The Pressure Cooker

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A blockbuster trade like the one that just brought DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans is being covered nationally like the seismic shock to the league that it may one day be. However, there are many smaller jolts that can already be felt if one observes the cities and basketball teams in New Orleans and Sacramento.

Cousins will play his first game for the Pelicans tonight; Buddy Hield will do the same for the Kings two-and-a-half hours later. But the foundational shifts within each organization can already be felt, and will last well beyond this season.

The main feeling on all ends of this deal is (rightly) pressure. This is true of most any big decision, basketball or otherwise. However, the particular timelines and discourse surrounding the trade have created a more powerful pressure than what would generally happen in the trade of a superstar. Most of the time, the franchise dealing the star (in this case the Kings) would rescind into the background of the league and forge ahead with their new pile of assets. The mixed bag that landed Cousins in this specific trade will instead define the deal just as much as what Cousins is able to accomplish in New Orleans.

Even besides the Kings’ peculiar decision and its blowback, there are several layers to this situation. Most every party involved is going to be dealing with added pressure as a result of the deal. Let’s start with the most obvious:

DeMarcus Cousins

After more than six professional seasons, the NBA community still has no idea what to make of DeMarcus Cousins. On a losing team, Cousins somehow still managed to dominate headlines and fan conversation. He did so through an alternating pattern of important, passionate work behind the scenes in Northern California and at home in Alabama, and frustrating play on the court. Despite all that, Boogie is clearly leaving a little of himself behind in the city of Sacramento:

While that’s important in any community, Cousins might only have one full season in New Orleans. That type of connection takes years. Rather, Cousins’ primary additions to the Pelicans’ program will be bringing the city closer to an NBA championship. That’s the caliber of player we’re talking about here. DeMarcus Cousins is talented enough that next to Anthony Davis, he could be a key part of an NBA champion.

Whereas the Sacramento community welcomed the good deeds of its young star with a surprised, open embrace, Pelicans fans already seem to have one thing on their minds: winning.

Anthony Davis

This is it. Anthony Davis now has about the most talented helping hand a superstar could ask for. There are legitimate questions about how and if the two can coexist, and Cousins’ emotions have the potential to put the whole experiment behind with each new explosion, but Davis might never have a better chance to exploit good fortune. Over the next two seasons, it is up to the franchise’s centerpiece to make significant strides toward success.

Even before the trade, he had made repeated comments in support of the organization. He clearly wants the next five years to go well, and is giving the Pelicans the chance to get him there. And yet regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, much of the responsibility for a smooth transition toward winning will fall on Davis.

Being considered among the league’s elite matters to players. The All-Star Game is just a machismo-driven spitting contest, and Davis just won its MVP award. For Davis to truly get to that level, he’ll have to prove to the rest of the NBA that this experiment can work.

Alvin Gentry

Back to those questions of on-court fit: it’s a monstrous change to go from the small-ball style that the Pelicans were just starting to get the hang of, to two-big looks for 30-plus minutes per night. While it’s not a surprise that the team is dangling Terrence Jones, that doesn’t change the fact that the two best players on the team (far and away) are both seven feet tall.

I keep returning to Gentry’s time as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers when imagining how this experiment might work on the court. In the 2001-02 season, Gentry’s Clippers only won 39 games, but did so with a versatile stable of big men that provide the closest simulacrum of the Cousins-Davis duo of any stop in the coach’s career. By backing up Michael Olowokandi and Elton Brand with Lamar Odom (each played more than 32 minutes per game), Gentry found success. Both of the Pelicans’ stars have the kind of talent Gentry was working with when he had Brand and Odom. This obviously can work.

However, Gentry has had a nightmarish two years in New Orleans relative to the success he had as head coach in Phoenix and in stops as an assistant in Los Angeles and Golden State. He has a reputation as one of the game’s most progressive offensive minds. Now he has to prove and earn that reputation all over again.

Jrue Holiday

Really all Holiday has to do is continue to be as aggressive and intelligent on both ends of the floor as he was leading up to the All-Star break. In his last 10 games, Holiday is averaging 21.4 points, 8.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game on a 55.0 true shooting percentage. Holiday has been very good. If he can just keep on being very good, the Pelicans will be in a good place.

Buddy Hield

No one is carrying more pressure than Hield right now. If he were not such a loose guy, I would be worried for his mental health.

The weight of an entire franchise now lies on Buddy Hield’s ability to develop into a good-to-great player. His owner is comparing him to the reigning (and first-ever) unanimous MVP, a back-to-back NBA finalist. He’s the only tangible asset the Kings swung their franchise cornerstone for. If he doesn’t perform, things could get ugly.

As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor said earlier this week, Hield will always be the guy the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins for.

Vivek Ranadive and Vlade Divac

This is the braintrust the Kings are being led by, for better or worse. Together, they finally rid their franchise of a toxin that had leached on far too tightly. The DeMarcus Cousins era is over in Sacramento, and that is entirely thanks to Divac and Ranadive finally pulling the trigger.

However, they clearly did not get anything near what rebuilding organizations typically receive in return for a star, especially one on a non-expiring contract. It is up to this same team now to turn the draft capital they received into good players or even better assets to salvage a trade that already looks like it could be so lopsided that it sets the organization back quite a while.

To be fair, the Kings have drafted decently over the past couple of seasons, and we haven’t seen all of their international players yet. This is as much about freeing playing time for the young players already on the roster as it is about acquiring new ones. It will be interesting.


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