So the tradition goes, biting into the baby figurine placed inside a King Cake on Mardi Gras grants the lucky winner royalty for the day, and maybe a trip to a throne at the dentist’s office. Coming off a tumultuous 2011 Collective Bargaining negotiation, the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets are determined to move Chris Paul in order to prevent inevitably losing him for nothing in 2012 free agency. David Stern (and Dan Gilbert) has declared a 3-team CP3 swap to join forces with Kobe and the ‘09 & ‘10 champion Lakers (and likely Dwight Howard later on) invalid for “basketball reasons”. Not allowed to join the Purple and Gold to spawn an eminent CP3/Kobe vs. LeBron/D Wade Finals, the Hornets trade Paul to the Clippers. Instead of netting Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic, the Hornets wind up with Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman and a ‘12 1st rounder (turned out to be Austin Rivers).
With an emerging Anthony Davis turning heads on a National Champion Kentucky squad, it is safe to say there is potentially a generational talent of a baby baked into the King Cake that was the 2012 NBA draft. The CP3-less Hornets, with 2 prospects and 1 vet, as opposed to 3 vets and 1 prospect, loss-column their way into the 4th largest slice of the cake. The spoils of royalty are reaped by new owner Tom Benson and GM Dell Demps when the ping pong balls determine that Michael Jordan isn’t going to chip a tooth.
Fast-forward to the 2015 playoffs. The Hornets are now the Pelicans. Anthony Davis has lived up to every unrealistic expectation and puts on a virtuosic showing against MVP Stephen Curry and the 1-seeded Warriors. Alvin Gentry wins a championship as an assistant with Golden State, and in being wined-and-dined by every team looking to fill their head coaching position, selects New Orleans. Gentry’s decision stomps on every other candidate writing love letters to Davis, dreaming of the not 4, not 5, not 6 championships they’d win together. Unfortunately for Gentry, it wasn’t immediately smooth sailing in the gulf.
A rocky 2015-16 season ubiquitous with injuries and setbacks end the Pels season before the playoffs even tip. Davis puts up staggering numbers at times, including a near 60 point game, but he is surrounded by replacements to the front office’s initial commitments; you know it’s a bad season when you aren’t a Chinese team and give Jimmer Fredette a shot. The lack of wins gives New Orleans another swing at the lottery: they land a solid prospect, coming off a stellar college season in Buddy Hield. Eric Gordon, the last remaining piece from the CP3 trade, and Ryan Anderson leave in free agency. Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore join as the not-so-bigger names scribbled on contacts in the rest of an underwhelming offseason that suffocates any remaining excitement from the 2015 playoffs.
Now we find ourselves at the 2017 All Star Game located in none other than New Orleans (another stroke of luck removing a highly coveted resource from Charlotte, and placing it in New Orleans hands). Every player is relieved by not having to act like they enjoy the company of Drake, and every fan marks their calendar to remind themselves to never watch any part of All Star Weekend ever again. GM’s are scrambling to put together a package that would bring Jimmy Butler or Paul George to their team. Dell Demps is redialing every phone slammed down that transmitted one of his earlier Omer Asik offers. While Demps is asking the basketball gods to make Rob Hennigen answer his phone, he picks at a small piece of cake with purple sprinkles left on his desk by an intern, in a Hield jersey, earlier that afternoon. His fork strikes something solid, and the call to Hennigen is suddenly interrupted by Vlade Divak calling from a parade on Bourbon Street. Divak blurts out “Daahhmarkusss… you want’em!?!???!”
Believe it or not, I’m certain this is how Demps sealed the deal to bring Boogie to the Big Easy. Giving up Buddy, Langston Galloway, Tyreke Evans, a top-3 protected ‘17 1st rounder, and a unprotected 2nd round pick, Demarcus Cousins was league-office permitted to join a fellow Calipari Blue Chip. Unbelievably, a Pelicans season that began with 8 straight losses had new life. Demps and company scrambled to fill out the rest of the roster before James Harden and the Rockets rolled into town for the most exciting Pelicans home game since the Pels nearly stole a game from the Warriors in those ‘15 playoffs.
