New Orleans Pelicans Season In Review: Dante Cunningham

Published: May 30, 2015

On December 4th, 2014, an opportunity presented itself to Dell Demps and he took advantage of it. Due to a bogus charge, Dante Cunningham was just sitting there on the open market, waiting to be scooped up, and Demps did just that. Within a week, Cunningham was regularly getting 25-30 minutes a night and within a month he was starting at the small forward for the Pelicans. He was an incredible value that Dell scooped up for peanuts, and the simple truth is that the Pelicans couldn’t have made the playoffs without him.

The simple stats, and even the advanced stats, won’t come close to quantifying the impact that Cunningham actually had on the court for the Pelicans, but his effect on the game was undeniable. While his individual stats were at a career low in a lot of categories, Cunningham did whatever was asked of him to help the team win, and that is what they started to do after he arrived. He is, quite simply, a guy whose effect is greater than the sum of his parts.

The Good

Defensive Rebounding

The team was much better on the glass when Cunningham was on the court, effectively going from a team that would have ranked 19th on the defensive glass when Cunningham was off the court to one that would have ranked 5th with him on the court. Cunningham actually had one of his worst defensive rebounding seasons in a while, due in large part to the fact that he was defending on the perimeter more than in year’s past, but his hustle and activity helped create more opportunities for teammates as well.

Playoff Performance

According to that advanced stats, only Ryan Anderson had a bigger impact on offensive rating, and only AD, Jrue, and Asik had a bigger impact on defensive rating in the playoff series against Golden State. Cunningham took advantage of the few opportunities he got on the offensive end (9-11), never committed a turnover, and made some fantastic plays on the defensive end as well. The spotlight was not too bright for him and he should have no problem being a rotation player in a playoff series in the future.

The Deep Two

Cunningham was a 43% shooter from 16 feet to the three-point line. He offered a fantastic option for guards on the pick and pop, especially when help defenders would go with AD on his rim runs. This has been a consistent part of his game, as he is a 41% shooter from here throughout his career. Basically, he gave the Pelicans exactly what Jason Smith did at a cheaper price, and with a little more versatility on the defensive end.

The Bad

Cunningham as a Starter/Small Forward

While Eric Gordon was out, Cunningham was sorely needed to start games, but he is far better as a reserve. His FG% took a huge tumble when he started games (41%, down from 50% as a starter) and his rebounding dipped nearly 25% as well. This was, of course, because most of the time when he started, he was playing small forward. His defense on small forwards was adequate, but when on offense, he killed the spacing and couldn’t hit his shots, so the team suffered as a result (98 offensive rating).

Offensive Rebounding

Cunningham’s offensive rebounding rate was a career low, and was less than half of what he posted in Memphis just three years ago. Much of that could be attributed to playing with AD and Asik, who were crashing the boards, but even when those guys were off and Cunningham was on with Anderson or Ajinca, his rate was still far below his career average. Logic says that he didn’t lose this skill as much as he just wasn’t asked to do this as often as he was in other players, and he also got more minutes in New Orleans, so he likely had to conserve more energy than he has had to elsewhere.

Playing With Ryan Anderson

On paper, this should be a great combo. Anderson plays the 3 on offense, with Cunningham playing the 4, and then they flop on the other side of the court. But in reality, this combo stunk. When they were on the court together, the Pelicans were -5.1 per 48 minutes and their defensive rating approached 110. Offensively, both guys actually shot slightly better when they were on the court with each other, but the defense was horrendous.

The Unknown

Can Cunningham Take One Step Back?

Dante Cunningham too 88 shots this year that were 20 feet or more away from the basket, but only 10 of them were 3-pointers. The rest were really long two’s, often from the corners, that would have been 3’s if he just took one step back. He hit those very long two’s at a 41% clip. Let’s say he declines by 10% on his accuracy, but all those shots now become 3-point attempts – He would go from well below average on points per shot and TS% to nearly average in both those categories, just by taking a step back. If he can add that shot to all of his intangibles, he could be a valuable player in this league.

Moving Forward

Dante Cunningham is an unrestricted free agent and the Pelicans don’t have any kind of Bird Right’s on him, meaning they can only sign him with cap room or an exception if they go into the summer as a team over the cap (as expected). With his legal troubles far behind him, Cunningham should get a look from a number of teams, and with Monty Williams gone, it is unsure if the next head coach will be as big of a fan of Cunningham’s game as the prior coach seemed to be.

Cunningham might be at the stage of his career where he just gets 1 or 2 year contracts, and the market for him will likely be between 2 and 4 million per year now that the cap is going way up. The Pelicans can use a bi-annual exception on him, or even use part of their MLE if they make Cunningham a priority. What is clear is that Cunningham is more of a 4 than a 3, so his fate is probably tied to Ryan Anderson. If Anderson is back, there is no role for Cunningham on this team with AD eating up the other PF minutes, but if Anderson is moved for a SF, then there will be an open spot for Cunningham behind Davis that he will fit into beautifully.

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