By: Blake Sandlin
It all sounded so good on paper.
In what was arguably the biggest trade last season, Demarcus Cousins was sent to New Orleans to team up with Anthony Davis. Of course, NBA Twitter went bananas, as anticipated when players of Cousins’ and Davis’ caliber team-up. Fans tweeted out the usual, “This is going to be fun”, and the classic, “There’s a new superteam”, in response to a trade emulating the newest NBA philosophy made famous by the Golden State Warriors: get the most talented players available (but we’ll get to that later).
In a surprising turn of events, all the Twitter analysts were wrong. What seemed to be a match made in heaven–two of the most dominant big men teaming up to form the most-feared front court in the league–never actually materialized in the months following the All-Star break. The Pels went a combined 34-48 (11-14 after the Cousins acquisition) and failed to make the playoffs. Granted, the Pelicans play in a tough Western Conference and Demarcus Cousins only played 25 total games for them, but that doesn’t change the inevitable reality that this team doesn’t have what it takes to be a contender.
Forget about the issue that the Pelicans have literally no cap space. Forget that they signed a potential locker room problem and point guard that covets minutes and control in Rajon Rondo after signing Jrue Holiday to a five-year deal. But don’t forget the direction the NBA is moving in. The newer, sexier, small-ball style popularized by the Warriors is the aftermath of the evolution of the NBA game over the years. What used to be a league known for its physicality–hand-checking, grinding in the paint and Shaq putting his nuts in opponent’s faces–is now one dominated by the three-pointer, elegant dribbling and Steph Curry mimicking pooping on opponents.
Whether you like that style of play or not is subjective. What isn’t, though, is the direction of the NBA landscape. Three-straight NBA Finals appearances by the Warriors and Cavaliers are evidence of the change. Teams with smaller, quicker and more athletic guards are constantly seeing success; especially those adept at the three-point line. Traditional fours and fives are expected to be able to stretch the floor and shoot from places players like Kareem and Shaq never even stepped on during their storied careers.
But the root of the Pelicans issues stretches past their lack of guard play, and lies within a growing trend that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s league. The concept that a team must recruit a cast of the most talented players in the NBA is a philosophy that a lot of teams are beginning to adopt, with contingent success from franchise to franchise.
The beginning of the common superteam era began with Lebron first joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and has since evolved to what we have now in the four-headed beast that is Golden State. I can’t say I don’t get it, I mean why wouldn’t you want the best players? And if
Golden State has an elite roster, the best way to combat it is to fight fire with fire. Thus, teams like Houston, Boston, Minnesota, and Cleveland were born. New Orleans is no different. Their mid-season trade for Cousins reinforced the new direction of the league, but what differentiated it from the roster upgrades of Boston or Cleveland is that it did nothing to spur them any closer to a title. While picking up the game’s most dominant center looks good on paper, when you examine the needs of the team and the roles that need filling before taking the next step, a center isn’t exactly at the top of the list when you already have a player like Anthony Davis that’s well-equipped to play the four and the five.
If the recipe for a title is small ball, then the Pelicans need to go shopping for different ingredients, because their current assets won’t cut it. A big-dominant lineup like theirs cannot stack up to the juggernauts in the West, so there must be a change.
New Orleans sits at just $686k under the hard cap, which means they can’t add even a minimum contract until they slash their current salary, which is one of the highest in the league. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with a high payroll, however. In fact, the most successful teams in the league are those most willing to go all-out for their franchise. The problem is where that money is going. New Orleans currently has the eighth-highest payroll in the league, but six of the seven teams in front of them–Milwaukee, Washington, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Portland and Cleveland–all clinched a playoff spot last year. Clearly, the problem isn’t with spending money, it’s how they choose to spend it. And with the team ranked 19th in three-point percentage, 20th in field goal percentage and a 34-48 record, what do they have to show for it?
As the Pelicans prepare to take on next season with renewed hopes of clinching a playoff spot, they face some important decisions. With Anthony Davis trade rumors circling, Demarcus Cousins’ contract up at the end of the year and a potential battle for minutes at the point guard slot, there’s trouble brewing in The Big Easy.