Few NBA teams in recent memory have been on the sort of roller coaster the Pelicans are just getting off of.
There was the excitement that accompanied the shocking deal for DeMarcus Cousins (while the 2017 All-Star Game was being played in New Orleans, no less). A year later, there was the January night in which the Pellies carried a six-wins-in-seven-games streak into a nationally televised contest with the Rockets, only to have the eventual victory marred by Boogie rupturing his Achilles tendon. The club, perceived by many as unable to contend without Cousins, reeled off 10 straight wins — tied for the best in franchise history — from mid-February to early March. A month and a half later, Jrue Holiday went Super Saiyan in the first round of the NBA playoffs and helped the Pelicans sweep No. 3-seed Portland in eye-popping fashion. Then their season ended in May at the hands of the Warriors, who not only won the title but also shocked the entire league by signing Cousins away from the Pelicans for just $5.3 million.
With the dust settled now, it’s fair to wonder where the Anthony Davis-led squad stands. Is New Orleans anywhere near as great as it looked during its win streaks, or during that domination over the Blazers? And if so, what’s the team’s ceiling after putting Cousins in the rear-view mirror for good?
A handful of things will definitely be worth watching with the Pelicans — some of which we saw for decent stretches after Boogie’s injury. In particular, the pace of play picked up considerably, and New Orleans finished the season as the fastest team in the league — something that likely wouldn’t have happened with a healthy Cousins in the lineup each night. And the Nikola Mirotic pickup undoubtedly meant that there was more space available in the lane, which Davis took full advantage of in the postseason. (Davis managed to take about 47 percent of his shot attempts from the restricted area in the playoffs while sharing the floor with Mirotic, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That number shrank to just 33 percent of his shots when Mirotic was on the bench.)
The Mirotic-Davis pairing is one the Pelicans are looking forward to based on the vast success it had toward the tail end of last season, when the team’s net rating with Davis on the court went from plus-3.8 per 100 possessions without Mirotic to plus-10.3 per 100 possessions with him.1 For some context, Davis and Cousins together produced a net rating of plus-4.2 in 2017-18, which was a decent improvement from the plus-2.5 they logged the season before.
Still, it’s impossible to overlook what would have seemed unthinkable back in January: that the Pelicans would let a player of Cousins’s caliber walk, even after a devastating Achilles injury that often spells the beginning of the end for many of the best NBA players. New Orleans is a small-market franchise — one that has a front office desperate to win but is also capped out and, for the meantime, has no other means of landing a superstar to pair with Davis. The club needs to keep Davis happy, given that he’s entering his prime and is eligible to sign a supermax deal next summer, which could keep him under contract until 2025. Cousins, who’s about to turn 28 years old, had found a rhythm and comfort level playing next to Davis and was logging 25 points and nearly 13 rebounds on career-best true shooting and assist numbers. There hadn’t been any reports of problems with him in the New Orleans locker room, and prior to suffering his own injury, Cousins provided something of a security blanket in case Davis got hurt — a constant concern for the franchise.
Boogie’s inside-out game is something that few players in the league can replicate. Still, the Pelicans likely will benefit by moving on from him. First, it’s unclear when, or in what condition, he will return. But on the floor, New Orleans figures to save a handful of possessions a game without him: Cousins turned the ball over five times a night, which was the highest rate in the league — more than either James Harden or Russell Westbrook, who in 2016-17 rewrote the NBA record books with how many miscues they committed. (At 6.7 giveaways per 100 possessions, Cousins lost the ball more than the next two-highest rotation Pellies in usage — Davis and Holiday — did combined last year, per Basketball-Reference.com.)
Beyond that, the club signed former Laker forward Julius Randle, who’s capable of plugging some of the gaps that Cousins left behind. By no means is he the shooter that Cousins is, but he’ll almost certainly fit the team’s uptempo style far better. Randle is highly aggressive in transition, often calling his own number after grabbing a defensive rebound and taking possessions coast to coast in a matter of seconds. Only a handful of elite players — Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMar DeRozan — have scored more efficiently2 in the first seven seconds of a transition possession,3 according to data from Second Spectrum.
The Pelicans have a made a few other alterations around the margins this summer, losing veteran Rajon Rondo and replacing him with Elfrid Payton, another guard known for his inability to shoot (and, until recently, his hair). But the question facing this club — one it didn’t address despite being exposed on this front during the playoffs — is whether the team has anywhere near enough defensive wing depth.
New Orleans is decent defensively — both Davis and Holiday were on the All-Defensive First Team. But in a league where length is being more and more prioritized, the Pelicans often played lineups with three guards who were shorter than 6-foot-5. Rondo, Holiday and E’Twaun Moore played 1,146 minutes together during the regular season and then logged 203 more minutes in just nine playoff games, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
As such, New Orleans — which may have fewer rotation wing players between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9 than any other club in the NBA — was essentially dead on arrival when it drew the Warriors. The Pelicans had no one to match up with Durant, who not only shot better than 50 percent for the series but also took a whopping 19 shot attempts in which he enjoyed at least a 5-inch height advantage, per Second Spectrum. (Aside from James, who took 26 such shots in the playoffs, no other player had as many shot attempts with such mismatches in the entire postseason as Durant had in those five games against the Pelicans.) The club trotted out 6-foot-7 Solomon Hill and 6-foot-8 Darius Miller in hopes of adding some length against the Dubs, but they combined for just 40 points on 38 shots in the series.4
So that’s the reality of the Pelicans’ situation for the moment. They have one of the game’s great talents and play at an annoying, breakneck pace. New Orleans has good individual defenders who are perfectly fine as a unit during the regular season. The club might even fare decently against a juggernaut like Houston because the Rockets are guard-oriented, much like the Blazers.
But if there’s a ceiling on these Pelicans, and there still seems to be one, it’s that their arms can stretch only so far when trying to contest a Durant fall-away jumper. And until New Orleans acquires a couple of wing stoppers the way Houston did last season, a team like the Warriors will likely continue to give the Pelicans headaches come postseason.