Several weeks ago, the New Orleans Pelicans traded for DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. The idea is simple: putting Cousins next to Anthony Davis gives the Pelicans, arguably, one of the most talented frontcourts in NBA history, and from that foundation, only good things can happen.
“Good things have not happened,” said the Arrested Development voiceover.
Boogie and AD have played 10 games together thus far and have gone 4-6. One of those four wins came in a game that Boogie didn’t play (he was suspended one game after getting whistled for his 18th technical foul resulting in automatically missing his next game). This means that practically speaking, the Pelicans are 3-6 since pairing Boogie with Davis. Those performances have been ugly, as the team has gone from having one source of incredible gravity (Davis) to having two of them and the team hasn’t immediately adjusted perfectly.
This has lead to people wondering if the trade was wrong-headed, and if what we’re witnessing is the beginning of an incredible disaster. Or, for those who have ever spent any time watching the Pelicans, the worsening of an ongoing disaster.
Here’s the thing though:
That’s Boogie Cousins throwing a perfect pass from beyond the three-point line to a cutting Anthony Davis, who, while spinning, catches it mid-air and throws it down. Put aside how awesome that dunk is – but, seriously, that dunk is awesome – and focus instead on the idea of a 6’11” hulk throwing alley-oops to a cutting 6’10” scythe.
“That’s great!” might be the reply, “But how often can they do that?”
Because our modern times demand that we rush to drawing immediate conclusions – which is obviously a good and healthy thing for all of us – the thought continues to be that this isn’t going to work out. But basketball players, even professional ones, do not adjust to one another immediately.
Anybody who has ever played the game knows this. I’ll take five guys who know each other over five strangers in any pick-up game we can imagine, not because those five strangers are necessarily worse players, but simply because they do not have the familiarity with each others’ games. Cousins and AD are both incredible players (and they both went to Kentucky) but that being true does not mean that they are capable of being immediately incredible players when it comes to working with one another on the basketball court.
But acknowledging this lack of an immediate gel does not then necessarily mean that they are incapable of ever achieving that greatness. It simply means that such cohesion takes time. Players have to learn what their teammates want and how they want to get it.*
So let’s revisit last night’s alley-oop. Cousins, the biggest player on the floor and the one being guarded by Portland’s Meyers Leonard, is at the top of the arc. Leonard having followed Cousins out to the three-point line opens up the lane for activity. Meanwhile, Portland’s monstrous Jusuf Nurkic is guarding Davis out on the baseline. This is the beginning of a problem, as Nurkic, while great, is huge and slow and fundamentally incapable of sticking with a cutting Davis. So now the Portland defense has to pick its poison: it can clear out the lane to keep players on Cousins and Davis (both of whom are competent shooters) or it can pack the lane to prevent what is about to happen. It chooses the former, both Cousins and Davis recognize this, and both are savvy enough to immediately take advantage of the opportunity.
It should be acknowledged that Portland’s defense is laughably bad, that Leonard and Nurkic are “defenders” in as much as they’re both on the court in jerseys for the team without the ball, and that other teams will be more defensively competent. But the point is that Cousins, with the ball beyond the three-point line, and Davis, in position along the baseline, realized what was available, realized what each were capable of, and realized how to make it happen. This is what happens as players slowly become accustomed to one another. This is what the Pelicans are hoping for.
Critics who declared that the Pelicans missing the playoffs this year were evidence that the Cousins/Davis pairing was doomed to failure are, frankly, missing the point. The rest of this season is about getting these two players familiar with one another. Next season is about figuring out if it can actually work, especially if New Orleans makes some practical personnel moves that put the sorts of players around Cousins/Davis that might make the team a more cohesive whole.
*In this, basketball is very similar to other activities involving human beings including…cooking each other dinner. Ahem.