New Orleans Pelicans need to take step forward in order to keep DeMarcus Cousins for the long term
Team has balancing act of keeping its big one-two punch and filling out the rest of the roster with the necessary talent to return to postseason
It was the kind of scene that had been envisioned a month ago when the Pelicans put the slam dunk touch on All-Star Weekend by landing DeMarcus Cousins.
It was part Mardi Gras, part Jazz Fest when Cousins hit all the right notes with a 41-point, 17-rebound, three-blocked shots performance in Tuesday night’s win over Memphis that concluded with hometown fans at the Smoothie King Center serenading him with a joyous chant of: “Boo-gie! Boo-gie! Boo-gie!”
It was probably too little too late for this season since the third straight win for the Pelicans still leaves them four games behind the Nuggets with just 11 left to play in the scramble for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“It feels good to finally kind of tear down that wall,” Cousins said. “It feels good, but at the same time, it feels even better to get this win. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”
What it’s really all about is trying to determine if Cousins and Anthony Davis can make the 21st century version of the Twin Towers attack work in an age when the NBA and the game in general has moved away from the basket to attack from way out on the perimeter.
The Pelicans, 7-7 since acquiring Cousins, open a three-game road trip Friday night in Houston (8 p.m. ET on NBA LEAGUE PASS).
There is still no doubt that New Orleans won the trade with the Kings from a viewpoint of pure talent. They got the three-time All-Star center Cousins, who is still only 26, in return for rookie Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a top-three-protected first-round pick and a second-round pick in the 2017 draft.
Nevermind the Sacramento side of things that was strictly out of a bizarro world where general manager Vlade Divac admitted that he had turned down an earlier deal from New Orleans that included another first-round pick.
This was all about finally getting Davis the kind of help on the front line that could at least lift the Pelicans back into the playoff conversation after the better part of two seasons of falling off a cliff.
After putting up a tough fight in losing to the eventual champion Warriors in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, the Pelicans did not expect to be back wallowing at the bottom of the standings two years later, ready to roll the dice on a volatile mixture of talent and temperament that is Cousins.
Is he the best all-around center in the NBA? Yes, when he isn’t battling referees, head coaches, members of the media and his own bad habits. But that’s the rub. Cousins still tends to pick up cheap fouls, reaches out for half-hearted swipes for steals and can be lazy trotting back down the floor on defense. All of which led to the stumble out of the starting blocks in New Orleans that squashed the fantasy of an instant resurrection. Those are many of the on-court reasons why the Kings eventually chose not to gamble any more of their future on re-signing Cousins to a $150-million-plus deal when his contract expires in the summer of 2018.
Now it is the Pelicans’ task to get Cousins to commit to staying for the long haul even though doing so could eventually make it difficult to fill out the rest of their roster with the necessary talent to back up their one-two big man punch.
Point guard Jrue Holiday will be an unrestricted free agent in July and, despite the fact that he ranks as no more than middle-of-the-pack at his position, the confines of the salary cap could force them to overpay. By letting Holiday go, New Orleans would only free up about $15 million in cap space and that’s not enough to enter the bidding for the top free agents point guards this summer, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. Even the next level of Jeff Teague and George Hill would likely cost more. The Pelicans are also tied up on the front line with last year’s free agent signing Solomon Hill ($12 million) underachieving and Omer Asik continuing in his role as franchise anchor with more than $34 million owed through 2020.
That means New Orleans will be shopping for help in the offseason in the discount racks, hoping that perhaps a reclamation project or two with their own flaws might take a chance that they can rehabilitate themselves along with the fiery molten center in the middle of the lineup.
It’s a delicate balance because if the Pelicans don’t take a big step forward next season, they’re unlikely to get Cousins to commit long term and that’s one Boogie out of town that would have nobody in New Orleans dancing.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.