Dante Cunningham fires a corner three-pointer over Kevin Durant

Pelicans perimeter shooting will be pivotal in freeing up room for All-Star duo

by Jim Eichenhofer

When two high-scoring, All-Star players formed a duo in the New Orleans frontcourt in mid-February of last season, it seemed reasonable to predict that both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins would need to make individual sacrifices offensively to accommodate the other talented big man. In game competition, however, Davis’ statistics actually increased, with his scoring average going from 27.7 to 28.6 following the Cousins acquisition. Meanwhile, in shifting from Sacramento’s No. 1 option to sharing the floor with Davis, Cousins’ dipped a bit from 27.8 to 24.4 overall, but even that’s a bit misleading – he averaged 32.0 points in the final six games he played.

As a team, New Orleans started 2-6 immediately after the All-Star break, but then compiled an 8-3 stretch in March (Cousins played in six of those wins), before Davis and Cousins were shut down in April with injuries.

“We started off rough, but then we figured out how we have to play, as far as sharing the ball and everyone playing off each other,” said Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore. “We saw that the potential to be great is definitely high.”

Perhaps a bigger determining factor in New Orleans’ late-season performance than the specific exploits of Davis and Cousins was how the rest of the team shot from the perimeter. The Pelicans suffered through a fluky-bad stretch of three-point shooting immediately after the trade, going a combined 11/55 (20 percent) in the first two games. Over the entire season, that was New Orleans’ worst two-game span from beyond the arc, excluding an opening-week dry spell.

Virtually every NBA season preview this fall will note that a lack of three-point shooting around Davis and Cousins is a concern for the Pelicans, but based on 2016-17 numbers at least, the club does possess a decent array of long-range threats. What’s critical is whether some of those players will be able to repeat that rate of accuracy in the near future. For instance, valuable late-season addition Jordan Crawford shot 38.9 percent on treys in 2016-17, a big jump from his career rate of 31.4. Recently re-signed forward Dante Cunningham recorded a nearly identical improvement last season, shooting 39.2 percent, compared to his career rate of 32.6.

New Orleans doesn’t have a three-point marksmen on its roster who can be described as “elite,” but several other players have a track record of roughly league-average proficiency (the NBA’s overall average in ’16-17 on threes was 35.8 percent). That group includes Moore (career 36.9 percent on threes), Jrue Holiday (36.6), Ian Clark (36.4) and Darius Miller (35.1). Clark and Miller were both acquired in free agency this summer, to help improve the Pelicans’ shooting and attempt to reduce how much attention opponents can devote to Davis and Cousins.

“Those guys are going to draw a lot of attention and double-teams,” said Clark, who shot a career-best 37.4 percent on treys for the champion Warriors last season. “People have to respect them, because if you play one-on-one coverage against them, they are going to exploit that. It’s something we’ve talked about, being able to play off those guys when they get doubled and the ball gets swung. You have to be ready to catch and shoot, and make plays, to relieve some pressure off of them.”
New Orleans also has several role players who are adept at cutting to the basket, though they will be without projected starting small forward Solomon Hill (hamstring) for a chunk of the season.

“Having guys who cut is huge, because now you’re putting pressure on the defense in two ways,” said Chris Finch, a new Pelicans assistant coach who helped Denver’s offense achieve substantial success last season. “When you have these two bigs like we do, we’re going to have to find ways to stretch the floor.”

Davis and Cousins only played 17 games together last season, enough time to get a sampling of what they may be capable of as a duo, but not a complete picture. Crawford describes that stretch as valuable in envisioning how to best capitalize on the All-Stars.

“Those games helped us really just visualize those two together,” Crawford said. “It still hasn’t been long enough to where they can figure it out exactly, because it’s going to take some time for them to learn how to be dominant together. It’s going to take time. It just gets you used to seeing it. Going into this season, those (17) games helped them understand and realize when and how to sacrifice for each other.”

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