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DeMarcus Cousins has kept a close eye on the fast-churning NBA rumor mill over the last few weeks. As he says, “It’s hard to miss.”
“It’s been an interesting summer,” Cousins told The Vertical. “I can’t wait for the season to start.”
It’s a strange feeling for Cousins, really. Rumors, you know, that don’t involve him. For the better part of three years Cousins was the lead character in a dysfunctional soap opera. His battles with former Sacramento Kings coach George Karl were chronicled daily, his immaturity was criticized just as often. Sacramento was a toxic mix, and Cousins was the straw that stirred it. When the Kings shipped him to the New Orleans Pelicans in February, it was less about recouping equal value than starting over.
“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” Cousins said. “A lot of things happen in our lives, and we kind of think of it as a mistake or you know a bad time for us or you know some people call it adversity, whatever the case may be. But I think [the trade] happened for the right reason. I’m happy where I’m at.”
Where he is at is New Orleans, with the Pelicans, part of one of the most fascinating frontcourt combinations in recent memory. Twenty years ago, a Cousins-Anthony Davis frontcourt would have been the envy of the league. But the rise of the stretch four has made super-sized frontcourts rare, leading to questions as to whether the 6-foot-11 Cousins and the 6-11 Davis can co-exist.
Early returns were mixed. In 17 games last season, both Cousins (24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds) and Davis (28.3, 11.1) thrived offensively, but the defense was shoddy, and the Pelicans’ record in those games was 7-10. Remarked one advanced scout late last season, “The game is getting smaller and smaller. Every coach in the league values spacing. Frontlines like that just don’t work.”
Cousins disagrees. Teaming two traditional bigs may not be trendy, Cousins says, but the skill sets of the two bigs need to be taken into account.
“I think the game is actually playing into our hands,” Cousins said. “I think me and A.D. have a skill set that a lot of bigs don’t have in this league, or the league hasn’t seen in some bigs throughout the history of the game. I think it actually plays into our hands, and we’re just rolling with the punches. I don’t think [a smaller game] will effect me or A.D. at all.
“That sample size we got last season is the reason I’m so confident this season. I believe we can make it work, and I think we’re going to surprise a lot more people than people actually expect. For some reason we’re being counted out, but that’s actually OK. We’re going to surprise a lot of people this season.”
In Sacramento, Cousins was the centerpiece of the Kings’ offense. In New Orleans, the expectations were that Cousins would have to tailor his game to fit in alongside Davis. And Cousins said he tried – until he discovered he didn’t need to.
“I actually went in trying to change my game, and A.D. got on me a little bit and the coaches got on me and told me to just come out and be myself,” Cousins said. “As I made that adjustment we actually started clicking a lot better and the team as a whole started playing a lot better. So there’s not really much of a change. It is an adjustment, but the biggest thing I take from it is playing with A.D., the game comes a lot more easier for me and I think he feels the same way.”
So much is at stake for Cousins, who will be a free agent after next season. This time last year, Kings management was signaling that it was committed to locking up Cousins with a five-year, max-level contract. Today, Cousins’ future is shrouded in uncertainty, with executives across the league keeping a close eye on how his first full season in New Orleans plays out.
“This season is huge,” said a Western Conference team executive. “He has to prove he can win. He has never played with anyone near the talent of Davis. He has to show he is willing to sacrifice for the team and do what is best for the team first. He really needs to turn a corner. If he acts up, he will cost himself a lot of money.”
Added another Western Conference exec, “There’s no way to overstate it – there is huge money on the line.”
Cousins refuses to address anything beyond next season. “I’m not real concerned,” Cousins said. “I know people know my talent. I’m past all that.” And expectations should be measured. The Pelicans were a 34-win team last season; next season, it could take 50 wins to make the playoffs. Shooting was a significant weakness for New Orleans – the Pelicans were 19th in the NBA in 3-point percentage last season (.350). New Orleans did nothing to address it, instead adding Rajon Rondo, a former teammate of Cousins in Sacramento, and pledging to experiment with a Rondo-Jrue Holiday backcourt.
“Rajon is like a big brother to me,” Cousins said. “He taught me a lot in that one season we had together. Our relationship remained strong and we always thought we’d wind up being teammates again later down the road. I never expected it to be this soon, but I’m also happy about it. The addition of him, I think, that takes our team to the next level. I think he’ll have guys like myself, A.D. and Jrue and the rest of the team playing at an extremely high level. That’s one thing he does is bring out his teammates’ confidence. Every guy around him is a lot more confident.”
The Pelicans won’t rank among the conference elite next season, but they could be among the most compelling. From the combustibility of Cousins to his compatibility with Davis, from the presence of Rondo to the looming overhaul that could be in store should the season go sideways, Big Easy basketball won’t be boring.
Will it be successful? That’s a different story.
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