pelicans?
Not the Golden State Warriors, Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and LA Clippers. Maybe not the Toronto Raptors and Rockets. That’s six teams. Everyone else is up for debate. It sounds downright silly, yes, until you understand that the proper foundation for a championship team in today’s NBA starts with a pair of top-10 players. Then it makes more sense. After pulling off the deadline-day deal to get Cousins from the Kings, the Pelicans hold that advantage over half the league.
True, plenty of work lies ahead for the Pelicans’ front office, and some might hedge their bets with Dell Demps, a GM with a spotty record, in charge of making the calls. And yet with Cousins and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans have cornered the market on talented bigs. For a franchise that once had to be auctioned off by the league, and gave away Chris Paul, and suffered so many unfortunate injuries the last few years, this is a start, and most likely not a false one.
Yet, this bears repeating: Demps is truly on the spot here. He must follow up one bold and wonderful move with a series of smaller yet wonderful moves. Trading for Cousins raised the stakes even higher for the GM. The fan base and ownership now expect to see meaningful progress toward being a consistent playoff team and in short time, a team built for June. Which means Demps must raise his game.
Over the last few years his moves haven’t fortified the franchise. Gone is Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (now healthy and a sixth man-award candidate in Houston). He had little faith in Ish Smith and Seth Curry, two good-value guards once in his control who are now playing elsewhere. He extended the contracts of Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, 14 feet of dysfunctional center and a mountainous pimple on the salary cap. He signed E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill to multi-year contracts and neither are difference-makers in the rotation. And two years ago he fired Monty Williams, the beloved coach who steered the Pelicans to their last playoff appearance.
Besides Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans lack a single player who frightens anyone. Then there’s Jrue Holiday, a dependable but not top-10 point guard who’s a free agent this summer. With no significant assets to trade, and with the Pelicans’ No. 1 pick this summer belonging to Sacramento unless it’s in the top-three, Demps either must re-sign (overpay?) Holiday or find a replacement.
There’s also the subject of Alvin Gentry. Does Demps stick with a coach who’s on his way to a second losing season (to be fair, a rash of injuries haven’t helped Gentry), or move on?
Given the soft hand he dealt himself, Demps must be creative and shrewd and also take some chances this summer. Any big mistake could slam the brakes on progress.
Oh, and Demps must give $150 million-plus this summer to Cousins, which is a different story.
If a measurable amount of weight is on Demps, then the rest is on Cousins. It’s time for him to show the same maturity on the court as he does when doing community service and charity work. Cousins has a big heart when helping the needy and speaking to kids, not so much when dealing with referees or the media or on occasion, a coach or teammate who challenges him. At some point, maturity must kick in for someone who turns 27 this year. At some point, Cousins must realize what’s at stake, does some inner reflection and cut the silly technical fouls and suspensions.
At some point, if it hasn’t happened already, Cousins must demonstrate his respect for Davis by growing up.
This is even more important now, because when the Pelicans lavish him with a mega contract, they’ll empower him as well. That’s what money does: Allow a player to push his agenda. Power in the wrong hands can cripple a franchise.
The talent is undeniable, though. Cousins is an All-Star center who comes with a nightly and robust 28-12-5 stat line. He brings gentle hands, clever footwork and 25-foot range. He’ll be more inclined to pass the ball when given good teammates (see the Olympic teams) and has the skills, if not always the motivation, to protect the rim.
And Davis is the perfect co-star, making this a balanced act. For starters, he’s better all-around than Cousins. More than a few GMs have said Cousins needs to be on a team where he’s not the main attraction. Davis also has the more forgiving personality, a tamer ego and a willingness to share the wealth. It helps that the two ex-Kentucky stars are very familiar with each other. It’ll be a shock if this pairing isn’t friction-free.
“Being together is going to make both of our jobs easier,” Cousins said.
All of the blueprints for the Cousins-Davis combo are outdated, though. The game has changed since Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, the last time a team had a pair of All-Star bigs in their prime. The Sixers apparently want no part of Jahlil Okafor, whom they’ve tried to trade, next to Joel Embiid, for example. The Pelicans are encouraged that Cousins and Davis bring shooting range and they’re decent passers, which allows them to play big or “stretch” if necessary. While most NBA teams now are built outside-in, the Pelicans are going inside-out and bucking the trend, the exact opposite of James Harden and the Rockets.
So this is where they’re at, fighting for the last playoff crumb in the West, knowing that every technical by Cousins results on a one-game suspension, and realizing that none of this means anything in the big picture.
Blessed with two franchise players, the Pelicans have the basic foundation of a potential title contender. They can’t possibly blow an opportunity that rarely comes along. Right?
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