All Things Considered: Boogie Edition

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Published: May 15, 2018

 

In November while the Pelicans’ season was very much getting off the ground I wrote about “The Big Conundrum”. This piece revolved around the success of Davis centric lineups and posed the question of how best to optimize the Davis and Cousins pairing given the success of the aforementioned lineups. I had optimistically hoped that as the season progressed and we gathered more data, a sharper picture of the Pelicans’ composition and needs would form. On January 26, that all went out the window when Cousins went down with his achilles injury. What complicates the situation further is the fact that the Pelicans went on to acquire Nikola Mirotic (mentioned as a target in the piece above from NOVEMBER cough cough)  and put forth their best season since 2010-2011. The sustained success the Pelicans had by fully committing to the idea of Davis in space (and without Cousins), only served to raise more questions about the future of the franchise and the direction it should take. Originally I claimed that this team would only go as far as the pairing of Davis and Cousins would take them, but Cousins’ injury now puts a cloud of uncertainty on that ceiling. With Cousins’ free agency upon us, all things need to be considered when making a decision that will shape the future of the franchise. Lucky for you, I’m here to do just that.

What the Numbers Do and Don’t Capture

The metrics you use are only as strong as their relationship with the desired outcome. In the NBA the desired outcome is winning – long-term, sustained winning. Teams pay big money to analytics departments to derive predictive measures that can project that value of players and observe the efficacy of various lineups. While these metrics aren’t without flaw, large enough samples do need to be taken into consideration. In the case of the Pelicans, the numbers strongly suggest that Davis paired better with Mirotic than Cousins, and reinforce the idea that Davis (and the Pelicans by proxy) need space to reach their ceiling. You have lineup data (the metric), and the win-loss record (the outcome). At a surface level there is a clear point A to point B relationship between that lineup data and how the Pelicans performed. But is it reasonable to assume that this relationship is sustainable long term?

To answer this, we need to look at factors not necessarily captured by the data that may have contributed to the result. We can do this by examining the common denominator in any success the Pelicans have ever had – Anthony Davis. Davis has been and always will be at the center of Pelicans’ organizational strategy. In order to be the best possible version of the team, you need the best possible version of Anthony Davis. To me this relationship outlines the biggest single factor that impacts the Pelicans’s future success – maximizing Davis. This happens both from a talent standpoint which can be captured quantitatively, but also from the standpoint of internal growth as a player and a leader. There are mental and emotional aspects of the game that can’t be captured on paper. Can you quantify toughness? Can you quantify chemistry? What about the ability of a player to instill confidence in his teammates? They may sound like platitudes but I think Davis has made strides in all these areas this season. There is a very human component to maximizing Davis that needs to be considered, especially when looking at some of the things Cousins brings to the table.

What Boogie Brings

About 26 and 12 if you ask head coach, Alvin Gentry. At his best, Cousins in an unstoppable force that no team in the league is equipped to handle. His sheer size, skill, and dexterity are a combination that is not matched by any player in the league. Even on his off days, Cousins brings a presence that needs to be accounted for at all times. Yet when looking at what Cousins brings to the table, we need to ask “what does DeMarcus Cousins do for Anthony Davis?”

From a numbers standpoint, Cousins helped Davis reached a level of efficiency we had not seen before. In the 42 games leading up to Cousins’ injury, Davis sported a career best True Shooting percentage of 63%. In the 33 games following the injury, Davis’ efficiency dropped to 59.2%. Cousins allowed Davis to not only pick his spots on offense, but also face easier coverage as defenses had to account for the commanding presence of Cousins as well as his playmaking. When Davis was experiencing an off night, Cousins was there to pick up the slack. The lion’s share of the offense no longer fell upon Davis. It had become a shared burden.

Cousins also shielded Davis from the physical burden of playing the center position for the majority of his minutes. There is a common belief that Davis has internally let it be known that he prefers not to play center because of the toll it takes on his body. Cousins was more than happy to take that responsibility and relished the opportunity to embarrass opposing big men. The on court domination was something Davis never had before in a teammate. Cousins could lead by example and the duo learned from each other.

I would also argue that Cousins brought out a tougher version of Davis. In the past where Davis may have sat a game due to an injury, Cousins was now there to push him. This was perhaps best captured by a late March game in Los Angeles against the Clippers where Cousins was in attendance. During the game, Davis suffered an inadvertent elbow leading to a chest contusion. It was this injury that led DeMarcus to say “If you don’t want to go back in, let me get your achilles”. Even before this event, Cousins famously called Davis while the Pelicans were slumping, insisting Davis get back to playing like himself. It’s moments like these throughout the season where Cousins pushed Davis and the team along, challenging them to be better. Cousins brought out the best of Davis from a mental standpoint and these facts need to be considered in his free agency decision.

What About the Chemistry?

Since the season has ended, the players, the coaches, and Dell have all stressed one thing: chemistry. Players mention sacrificing for each other, meshing off the court, and having frequent team dinners as one of the major reasons for success. Given that success, the chemistry conversation is one that needs to be had.