Boogie Cousins. The most disputable player in the league. I was never incredibly high on him initially, and then he started shooting 3s and sizing up off the dribble like a forward without losing his bruising low-post game. Now I believe, relative to the players guarding him, he may be the single most difficult player to stop in a 1 on 1. Beyond that he’s a willing passer, elite rebounder and an average defender. All things considered, he’s reasonably the most talented 5 in the league
Of course, his fair and unfair reputation precedes him; I don’t need to rattle off the heavily publicized criticism of his personality. The first knock on him since the trade has been his tendency to pick up fouls. I feel for Boogie’s frustrations to a certain extent. Much like LeBron, Cousins rides the fine line that makes officiating, especially in a much softer league, extremely challenging. He’s often times so much of a physical mismatch that opponents battering him are less noticeable than the vanilla fouls he’s penalized for. Unlike LeBron, his undiplomatic and less powerful reputation in the league usually doesn’t reward him when he tries adapting to refs blowing whistles for players putting on sponsored jerseys and shin guards. This is when all hell breaks loose: he starts tangling arms, fans heckle him, and the word focus turns into gasoline.
It’s hard to watch Demarcus and not think of players like Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal. I certainly don’t think Cousins is walking around with a box of pizza, while Ajinca hoists a bigger kettlebell than you’ve ever seen, but you’re left wondering if he could achieve another level of fitness, making him even more dominant (or at least get back on defense more). That being said, I don’t look at his stamina as being the crux of this team’s problems. He’s going to obliterate the majority of starting centers, make some high-quality passes, snatch a lion’s share of rebounds, and argue with refs. If you’re funneling the ball towards him on defense and asking him to protect the rim without any help, he’s going to foul out and lose concentration. I would rather appreciate Cousins for what he is, and pan the magnifying glass towards the other guys.
Not so surprisingly, I’ve made it this far without a single note on Jrue Holiday. After knee injuries derailed his impressive young career with the 76ers that included a 2013 All Star selection, Jrue has navigated into one of the more under-the-radar players in the league. Not only does his demeanor remind me of Mike Conley, watching him in these recent games has pointed out a similar style in play, and their stats are nearly identical. Conley may be a little more crafty, and have a little bit more of a burst, but Jrue makes up for that in size and strength. They both play with a throwback, no gimmicks style that many coaches love, and fans tend to forget. They aren’t terrific catch-and-shoot guys, but can get hot. They rarely get rattled, or tear apart a defense. They are quiet, but not silent.
The thing that ended up conflicting with my memory when watching Jrue was that he isn’t an above average defender. He is satisfactory for a starter, but definitely not impactful. Unclear if it is scheme or his own approach, he does very little to impede opposing guards in the pick-and-roll, allowing them to get what they want most of the time. The other two things that lower Holiday into the second-tier of guards, and tests Gentry’s patience, is lacking the open court high-gear, and not being a beast in the pick-and-roll. Jrue is still decently quick after the injuries, but doesn’t galvanize a transition offense. He needs the right matchup to give a defense trouble when using ball-screens. His reserved style can bog down the tempo and make for more late-clock contested shots. Yet, like Conley last year, Holiday is still headed towards a massive pay day in the offseason. New Orleans can pay him more money, over more years, than any other franchise by owning his Bird Rights; but the question becomes is he the ideal 3rd cog to place between Boogie and Anthony Davis?
Anthony Davis has captured the praise of NBA fans since his phenomenal 2012-13 rookie season. He started 2014-15 with an astonishing 26 pts, 17 reb, 9 blk game, and later punctuated the season in the aforementioned Warriors series by averaging a 31, 11, 3. You couldn’t have expressed a more foolish opinion if you didn’t believe he was the next all-time great player. He signed an extension with a massive Rose Rule bonus on the table, recorded another 9 block game and upped his career high to 59 points (grabbed 20 boards that game as well). He was the one bright spot to New Orleans otherwise bleak season last year; that is, until he missed the final month of the season due to a shoulder and knee injury, and lost a shit ton of money by not making an All-NBA team as a result.
Two things worry me about Davis: he may be more seriously injury-prone, and that last season broke some of his good habits. It’s not a significant worry, he’s still demonstrably a top-10 player, probably the best power-forward, all that… but the worry lingers in watching him. By Any Means Basketball, a high-quality YouTube channel, collected footage examining the body mechanics of injury-prone players like Rose, and cyborg-confirmed players like Westbrook and LeBron. Spending my own 100+ hours in physical therapy rehabbing knee injuries, I have to say, I frequently notice off-balance or straight-legged Davis jumps and landings that make me cringe. He has one of those bodies that will always look like he grew too fast, (until he gains weight and loses his athleticism) and moves accordingly. A lot of injuries have to do with luck (look at KD or Bogut). I seriously hope I’m wrong, but I won’t be surprised if injuries dramatically alter his career.
