Following DeMarcus Cousins’ tragic Achilles injury late in a game against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 26, the New Orleans Pelicans – who were 27-21 at the time – were expected to witness their season slip right out from their fingertips.
The Pelicans were experiencing their most successful stretch of basketball in years, going 9-3 in the month of January following their win against the Rockets on that infamous day. The Pelicans were finally finding their rhythm, beating down quality opponents, and the win against the Rockets – who held the best record in the NBA at the time – was the calling sign that they were a legitimate Western Conference threat.
Up until the conclusion of that game, the Rockets were 19-0 with Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela in the lineup. A 115-113 Pelicans win ended what appeared to be an unstoppable pick-and-roll offensive force for Houston. Cousins landed wrong on his ankle in the waning seconds of the game after pursuing an offensive rebound off his own missed free-throw following an and-one that put the Pelicans up four. The Pellies held on without Cousins – who finished with a triple-double line of 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists (his third triple-double of the season) – but the optimism surrounding the team quickly began to fade.
The Pelicans lost their next two games to the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings before a trade with the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 1 sent Nikola Mirotic – a stretch four who missed the first 23 games of the season after breaking his jaw a la a punch from Bobby Portis – to New Orleans. With Mirotic in the fold, the Pelicans changed their offensive scheme, electing to play as fast as possible, pushing the tempo at all times.
Before the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans ranked sixth in the NBA in Pace (101.48). In the regular season games that followed, the Pelicans finished with the fastest pace in the league (104.5), per NBA.com. One of the biggest knocks that critics have of Cousins is his inability to stay in every play. During the season, at least once or twice a game would the opponent convert on a 3-on-2 or 4-on-3 fastbreak because Cousins was either arguing a missed call or jogging back on defense. That same type of energy (or lack thereof) translated on the offensive end, too. Due to his size, Cousins struggles to sprint up and down the court on every play, which is more than understandable for a 6-foot-11, 270 pounder (but also a question mark as he returns from the Achilles injury). With him out, the Pelicans took advantage of being able to have all five player sprint up the court, which resulted in more fastbreak opportunities and a higher assist-to-turnover ratio (1.69 with Cousins compared to 1.96 without him).
The results following the lose of Cousins were encouraging as the Pelicans regained their briefly lost rhythm, finishing the season on a 20-11 run with Mirotic in the lineup. In losing Boogie, the Pelicans lost a top-3 center, one of the best passing bigs in the league, along with an automatic 20 points and 10 rebounds, but what they gained with Mirotic was a lethal outside shooter who provided unlimited space for Anthony Davis, whose month of February can only be compared to a middle school bully holding the ball in the air while others leap in failure to grab it away from him.
The Pelicans finished the season with a 48-34 record and fought their way to the sixth seed in a crazy and dangerous Western Conference playoff race. Against the three-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, the Pelicans routed them in a surprising four-game sweep only to lose to the eventual NBA champs, the Golden State Warriors, in a gentleman’s sweep during the next series. Without Cousins, the Pelicans were a matchup nightmare for the Blazers flat-footed frontcourt and they likely did better in that matchup than if Boogie had played. However, Boogie is absolutely necessary when facing the Warriors, and the results showed that. Not to say the Pelicans would have beaten the Warriors with Cousins, but it would have been more competitive than the series we saw, which felt over after Game 1. The list of players in the entire world who can pull off moves such as the ones below at Cousins’ height and frame begins and ends with him. Against a superteam such as the Warriors, Cousins is required in order to achieve any level of success.
The second clip just makes you laugh in awe at how he could even get that shot off, but the first clip where he sprints past a shifty Capela – one of the league’s most athletic and talented big men – for an easy layup is the most impressive.
Following the franchise’s most impressive season since the Chris Paul era, the Pelicans have some questions that desperately need to be answered. Do they resign Boogie, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, to the max deal despite the Achilles concern? Should they let him walk in favor of Mirotic and go after a mid-tier wingman? Should they sign-and-trade him for someone such as Otto Porter Jr. from the Washington Wizards, mimicking what Chris Paul did with the Clippers and Rockets last season? The front office has about a 40-game sample with Boogie and a 30-game sample with Mirotic from last season to work with, not exactly enough to draw perfect conclusions, but there is enough there to know what they have in front of them. The Dallas Mavericks have reportedly thrown their hat into the Cousins sweepstakes (along with DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela, as well). There are going to be plenty of suitors for Cousins and the Pelicans can’t afford to mess around with this.