It’s no secret the Cousins can be difficult to deal with. If you say one wrong thing, you might find yourself the subject of a few choice curse words. This behavior can be grating on the coaches off the court, who would rather not constantly have to check themselves. On the court, Cousins can be an offensive black hole. He can derail actions with his slow, indecisive dribbling at the top of the key, or haphazard drives into a crowded paint. At times it seems Cousins wants to be the total focal point and will force the issue to assert that. These assertions often lead to turnovers and put the Pelicans in dangerous cross-match situations in transition while Cousins is in the back court complaining to a referee. Without Cousins, the Pelicans led the league in pace and vaulted their defense to a top 5 spot. They also improved their turnover percentage from 23rd in the league pre-injury to 11th. There is merit to the chemistry argument and how well the Pelicans embraced a new identity should not be ignored.

Part of maximizing Davis is also empowering the guards around him. Both Jrue and Rondo need space to operate and function best with the ball in their hands. DeMarcus, with his tendencies to hold on to the ball longer than necessary, often steers offense away from them. The Rondo and Cousins pairing was disastrous from a net rating perspective, and while the pairing with Jrue was positive, it wasn’t nearly as strong as the Davis only or even Mirotic only counterparts. In our deep dive into rotations, we discovered how Jrue was actually seeing most of his success when Cousins went to the bench. Jrue’s usage and efficiency skyrocketed with a more open floor.

Yet the Pelicans were showing tremendous chemistry right before Cousins went down as well. They had won 7 of their previous 8 games, capping the run with a hallmark win over the Rockets. The players were showing all signs of clicking and buying in.  One look at their social medias would highlight how well Davis, Cousins, and Rondo were meshing off the court too (Scandyland anyone?). Players had found their groove, and that included Jrue who was averaging an efficient 20-5-5 over December and January. The Pelicans were on the cusp of something great and it was a feeling that was infectious. An overtime win in Boston was described to me by one person close to the team as “the best win I have ever been a part of at any level”. A few games later the Pelicans topped themselves with a 17 point comeback and double overtime victory against Chicago – a victory powered by an absolutely monstrous 44-23-10 outing by Cousins. Can the Pelicans capture that magic again? Will Cousins recover enough to be the same ingredient in that success?

The Market

If you answered no to the questions posed above, then you likely believe the best course of action for the Pelicans is to move on from Cousins. In that event, the Pelicans would likely explore the possibility of signing and trading Cousins so they do not risk losing him for nothing. But sign-and-trades are problematic. For starters, sign-and-trades hard cap the receiving team. Any team that does not have their cap sheet in order would be limited in spending right at what the league calls the apron. With the copious spending of summers past, not many teams have the requisite space to absorb a potential Cousins’ contract. They would likely need to attach equal or more salary in return for the Pelicans. These restrictions are often prohibitive for both teams. The Pelicans do not want dead salary, and the receiving team would likely want flexibility with regards to the apron. Otto Porter is a name that is frequently thrown out as a potential sign-and-trade partner, but Porter’s contract carries a 15% trade kicker. This means that Washington would owe him additional money if they opt to move him. Needless to say, Washington’s cap is already in a precarious place with Wall’s looming extension kicking in the following year, so having to pay Porter 15% more just to move him may not be appetizing.

Secondly, Cousins is a free agent. He is, by definition, free to sign with any team and there is nothing stopping him. The Pelicans have the ability to offer him the most money for the most amount of years, but Cousins is no longer a “no-brainer” max contract. If negotiations don’t go well for the Pelicans, Cousins is free to walk to any team that may offer him what he wants. The good news is there are few teams with max or near max level cap space this summer. There are even fewer teams that have the space and are not tanking. Most playoff teams are capped out, and the ones with space would likely pursue free agents such as Paul George. This leaves us with very few destinations for Cousins to bolt to. Perhaps the biggest threat to sign him outright is Dallas. Dallas has near max level space and is seeking to be a competitive team in what will perhaps be the final year of Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas has already maxed Wesley Matthews coming off an achilles injury himself, so it’s not improbable they gamble on Cousins. Still, while the open market is not that promising for Cousins, it is a concern that needs to be monitored.

Conclusion

The Pelicans flat out need more talent on the team and right now their best path to it is through DeMarcus Cousins. Davis and Holiday played inspired basketball down the stretch, but in an 82 game season, you need that 3rd somebody you can rely on to carry you to or past the finish line. Any decision that involves moving on from Cousins needs to reliably fill the roles he does in some fashion. There needs to be appropriate talent coming back, they need to be someone who the players enjoy playing with, and most of all, they need to maximize Anthony Davis. Given these needs, I think it will be difficult for the Pelicans to find someone or a few players who check all of the boxes right off the bat. Otto Porter is a fine basketball player, but if Davis goes down for an extended period, do you trust that team to hold ground? In my perfect world, the Pelicans agree to a 2+1 deal with Cousins, with the final year being a team option. This deal allows the Pelicans to explore Cousins’ fit with the new roster and allow him to potentially recoup value as he shows how he responds to his recovery. This option also effectively creates an expiring contract in year 2 which could be a great trade chip in a cap-dry market. The Pelicans and Cousins will have to adjust to each other when Cousins eventually returns to the court, but this deal should be fair to both parties. If Cousins wants more money and more years, I would explore the sign-and-trade market a bit more intently. The good news is, the Pelicans have a tremendous blueprint for success without Cousins and can use that to their negotiating advantage. It’s going to be a fascinating summer, so let’s see how it shakes out.

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