On to the habits. Davis established a great deal of his reputation by being a two-way player. His extraordinary defense was the other half to his guard-like ballhandling, throw-it-anywhere lob-finishing, and nice touch from the mid-range. I was shocked to find that I wouldn’t put his defense into the elite category anymore (Draymond is seriously much better). I was so dumbfounded, (people who don’t watch him will always claim he’s a candidate for DPOY) I started to contemplate that he was so beaten down from inescapably losing (they only won the 59, 20 game by 5 points) most games last year, that he internalized how hopelessly bad they were. Furthermore, he was asked to do so much that defensive effort started to rank lower on the list of priorities for his expenditures of energy.
Watching him in these recent games officially laid the “He Should Play the 5, Cuz Smallball” thing to rest for me. It’s pretty solid against other small non-crashing lineups, but he was pulverized by Steven Adams and Andre Drummond. Pinning him under the basket and expecting him to block shots beats him up and leaves the rim unprotected for a crew of board-challenged teammates. Instead, the Pelicans need to reinvigorate the advantage he presents. He should be the best switching big in the game (a tremendous strategic advantage), and he isn’t. Patrolling the mid-range, he should terrorize passing lanes and shots even more than he does. Now that he has a real rebounding banger, he should blossom into one of the most threatening transition players with fewer defensive board responsibilities. The addition of Cousins has got to diversify Davis’ efforts to accomplish things Cousins, and the rest of the team or league for that matter, can’t.
After observing their nucleus of talent, the next natural question is who is their 4th best player? You have a cast of underperforming shooters, domesticated defenders, a mighty mouse point guard and better-on-the-bench bigs. My order would be Dante Cunningham, E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill, Tim Frazier, Hollis Thompson, Alexis Ajinca, Donatas Montiejunas, insert a 10-day contract guy,… can we sign another 10-dayer?, … Quincy Pondexter, so how’s Cheick Diallo look? … and Omer Asik. Solomon Hill was booked as their stopper-wing who might shoot 40% from 3; he hasn’t lived up to either standard. E’Twaun Moore falls more on the offensive side and is their best scorer off the bench, but still isn’t quite a sharpshooter. Dante Cunningham played Montiejunas right off the floor with some smart basketball, inspiring defense and marvelous shooting, but has to fill gaps as a backup 4. Frazier held the fort down respectably when Jrue and Tyreke missed time early in the season, but hasn’t been the most reliable bench point guard since. I’m reluctant to be too tough on Hollis because he’s playing on shaky ground, but he’s gotten blown by like a bike on a freeway on defense, and has only looked slightly better on offense. Not only do you have a super core that hasn’t immediately clicked, you have role players that don’t make winning games any easier.
Although they haven’t been officially eliminated, the Pelicans won’t make the 2017 playoffs. Having a large amount of cap invested in non-contributing players, very little, if any, trade assets, and New Orleans not typically being a free agent destination will make for a challenging offseason. Jrue Holiday’s contract looms as a huge decision. Alvin Gentry has one more year remaining on his contact. Decisions made this summer will determine the path to resigning Demarcus Cousins (if they choose to do so) in 2018. Most notably, New Orleans needs better 3 point shooting and perimeter defense; both highly valued resources in the league. One asset, less difficult to acquire, that I think would really help: a highly-respected veteran presence. Gentry comes across as a player’s coach, and Holiday isn’t a vocal leader. Davis and Cousins have had a serious lack of vets on their teams, and the team needs a winning spirit. June and July will set the table for what type of success this era will see.
Becoming king for a day comes with 1 responsibility: the royal member caters the subsequent celebration. Anthony Davis was the king of college hoops, the 2012 draft, and his rookie class. Demarcus Cousins was literally a King in Sacramento. Tom Benson hoisted a silver trophy with the Saints. Seeking a crown of his own, Alvin Gentry decided to leave the royal family in Oakland. They have the opportunity to etch their kingship into the golden annals of NBA history and throw one of the more memorable celebrations in a city that knows how to party. Unfortunately, the experience of being a king is likely to only last a day.