To make this short and sweet, the Pelicans should one-thousand percent resign Cousins, even if it means giving him the max (Side note, there is no way Cousins will settle for anything less than the max, especially from New Orleans. If he wants the max, some team will give it to him, whether it be Dallas or even the Los Angeles Lakers). It’s going to be near impossible to predict how a 27-year old, 6-foot-11, 270-pound big man will return from an Achilles injury, but the payoff is an All-Star center who was a major factor in leading the Pelicans to one of their most successful months in team history. Technology is much more advanced than it was 20 years ago in terms of how athletes deal with serious injuries such as this one, and knee and foot injuries seem to result in a one-hundred percent recovery more often than not. Cousins is going to be a rare case, given his stature and how he moves on the court, but seeing videos such as these are promising.
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) June 15, 2018
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) June 23, 2018
Going into next season, there’s going to be another unknown for the Pelicans; how Mirotic will work with both Davis AND Cousins. Mirotic and Davis was a match made in heaven and completely broke down a 49-win Blazers team with an All-Star backcourt. But they won’t be playing the Blazers all season long. A frontcourt trio of Davis, Cousins, and Mirotic is something the team has never been able to experiment with and they won’t be able to until October. That is the unknown. On paper, that trio has zero flaws and can cover for each other’s deficiencies. They can shoot from deep, midrange, and in the post. Defend the 3, 4, and 5 while protecting the rim with high-level efficiency and rebound at a higher rate than any frontcourt in the NBA.
But there are other concerns. Mainly with their wings. But before we dive into that, let’s take a look at their guard situation first. They have Jrue Holiday, probably the most underrated player in all of basketball and perhaps one of the two or three best perimeter defenders in the entire league, and will have to re-sign Rajon “Playoff” Rondo, which will put the team deep into the tax penalty if they also resign Boogie to the max. Ian Clark, one of the better backup point guards last season, is a free agent they should try to resign if possible and they also have Etwaun Moore, who had his best season as a pro last year. Overall, their backcourt can compete, especially with Cousins/Davis/Mirotic, but it all comes back to their lack of wing depth.
Darius Miller impressed in his NBA return, but he isn’t a starting-caliber player. Solomon Hill played only 12 games last season and has never been a legitimate difference maker. The front office traded away Dante Cunningham – who was serviceable but in the same boat as Hill – in February. The Pelicans had 6-foot-4 Jrue Holiday play 59 (FIFTY-NINE!) percent of his minutes at small forward last season, per Basketball-Reference, which should give you an idea of the quality of their swingmen. The NBA is dominated by superstar wings, it is the most sought-after player build in the league, and the Pelicans have none. The Pelicans can use Boogie as bait to snag one, but there’s no way they can bring in a player who is just as good or even better than Boogie. There just aren’t any available that the Pelicans could realistically acquire.
Which brings us back to resigning Boogie. We haven’t seen a team who can trot out a trio of Davis/Boogie/Mirotic in this era and the possibilities for their potential are just as intriguing as they are worrisome. Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry made Boogie/Davis work and eventually made Mirotic/Davis work just as well, if not better. He’s proven in impressive fashion that he can adjust to the roster he’s given, so it’s hard to argue against him in that regard. Letting Boogie walk will inevitably result in the Pelicans not being able to sign another high-level free agent. The most they could afford would be someone such as Trevor Ariza, who will likely receive somewhere in the $12-15 million per year range, but that’s a huge downgrade if he is the “replacement” for Cousins. Ariza is a quality player and would vastly improve their situation on the wing, but it’s nowhere near the cost of losing Cousins.
The Pelicans found success without Boogie, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to achieve it again without him. Running it back with the potential for the most dangerous frontcourt in the NBA is the most logical option, despite all the questions that surround the situation.
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