Serge Ibaka, step aside!!
Reports started surfacing just an hour after the All-Star game that the Pelicans and Kings were deep into trade talks on the NBA’s most mercurial superstar, Demarcus Cousins. There had been a lot of chatter heading into the weekend that New Orleans was looking for another frontcourt star to pair with the monstrous Anthony Davis. And, on a night where the Brow scored 52 points to eclipse Wilt Chamberlin’s All-Star game scoring record (and took home MVP honors) it is truly terrifying to think that they were able to add a player of Cousins’ caliber beside him.
The most recent details involve the Pels sending their 2017 1st and 2nd round picks to the Kings as well as Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and the 6th overall pick in last year’s draft, Buddy Hield. In addition to Cousins (under contract through this year and the next), the Pelicans receive Omri Casspi’s expiring contract and arguably the biggest blockbuster deadline deal of the last twenty years (apologies to Pau Gasol and Deron Williams). New Orleans still has to be somewhat worried about Cousins’ attitude and the reporting that he would be unlikely to sign an extension with any team that acquired him. Also, more under the radar concerning to them should be the renewed vital importance of resigning free-agent-to-be Jrue Holiday, now that the team has traded away pretty much all of their secondary playmaking. But you know what? None of that matters.
In acquiring Cousins the Pelicans add a consensus top 12-15 player in the league and give Anthony Davis a strong signal they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to give the young superstar the best opportunity to win in NOLA. Losing the first rounder hurts, likely a top 7 or 8 pick in a loaded draft, but the absolute best case scenario (and extremely unlikely) is that that player would turn into what Cousins is right now. And, by just including spare parts in Galloway and Evans instead of the more central role players they signed last summer they get to keep a competitive roster around their two studs. Whether Buddy Hield will ever become an above-average starter is unclear as well. He’s worked his way up to 37% from 3 on the season after a miserable start, but it’s also clear he doesn’t have the kind of upside of a Jamal Murray or really any kind of potential future where he doesn’t max out as a JJ Redick-like shooting guard.
Cousins and Davis together should be nearly invincible on offense. Demarcus has added a pretty nasty three pointer to his repertoire and takes nearly 5 a game. He’s also averaging a career high in assists, which should help as Davis is one of the better off-ball cutting big men in the league and a dynamic pick and pop player. The team can run their sets through Cousins on the low block and have AD as a nightmare threat, crashing the glass for offensive rebounds. Hell, these two should be able to put up 60 a game and leave everyone else standing around for wide, wide open threes.
On defense, it’s not as clear what the fit will be. The Pelicans have resembled a top-5 unit for the stretches of the season when Anthony Davis plays center with the other Pels going switch-heavy around him. The front office clearly hasn’t wanted Davis banging with larger players under the rim, but this more modernized form of defense allowed them to remain competitive with the Warriors in the playoffs two years ago. Cousins is a good rebounder and a solid enough rim protector when engaged, but playing the two of them together will force Davis out on the perimeter far more than the Pelicans might like, chasing around stretch fours instead of blocking shots.
The offensive output should still be worth whatever the Pels sacrifice on defense, particularly if head coach Alvin Gentry can get Cousins to buy in and bury his ego for the good of the team. Shockingly, New Orleans is only 2.5 games out of the 8th seed now, so it’s not impossible that the team could make the playoffs this year, but it’ll be far more important to look to next season and redesign their offense over the summer. As with every former UK star, John Calipari has already had to state he isn’t planning on leaving college for the Pelicans, but how Cousins gets along with Davis will likely be far more important than any kind of coaching change. Whatever the result is between the two of them, it’ll be fascinating to watch for the next two years.
On Sacramento’s end, the move represents a sad conclusion to a frustrating 7 years. It’s easy to go on about the team’s institutional incompetence and shocking instability over this period, but the simple fact is that this was a pretty lousy return for a superstar. The Kings have already put veterans like Gay, Collison, and Afflalo on the table, as they approach a total rebuild, and this may just become one of the most unwatchable teams in the league. With the Sixers having the rights to swap picks with them in the upcoming draft, losing Cousins may hurt even more if Philly ends up jumping them on draft night. It’s tough for the fans, who are some of the most loyal in basketball, but hopefully the Kings will end up using those two top-10 picks to start something special again in Sacramento.