There is ample NBA evidence to show pairing two of the game’s best bigs in the same frontcourt is a recipe for success, and regardless of the New Orleans Pelicans front office’s efforts to ensure Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are surrounded by mediocrity, that combo continues to prove the rule.
Thanks to a combined 69 points, 27 rebounds, 10 assists and four blocks from Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans recovered from allowing 75 first-half points to an unexpectedly explosive Indiana Pacers team and won their third straight game, all on the road, improving to 6-5. This marks the first time New Orleans has owned a record better than .500 since they last made the playoffs in the 2014-15 season.
For the 2nd time this season, Anthony Davis (37 PTS, 14 REBS) & DeMarcus Cousins (32 PTS, 13 REBS) both record 30+ PTS & 10+ REBS in the same game. pic.twitter.com/x7x9UfqTtm
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) November 8, 2017
The Pelicans trailed 75-61 at the half, their largest deficit of the evening, and then Davis and Cousins happened. The two 7-footers scored 27 of their team’s 35 points in the third quarter on 10-of-15 shooting (including 5-of-7 from 3-point range), outscoring the Pacers by eight points by themselves. They also assisted on three of their teammates’ four field goals in the frame, helping New Orleans grab a 96-94 lead entering the fourth quarter. It was a devastating display of dual-big domination.
Then came the stretch run, when even if one of them missed, the other cleaned up the mess:
They’re playing a two-man game few other, if any, combos can match. Both Davis and Cousins can play inside or out, and so you almost feel sorry for Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner, let alone much less capable defenders. Opponents exert so much effort trying to keep them out of the paint, only to have Davis sink a turnaround teardrop over top of Young’s head in a one-point game with a minute left …
… or have Cousins tip in Jrue Holiday’s missed free throw over three Pacers to seal the win:
When the buzzer sounded, Davis and Cousins had either scored or assisted 32 of their team’s 44 field goals against Indiana, combining for a 70.8 true shooting percentage (and 8-of-15 shooting from 3).
“I think our talent is different than a lot of bigs — there’s so many ways we can dominate a game,” Cousins said after the 117-112 win, via the Associated Press. “And I think we’re just scratching the surface right now. We can get so much better.”
That’s hard to imagine. Yet, New Orleans missed six more would-be assists from Cousins, according to NBA.com/stats. The shooting woes of the “other” Pelicans have been well-documented, and outside of former second-round pick by way of Bundesliga Darius Miller (3-for-5 from 3), they were 3-of-15 from distance against Indiana, many of which were wide open due to defenders helping on the stud bigs:
On the whole, though, Davis and Cousins have helped the Pelicans mask their shooting issues. Only Houston gets more wide-open 3-point attempts per game (19.7) than New Orleans (19.6), and the Pelicans are knocking them down more efficiently (39.5 percent) than the Rockets (38.2 percent).
The same can’t be said when defenders are any closer than six feet, where the Pelicans are shooting just 23 percent on 11 attempts per game. This is the beauty of having two All-Star bigs who can space the floor with their ability to knock down 3’s (Davis and Cousins are shooting a combined 35.7 percent on more than 100 3-point attempts through 11 games) and draw multiple defenders in the post.
The result has been a 113.7 offensive rating in 281 minutes with both bigs on the floor this season, per nbawowy.com, which would rank second only to the Golden State Warriors. The offense slips to middling levels with Davis on the bench and Cousins on the floor. It drops to atrocious levels with just Davis playing, and it’s an abomination when both Davis and Cousins are sitting (91.3 offensive rating).
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has limited the minutes without either big to just 21 this season, and that includes a handful of minutes when Davis’ knee kept him out of a game. Gentry has also tightened up a rotation that now includes the recently signed Josh Smith after injuries to Rajon Rondo, Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik and Solomon Hill. Just eight players saw the court against the Pacers. Smith was not one of them. Let’s hope Davis and Cousins can continue playing a combined 75 minutes per game.
The real improvement for this dual-big experiment could come on defense, where the Pelicans own an above-average defense with both Davis and Cousins on the floor (102.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). That mark moves to league-low levels when either or both of them are on the bench.
Davis and Cousins are wreaking havoc at the rim, where opponents are shooting roughly 50 percent against them — well below league average. Yet, while opposing players are shooting more than 10 percent worse from everywhere on the court opposite Davis, they are shooting right about at their averages against Cousins. And his defensive assignments are shooting a whopping 44.7 percent from 3.
You can get open shots against these guys, which is the downside of playing two 7-footers, and that doesn’t necessarily help them against the Warriors, who shot 18-of-40 from distance in a 128-120 win over the Pelicans earlier this season. Convince Cousins to lock in on defense and everyone else to help close out on shooters, and New Orleans could find its way to a top-10 defensive rating.
This might be why Tony Allen has worked his way into crunch-time minutes for New Orleans. Logic suggested Allen’s presence in the lineup would leave Davis and Cousins less room to operate offensively, but that was before we realized Davis would shoot better than 40 percent on three 3’s per game. Cousins is attempting more than twice as many 3’s a night, and maybe that’s enough floor-spacing to make room for Allen. In 45 minutes together, lineups featuring those three are outscoring opponents by 24.1 points per 100 possessions, operating at elite offensive and defensive levels.
The arrival of Jameer Nelson has helped steady the offense in Rondo’s absence, and the defense hasn’t suffered at all. Throw the veteran in with Davis, Cousins and Allen, and that quartet is outscoring opponents by 30 points per 100 possessions in 28 minutes together. Add Jrue Holiday to that mix, and that margin increases to plus-45 points per 100 possessions, albeit in just 12 minutes.
As with the limited sample sizes, it is important to recognize that all six of the Pelicans’ wins have come against teams with records at or below .500, including three against the hapless Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks. New Orleans is winless in five games against teams with winning records. Their only real statement win came against a reeling Cleveland Cavaliers team.
Still, the versatility of Davis and Cousins has unlocked even more lineup combinations than we thought possible. It will be interesting to see what the return of Rondo, another non-shooter, does to this balance, but for now the Pelicans seem to be figuring it out, which is more than the they could say as they lost more often than not these past few years. Now, just imagine if the New Orleans brass hadn’t spent $30 million a year on Asik, Hill and E’Twaun Moore as a supporting cast through 2020.
If the Davis and Cousins experiment fails and Cousins is either traded or leaves in free agency in the summer, just know it’s not their fault if they become the exception to the rule of dual-big success. There’s only so much two men can do, and they did about as much as possible against the Pacers.
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