NEW ORLEANS — The Statue of Liberty, the Queen of Sheba and a bright pink flamingo moseyed down Airline Drive, past an abandoned flea market and an empty roller skating rink, with police sirens squawking around them in all directions. This slow-roll show, a string of truck-pulled Mardi Gras floats heading for the big parade, stopped traffic in both directions, but the rows of inconvenienced drivers didn’t honk or cue up the GPS for an alternate route, instead patiently watching as a glaring Julius Caesar puttered past, followed by Morpheus with a crescent moon. Taking in the vibrant blues, greens and purples, they had all day.
DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans, new partners in basketball, don’t enjoy that same luxury. The three-time All-Star center was introduced to the media at the New Orleans Saints’ practice facility on Wednesday morning, and their pace was anything but leisurely. Cousins, teammate Omri Casspi, coach Alvin Gentry and GM Dell Demps conducted a brisk press conference—running through an accelerated timeline of the All-Star Weekend trade with Sacramento—before the former Kings could hit the practice floor with their new teammates for the first time.
The clock was ticking throughout their press session. Gentry noted that the Pelicans (23–34) have just 25 games to work their way back into the playoffs. Demps, excited by the prospect of teaming Cousins with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, hoped for an “expedited” acclimation process. Cousins, for his part, sounded like he was still coming to terms with his unexpected change of scenery.
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” he said. “Everything happened so quickly. … Sunday was a wild day. Just a lot of mixed emotions. I sat in the airport for a minute with my mind racing, didn’t really know what to think.”
In Sacramento, coach Dave Joerger leaned on the “Next play” mantra to try to steer Cousins towards success and away from negative interactions with officials. That happens to be the perfect phrase for Cousins’s current predicament as well. After six-plus seasons filled with lottery trips, trade rumors, finger-pointing, scapegoating and, as Cousins admitted, “praying for help” that never seemed to arrive, he finally has a fresh start. The Pelicans offer Davis, the best teammate he’s ever had by a mile, a strong chance at his first playoff appearance, and perhaps a little less local scrutiny given that the Pelicans are just one of many shows in town.
But Cousins (27.8 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 4.9 APG) didn’t sign with New Orleans as a free agent, he didn’t play an active role in the trade discussions, he publicly discussed the possibility of signing a $200+ million extension with Sacramento last month, and he stands to lose tens of millions of dollars on his next contract because of the deal. Indeed, he acknowledged that he hadn’t taken the rumors seriously until right before the deal was consummated, he noted that he had tried to sell Davis on coming to Sacramento earlier this month, and he called out the Kings for their “dishonesty” as the trade talks unfolded over All-Star Weekend, adding that he still hasn’t spoken to Vlade Divac. As anyone who has watched Cousins drag out an argument with a referee or go chest-to-chest with an opponent can attest, the possibility for self-sabotage and distraction is very real here.
In light of these tenuous circumstances—made worse by the Kings’ waffling and incoherent public statements coupled with the deal’s terrible timing on All-Star Sunday—moving on to the “Next Play” is easier said than done. With a few days to reflect on his initial “disappointment,” though, Cousins told three rows of reporters and a flock of Pelicans staffers that his focus is on the stretch run rather than the awkward break-up. He chose a new jersey number, switching from 15 to 0, as a nod to his “new life.”
“I’m not sour, I’m not mad, I don’t have any ill feelings,” he said. “This is a business and these types of things happen. I’m comfortable with it and I’m in a good place. I’m ready to get to work.”
The Pelicans have done their best to make Cousins feel welcome, dispatching a plane to bring him to New Orleans and implementing some of Sacramento’s sets to help him get his bearings on the court. Owner Tom Benson and his wife attended the introductory press conference and Cousins said that Demps personally “put me at ease” with his communication immediately following the trade on Sunday. It’s clear that Davis (27.7 PPG, 12 RPG), a former USA Basketball teammate and a fellow Kentucky product, represents the biggest olive branch.
“Being together is going to make both of our jobs easier,” Cousins said. “We can wreak havoc on this league. Will it happen overnight? Probably not, but our potential is scary. … We’re opposites. I’ve got a little fire, he’s got a little ice.”
The task for mixing up the right combinations of fire and ice falls to Gentry, a coaching lifer who has juggled injury-ravaged lineups ever since replacing Monty Williams two years ago. There is no modern model for the Davis/Cousins pairing. As a Clippers assistant, Gentry coached Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, two major athletic talents who fill traditional position roles and represent perhaps the best comparable duo to Davis and Cousins. However, Davis and Cousins both move much more freely around the perimeter and do far more with the ball than Jordan, and both rebound and block shots at far higher rates than Griffin.
Gentry told reporters that he was excited to welcome Cousins’s defensive rebounding and foul-drawing skills, and that he looked forward to being able to zig when other teams zag by fielding big lineups featuring Cousins, Davis and Casspi together. He also sounded thrilled by the prospect of mixing and matching two versatile big men who can both play inside and outside. One worthwhile metric to keep an eye on is pace, as the Kings ranked among the bottom-five in pace this year while the Pelicans rank in the top 10. Where, exactly, will they meet in the middle? Can Cousins’s arrival succeed in providing an immediate efficiency boost to a lagging offense even if that means slowing things down?
Indirectly, though, Gentry made it clear that basketball strategy is only one aspect of his job over the next few months. The coach joked that he had already told Cousins he would be glad to take technical fouls on his behalf, saving Cousins from possible ejections and suspensions. He also attempted to head off any talk about personality conflicts, playing up Davis’s friendship with Cousins and their ability to share the ball on offense. Something will need to give though: Cousins arrives in New Orleans with the league’s second-highest usage rate and Davis ranks 12th. Cleveland’s LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are the only other pair of teammates in the same vicinity, and they’re both perimeter-oriented playmakers rather than big men dependent on guards to initiate the offense.
“Both of them are very giving,” Gentry said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any head-bumping in terms of whose team this is. I just think it’s a matter of getting on the court and making the chemistry work on the court. … We’re going to try to make it work quickly.”
While Demps clearly bought himself some time after years of strikeouts and defections in free agency, he’s not off the hook just yet. Holiday (16.3 PPG, 7.5 APG) is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and should generate significant interest given that many of the top point guards on the market—like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry—are unlikely to change teams. Needless to say, losing Holiday would be calamitous given the sparse assemblage of proven talent on New Orleans’s roster.
After the Holiday decision, Demps, who copped to a “little fist pump” once the trade was finalized, will need to address his thin guards ranks and start thinking about a possible extension for Cousins, who said Wednesday that he was “all in” for the Pelicans but added that he wasn’t yet prepared to answer questions about his longer-term future in New Orleans. While many things needed to line up for the Pelicans to land Cousins, many more things will need to unfold on schedule if they are going to retain his superstar talent. Cousins and Davis must mesh. Gentry must earn Cousins’s trust. Holiday must re-up. Demps must fill out the rest of his rotation. And the whole group must prove that it can win consistently.
As the Pelicans gathered themselves in hopes of beating out the Nuggets, Kings, Blazers, Mavericks and Timberwolves for the West’s No. 8 seed, it became clear that Cousins’s unpredictability and the slapdash nature of this major midseason move makes them one of the NBA’s top attractions down the stretch and sets up the possibility of a delightful first-round series with the Warriors.
Like the floats that rumbled past outside, the new-look Pelicans will be colorful and loud, and their risky originality will surely stop traffic. Yet the big question hovers: Will they make it to the party in time?