Here’s why the Pelicans are 3-6 with DeMarcus Cousins

The New Orleans Pelicans have a DeMarcus Cousins problem.

Anthony Davis’ team is 3-6 since acquiring Boogie at the trade deadline, with one of those wins coming with Cousins suspended. Really, though, the win-loss record doesn’t do this team’s struggles justice.

The Pelicans are three different teams these days: An atrocious squad playing ugly basketball when Cousins and Davis share the court; a Brow-heavy team that bullies opponents when Cousins sits; and a smooth, Warriors-esque perimeter-oriented squad when Boogie runs the show by himself. And if coach Alvin Gentry doesn’t figure out how to blend those latter two lineups into a sum that’s greater than the parts, he’ll be out of a job soon.

One surprising constant in New Orleans has been the defense. The Pelicans were in the top 10 on that end of the court prior to adding Boogie, and they’ve actually improved by a point per 100 possessions since. Cousins protects the rim and the paint, freeing Davis to patrol the rest of the area under the 3-point line, like a pterodactyl playing free safety on a basketball court.* As long as everyone else does their jobs, New Orleans should be an elite defense.

*When you’re dealing with a player as unique as The Brow, you have to mix your metaphors, friends.

The offense, on the other hand, is an unmitigated disaster. Without a major change in scheme, this incredibly talented combination of big men is doomed.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, the Pelicans’ offensive rating with Cousins and Davis on the court at the same time would make for one of the 10 worst scoring offenses in modern NBA history.  That’s by no means an exaggeration. New Orleans scores 10 fewer points per 100 possessions with its Big Two than this season’s worst offense, the Philadelphia 76ers, who are atrocious in their own right.

And the Pels struggle regardless of which three players Gentry puts around his big-man tandem, for reasons most anyone could have predicted. When Cousins and Davis are on the court together, the Pelicans’ spacing collapses into a black hole, sucking everyone and anything into the middle of the court.

The Pelicans try to play modern basketball despite their issues. A typical possession will see Cousins set a high screen for Jrue Holliday … then just kind of linger at the perimeter, since Davis is taking up shop either on the wing or on the block near the basket. There’s precious little room for Cousins to operate as a roll man in that scenario, and he and Davis have yet to establish the kind of chemistry they’ll need to navigate close-quarters offense.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Therein lies the first significant issue for New Orleans. While either Davis or Cousins is capable of working as a rim-destroying force on the inside, the other is stuck as a glorified stretch-four when the Pelicans try to run pick-and-roll. To Gentry’s credit, he’s tried to get around that problem by having his point guards attack from the slot, instead of at the top of the key.

Theoretically, that makes sense. You can use Boogie as the screener in the side pick-and-roll while Davis keeps the defense busy on the weak side. In practice, however, the Pelicans simply end up dribbling toward the baseline corner, allowing defenses to blitz the ballhandler and force an easy turnover.

But it gets worse! You’d assume that with two ridiculously skilled big men, opponents would have to abandon the perimeter. Surely the Pelicans are getting wide-open 3s at least, right?

Yet because New Orleans isn’t getting any real penetration into the paint, defenders are just a step away from helping on shooters when the ball swings around the horn. Compound that tactical struggle with the Pelicans’ utter lack of above-average shooters, and you have a recipe for a delicious, disaster-based gumbo in the Big Easy.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The most infuriating part, though, has to be how well the Pelicans play when they have one big man or the other on the court, flying solo.

With Davis on the bench, New Orleans looks like the squad we knew before the All-Star break. The offense is simple: Give the ball to the Brow and let him go to work wherever he wants. Whether that means facing up a defender in isolation, sitting a jarring screen and soaring for an alley-oop, or backing down a smaller defender on the block, Davis is too skilled to be stopped one-on-one when he has room to operate.

Even more striking is the Pelicans’ offense when Davis sits and Cousins takes over. New Orleans becomes the reincarnation of Steve Nash’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns — a never-ending blender of pick-and-rolls, 3-pointers (including from Boogie) and ridiculous passing.

Those individual skills illustrate some of the larger problems when the two play together. Davis wants to roam and find the weakness in an offense, then attack. Cousins wants to use his versatility to facilitate the flow of the offense. And when those two tendencies try to play out simultaneously, the outcome is paralysis by indecision.

Either way, the Pelicans outscore their opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions, five more points than the NBA-best Warriors when Davis or Cousins is on the court without the other. When they both play? The Pelicans are outscored by more than eight points per 100.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how talented Cousins and Davis are, building an elite modern offense around two big men will require chemistry, creativity and a healthy dose of shooting. This might not be the right roster to maximize their talents — and Gentry might not be the right coach.

He’s stuck between wanting to let his stars lead the way, as he did as coach of the Suns in the twilight of Nash’s time as an All-Star, and trying to install a Warriors-esque system that puts all five players in the best position to succeed.

Unfortunately, neither approach is going to work. We’re seeing that with every game the Pelicans throw away this season. Playing Cousins and Davis together in the era of 3-point shooting is going to take an entirely novel approach to the game.

Unless Gentry is able to draw up a whole new scheme this summer, he’s not long for New Orleans. He’ll be coaching for his job next year, plain and simple.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After all, the Pelicans aren’t going to say goodbye to Cousins this summer. You can’t get Davis the help he’s always needed then let that assistance walk away in the offseason — and on the flip side, Cousins is nice insurance in case Davis suffers the catastrophic injury that always seems to loom over his potential.

While this grand experiment might not work in the long- run, New Orleans has to commit to Boogie and the Brow. The die is cast; the question is who leads the Pelicans across the Rubicon.