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DeMarcus Cousins Is Slow. The Pelicans Are Fast. Something’s Gotta Give.

Welcome to Four-Point Play, our weekly NBA column that pieces together four statistical trends from around the league and lays out what they tell us about where a team has been or where it’s heading. Find a stat you think should be included here? Email or tweet me at chris.herring@fivethirtyeight.com or @Herring_NBA.

Four days ago, the Pelicans were looking at yet another year in which they were on the same mediocre path they’ve been on the past few years, and would’ve been on for the next few years. But now, following their shocking trade for DeMarcus Cousins, they have the best power forward and center in the game along with a solid point guard.

What remains to be seen is how well Cousins and Anthony Davis jell in the frontcourt and in coach Alvin Gentry’s uptempo, small-ball ideology.

Cousins is capable of playing fast. His Sacramento teams led the NBA in pace twice (including last season), and finished among the league’s top 10 in three other seasons. But the 26-year-old, who holds the ball longer than any NBA center, was in the midst of a career year playing in the Kings’ plodding, methodical offense, which ranks fourth slowest in pace.

It’s also worth watching whether New Orleans — a team that’s shown almost no commitment to offensive rebounding because of its emphasis on getting back defensively — will now ask its two great bigs to crash the glass more.

If it does, it will be imperative for Cousins to shed the poor hustle habits he displayed when frustrated. His temper tantrums and preoccupation with arguing his point to officials partially explain why the Kings have been an average defense following a made shot, but among the NBA’s worst at stopping opponents after they themselves have failed to score. The lack of hustle, where Cousins doesn’t even try to get back into a play, also sheds light on why Sacramento ranks last in defense after committing a turnover.

I trust that Gentry and the Pellies will figure things out, but it’ll be interesting to see which of the three — Gentry, Cousins or Davis — is forced to adjust, and how those changes help or hinder the team.

All-star game awkwardness

Whether it’s LeBron James draining a routine-looking jumper from halfcourt, or Giannis Antetokounmpo throwing down a nasty putback jam over the top of Steph Curry, certain players pop more than others during a flashy affair like the All-Star Game.

And then there are players like Hawks forward Paul Millsap. Millsap’s 5-point, five-rebound showing in the All-Star game Sunday was nearly identical to his All-Star trips in 2014, 2015 and 2016, when he quietly posted 6, 5 and 3 points, respectively.

Millsap told me he feels a bit out of place during all-star games, because the ridiculous dunking and scoring — which is all anyone wants to see during the exhibition — isn’t what earned him the trip. And the four-time all-star isn’t capable of giving most fans what they want.

“At the end of the day, I play the game the right way, whether it’s an all-star game or not. Some may call it boring, but I call it basketball,” said Millsap, one of the better all-around players in the game. “I’ve been successful by making the right play and right reads. So I try not to get too caught up in the all-star game. It’s a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, it’s just hard to break good habits.”

Millsap has some company in that regard. Warriors star Draymond Green, after posting just 4 points on six shot attempts in last year’s all-star game, had only 2 points on Sunday (though he finished with six assists). Going back a couple years, Luol Deng made a pair of all-star games in 2012 and 2013, only to average 5 points while shooting 4-of-12 from the field. And though former all-stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah posted respectable numbers in the exhibitions, both looked a bit out of place at times.

Still, I like that a roster spot or two generally ends up going to a jack-of-all trades sort of player. They have incredible value, even if they aren’t the all-stars in the most traditional sense.

Joel Embiid’s turnover problem

Aside from the Cousins-Davis pairing, two of the other most intriguing post-break storylines are in Philadelphia. Will we see No. 1 pick Ben Simmons make his debut before the season ends? And can Joel Embiid, coming back soon from a minor tear in his meniscus, pick up where he left off?

Embiid was posting 20 points a night while providing elite rim protection — no easy feat. Yet Embiid still has far to go — which is what’s so promising about his talent.

Still learning how to safeguard the ball, Embiid is committing 5.4 turnovers per 36 minutes, the most among centers and 38 percent more than Cousins, who ranks next highest. The 7-footer has really been in a giving mood near the basket, where he’s coughed the ball up on nearly 22 percent of his post-up looks, the highest turnover rate among NBA players with at least 100 plays, according to Synergy. And his turnover rate jumps up to a whopping 32 percent when teams aggressively send a second defender to double Embiid in the post.

And while Philadelphia obviously benefits from Embiid’s otherwise efficient play, the Sixers have ceded more easy baskets off those mistakes with Embiid on the floor. The club sees its opponents score more than 20 points per 48 minutes off turnovers with Embiid on the court, up from the 17 points per 48 minutes they surrender when he’s sidelined.

None of this is to suggest that Embiid wasn’t somehow worth the wait for Philly, or that these issues aren’t fixable with more playing time and experience. If anything, they highlight how much more he can improve upon on an already impressive rookie campaign.

Revisiting the Spurs’ corner-three defense

In last week’s Four-Point Play, I looked at the Spurs’ multiseason success in defending corner threes, and whether the team’s defense was really that dominant at taking away the shot, or whether there was an unusual amount of luck involved.

Specifically, I mentioned that the Spurs — despite holding opponents to a lower corner-three percentage than any other team in the league — were leaving a disproportionate share of players wide-open for such looks. That prompted a number of thoughtful readers to raise a fair question: Couldn’t it be that the Spurs are simply more sophisticated about which types of shooters they allow to get open shots from the corner?

So I asked SportVU researchers to run a handful of new numbers, looking at the disparity between which corner shooters the Spurs guard closely and the ones they are content to leave open. The finding: Yes, San Antonio — the NBA’s best defense over the past two decades — appears to do a better job than most at identifying which guys it can ignore.

The Spurs are the fourth-best team in the NBA1 at distinguishing between players worth guarding in the corner, and players worth leaving alone, according to SportVU, which looked at opponent’s expected-shot percentages.2

Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said much of that stemmed from coaches repeatedly drilling game plans into players’ heads. “We usually do a good job knowing personnel and knowing what we want to accomplish that day,” Leonard told me. “So a lot of the time, if one of us gives up that shot, it’s coming from a rotation [our coaches] wanted us to make.”

Like every other team, San Antonio still makes its fair share of mistakes, even if not all of them turn out to be costly. Boston guard Avery Bradley, left open for all five of his corner attempts this season, burned the Spurs with makes on four of those tries. (Houston sharpshooter Ryan Anderson, a 57-percent shooter from the corner that no one purposely leaves open, has been wide-open for three of his four looks; though he’s missed all four.)

More often than not, though, the Spurs have shown discernment about who they willingly leave open. Corey Brewer3, a 27-percent shooter from the corners, has been left completely open six times, and misfired on all six looks. Justin Anderson, a 36-percent shooter from there, has been left alone four times, hitting just one attempt. And Wesley Johnson, at 35 percent, has been uncontested on five of his six tries, connecting on only one of them.

So, for Spurs fans who shout at the screen whenever the team leaves a shooter wide open: Don’t. They often do it on purpose, and for the last year and a half, it’s been hard to argue with the results.

Footnotes

  1. Behind Golden State, Portland and Oklahoma City.

  2. The researchers looked at the expected 3-point percentage for players the Spurs guarded when taking corner threes, versus the expected 3-point percentage for players the Spurs left unguarded in the corner. The Spurs had the fourth-biggest difference between the two metrics.

  3. He was traded to the Lakers on Tuesday, but he played against San Antonio as a member of the Rockets.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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