The New Orleans Pelicans Sign Forward Dante Cunningham

By:
Published: December 4, 2014

The New Orleans Pelicans have announced that they have signed forward Dante Cunningham. Here is the press release from the team:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that the team has signed free agent forward Dante Cunningham. Per team policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Cunningham, 6-8, 230, was the 33rd overall pick out of Villanova in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. A five-year veteran, Cunningham has appeared in 366 career NBA games (41 starts) with Portland, Charlotte, Memphis and Minnesota, holding career averages of 6.2 points and 3.9 rebounds.

Cunningham will be available for the Pelicans’ game tonight at Golden State. He will wear #44.

New Orleans’ roster stands at 14.

Cunningham has 5 years of NBA experience and has played in Portland, Charlotte, Memphis, and, most recently, Minnesota. Though Cunningham proved himself to be a valuable role player, he is probably most remembered among NBA fans for allegations of domestic abuse brought by a former girlfriend. However, the charges against Cunningham have since been dropped and some of the allegations seem to have been entirely fabricated. These are clearly sensitive issues in the sports world, and we won’t discuss them here. If you’re interested in reading more about Dante’s story, this piece from ESPN and the associated press is a place to start.

As a player, Cunningham has played both the small forward and power forward positions. The prevailing opinion seems to be that he is a better fit at the small-ball four rather than on the wing. During his last two season in Minnesota, Cunningham averaged 7.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and nearly 1 assist in less than 23 minutes per game. He shot over 46% from the field in Minnesota, but he was not a 3 point shooter. In fact, he only took 11 3’s during 2 seasons in Minnesota, and 3 of those were heaves beyond half court. The others seem to have come late in the shot clock or at the end of quarters or halves. It isn’t entirely clear if he is completely unable to shoot the 3, or if it simply wasn’t part of the game plan. He did spend most of his time on the court with either Kevin Love or Kevin Martin. Sometimes he played with both. They’re excellent long range shooters, so it might have just made sense to place Cunningham somewhere else on the floor.

It’s just my opinion, but I can’t help but notice that his attempts have gotten farther from the basket each of the last 3 years, while his field goal percentage has been relatively constant. Take a look at the table below, which shows where his field goal attempts have come from the last three seasons.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 1.51.19 AM

 

See how he is drifting farther and farther from the basket? This makes me wonder if he has slowly been extending his range and could eventually feel comfortable shooting behind the line. On the other hand, this could have just been due to a role dictated by his team’s offensive scheme.

At any rate, according to basketball-reference.com, 98.7% of his career shot attempts have been 2 point field goals. 51% of his total career attempts have come from between 16 feet and the 3 point line. During his last season in Minnesota, he hit those long twos at 39.2%, and the medium twos at 43.6%. That isn’t great, and it is probably the main reason some advanced stats, like PER (13.0 in Minnesota), are a little unkind to Cunningham.

On Defense, the scouting report has always been that Cunningham is a high energy guy. In Minnesota, he averaged about 1.5 steals and 1 block per 36 minutes, while only averaging 1 turnover. Cunningham also seems to be a solid but not incredible athlete. It isn’t hard to find videos of him slamming down dunk when given the opportunity, but he probably lacks the elite athleticism to make those opportunities on his own. Still, he seems athletic enough to guard the wing on defense. He was also a solid defender on a pretty average defense in Minnesota. If he could contribute there, he may be able to contribute here.

At the end of the day, he is a solid young veteran (27 years old), who once showed potential. It should also be noted that Cunningham played for Monty Williams during his rookie year in Portland. In 2012, Monty had this to say about Cunningham before a game against the Timberwolves,

“He was pretty much my deodorant when I was with Portland. He was one of the few guys I’ve been around who worked his tail off every day and listened to everything you said. I’m not surprised he’s having this success.” (Source: TwinCities.com)

Cunningham will be filling one of the two spots left by the release of Darius Miller and Patric Young. All of this tells a few things:

  • This isn’t the only move. NBA teams don’t just leave a roster spot open for the long term.  In many ways, they are more valuable than cap room. In the short run, a team may leave a spot open. An open spot provides flexibility, which has its own value. The key here is that distinction between long and short terms. If the Pelicans are working on a trade, this spot could be open until the trade deadline. In other words, the last spot on the bench is a gamble that has some probability of getting you a player above replacement value, in the long term. Now, having said all of that, it remains to be seen if the next move is another free agent signing or a trade that nets one more player than we move out. Still, don’t expect their to be an empty chair all season.
  • The Pelicans aren’t replacing anything. Some twitter folk have suggested that Cunningham doesn’t fit the Pelicans “plans” due to his lack of shooting. I, personally, disagree with the idea that those are the plans. Miller and Young played a combined 43 minutes this season for the Pelicans and had an impact around 0. The Pelicans are not brining in Cunningham, because he replaces something we lost by waiving those two players. They are brining him in, because they think he can bring in something at all. If he can make even a small impact, then he is an upgrade.
  • Remember cost-benefit analysis. Anytime a team adds a guy, fans want to hear that all their problems are solved. Problems will still exist after Cunningham starts playing for the Pelicans, but remember that the cost was cutting a player and his salary, which figures to be quite low. That’s low total cost. That means we only need a little bit of production for this to be a good move.
  • Optimization happens at the margins. Making the best NBA team isn’t always about your top 3 guys. It is also about finding the right role players and getting the most out of your bench. That means that even the smallest increases in production and impact are important. Cunningham won’t be a great player, but he is a better player than what he we had. Our bench will get marginally better than it was. That is important.
  • He may have trade value. Given when the Pelicans signed Cunningham during the season, he is available to be traded. This may be the rare case, when a guy no one wants in free agency becomes a guy teams want in a trade. Basically, the Pelicans may, and most likely will, take the PR hit for signing a player with a spotty personal history. If he proves he can still contribute, then the Pelicans have taken most of that negative PR away from a potential trade partner. He isn’t a big enough piece to have a trade centered around him, but he could be a nice sweetener in a bigger deal. We have seen Dell make these types of moves before. Get a guy that other teams aren’t looking at, and turn him into something more in a trade (see: Gustavo Ayon).
  • Positions aren’t a rule. I’m already seeing a lot of hand ringing from fans about where Cunningham will play. It seems like most folks worry that this team doesn’t need a small ball 4. Further, people are raising questions about what this means for Ryan Anderson’s future in New Orleans. Let me suggest this. Cunningham is a good defender and can defend the wing. Anderson struggles to defend the wing. I think it is possible we see these two play together. Anderson plays the wing on offense, while Cunningham plays power forward. On defense, we see the opposite. Cunningham takes the wing, while Anderson sticks to the other team’s power forward. Don’t get married to the concept of positions. They are fluid. Also, let’s not assume too much about this move. We don’t have enough information at this point to know if it will have an affect on Anderson’s future.

Anytime a team adds a new player there will always be talk about their impact. As always, I suggest we withhold judgement until we actually see Dante play and gather some data, both anecdotal and statistical. The sad fact of the matter is that we have an incredibly weak bench, and he will almost certainly improve that. However, questions about how he will be used, how often, and in what role have yet to be answered. Furthermore, we should all remember that the evidence points to this being the second domino to fall after the first of waiving Miller and Young. It won’t be the last. There is something else in the works. Here at BSS, we are going to be thinking about what that move can be, and we’ll bring you any news or analysis as soon as something happens.

13 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.