The Big Conundrum

Published: November 24, 2017
A look into the success of Davis centric Lineups and what that means for the Pelicans

The last few weeks unearthed a familiar trend. Lineups with Anthony Davis at center absolutely demolish the opposition. This trend goes years back. First it was Davis and Ryan Anderson as your front court – they blitzed opponents to the tune of 115+ points per 100 possessions over almost 3 years. While they nearly gave up the same amount of points on the other end, the pairing still outscored opponents on the balance. Last year the Pelicans’s small ball look with Davis-Cunningham-Hill as the front court was written about extensively and the Davis centric lineups continued to dominate even after the DeMarcus Cousins trade. This year is no different. Take a look at the table below.

The first row is how the Pelicans perform when both Davis and Cousins are on the court in which we assume Cousins is the center. The second row is how the Pelicans perform when only Davis is on the court and we assume he is the center. As you can see the offense takes a giant leap forward while the defense takes a step back. On the balance, Davis centric lineups are actually outperforming lineups with both Davis and CousinsThis includes the two games at Portland and Sacramento where Cousins went off without Davis. But wait, there is more.

This is how Davis centric lineups have fared over the last 10 games, including the Denver abomination.


In 114 minutes, Davis led lineups are outscoring opponents by 23.9 points per 100 possessions. They sport an elite defensive rating and an incendiary offensive rating. Davis in space in unstoppable and we need to send him to the freaking moon. Davis hasn’t had this combination of ball handling and IQ in his small ball lineups, ever. The ball zips side to side as the Pelicans slam down on the gas pedal in those units, yielding a pace of 106.6. This mark would pass the Brooklyn Nets for league best.

Checkout this play from the Spurs game.



Davis has so much space that Rondo is able lob it up as Davis crashes from the 3 point arc.  I mean just look how the ball moves in this next play.



What do we make of all this?

There are two different games going on within a Pelicans game. There is a bash and smash when the Pelicans feature both bigs or any Boogie centric lineups, and there is a pace and space when Davis is given the runway with ball handlers and shooters. Make no mistake, the Pelicans need Cousins to perform at a high level to be successful in the future despite what the numbers are saying right now. Their ceiling is only as high as how good the pairing of Davis and Cousins can be. However, with how successful Davis in space continues to be, the needs profile of this team shifts a little bit.

McNamara has repeatedly pointed out that the Pelicans are in desperate need of a third big, one who can play with both Davis and Cousins, to round out the roster. We still need that third big, but the success of Davis at center changes what type of big the Pelicans should go after. I don’t think lumbering big bodies such as Lopez or Monroe should be the targets, especially with the return of Omer Asik. You want to optimize the number of minutes between the Davis – Cousins combo and the number of minutes with Davis at center. Getting a traditional big, or a big who cannot space marginalizes both lineups. Instead the Pelicans should be targeting hybrid 3/4s who can shoot a little an handle the ball a little.  The two trade targets that come to mind are Nikola Mirotić ( who @MP_NBA has advocated for for a while now), and Thaddeus Young. It is important to note Mirotić cannot be traded until January 18th. There are rumbles around the league that the Pacers’s brass isn’t too happy with the fast start they have gotten off to. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the young team, but if they continue winning the Pacers might not be too keen on moving Young.

Fortunately, as long as health remains, time may be on the Pelicans’s side for once. The more minutes they can give to the AD and Boogie pairing to grow, the more time they have to evaluate what their needs truly are before committing to a move. Meanwhile if they continue to steamroll opponents by going small, the Pelicans’s relative flexibility only increases. Especially as they start seeing players like Ajinca and Hill return from injury.  A blurry outline of what this team and roster can be is beginning to take shape. Let’s hope time adds needed clarity and success.

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