During a recent interview, Dante Cunningham’s cell phone kept periodically pinging, the sound the device makes when a new text message has arrived. The sender of the steady stream of messages? Cunningham’s NBA teammates. The power forward explained that he’s been in constant contact with other Pelicans players all summer, as a result of a multi-member text that circulates throughout much of the New Orleans roster.
“It’s kind of funny – we’re all in a group chat right now, actually,” Cunningham responded, when asked if he’d recently talked to any of his teammates. “We’ve been poking at each other most of the summer.”
The bond Cunningham quickly formed with his fellow Pelicans was one reason why the six-year veteran officially re-signed July 9, the first day NBA teams could announce free-agent deals. After initially signing with New Orleans six weeks into the 2014-15 regular season, Cunningham appreciated how quickly he was embraced by his new team.
“It’s great being with the guys, on and off the court,” he said. “We have a lot of team functions that we kind of automatically just gravitate toward each other, and end up at one person’s house, or at one location to have a great dinner. That’s what makes a team that much better. One of the first things they did when I came in was to sit down and have a dinner so I could meet everyone. That’s how a team is and it’s great having that kind of group of guys.”
On the court, Cunningham experienced one of the most gratifying nights of his NBA career on April 15, when the Pelicans beat San Antonio to reach the Western Conference playoffs. The hard-fought victory against the previous year’s NBA champions was the culmination of a gritty close to the regular season, in which New Orleans overcame a four-game deficit behind Oklahoma City with only 11 games left. Cunningham calls that win symbolic of how he views his team.
“It showed the fight that we have,” he said. “It came down literally to the 82nd game against last year’s champs, who wanted to get a better seed or have homecourt in the playoffs. That’s the type of team and fight that we had and have. That’s what’s really exciting. You see it. That was just a great moment for all of us.”
As excited as New Orleans players were to achieve their No. 1 goal last season by reaching the playoffs, they’re equally optimistic about what they may be able to accomplish with the roster that went 25-16 in the second half of last season. Rotation members Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter and Norris Cole were all acquired a month or later into 2014-15; after those pickups, the Pelicans reversed course following a 20-21 start. They went 8-3 in their final 11 games of the regular season. Cunningham noted that New Orleans lost a few close games in 2014-15 that potentially would’ve been wins with more time playing together and cohesiveness.
“At the end of last year, I think we all kind of felt that we built something and we started something,” Cunningham explained. “We all wanted to get back, start again and see what this team and this unit can do. That’s what we’re all thinking: Even through the injuries and what we had to overcome, if we have the guys we played with for a whole year (in 2015-16), and can go through a training camp with them, more than half of the games we lost were because we didn’t know what to do at the end of the game, or maybe we should’ve done this instead of that. With little things like that, teams that have been together know what to do at certain times. We could’ve eliminated a lot of those (losses) and been in an even better situation come playoff time. So I think we’re definitely all on that same page and all wanting to get back to see what we can do.”
Cunningham also looks forward to fitting into Alvin Gentry’s system, which could capitalize even more on some of the 28-year-old’s strengths, as an athletic frontcourt player who runs the floor well and has excellent shooting touch from 15-20 feet.
“It’s about just getting out and running,” Cunningham said of the Gentry philosophy. “Simplifying everything. We have a long, athletic, young team that can get out and run. We found that pretty easy last year, when we were just out in the open court playing. When we were playing simple pick-and-roll basketball and moving the ball, we were pretty unstoppable.”
“I thought he was really, really important to our team,” Gentry said. “The whole competitiveness that he has. The ability for him to guard multiple positions is really important. We like him. He’s kind of that edgy guy we need on our team.”
After last season concluded April 25, Cunningham barely took any breather from basketball, saying he was immediately ready to get back on the court and begin workouts.
“I’ve been focusing on staying in tip-top condition,” said Cunningham, who’s also spending time practicing corner three-point shots. “I only took maybe two weeks off this year (compared to roughly a month some years). I just felt the energy still flowing through me from last year. The urge is still running through me to get back and play with the guys.”