CHICAGO – For the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s the elephant in the locker room.
Theirs has a name: DeMarcus Cousins.
Not that Cousins should take offense even if he is one of the largest people in the NBA at about 213 cm and close to 135 kg.
It’s more that his enormous shadow more figuratively hovers over the Pelicans franchise.
Do the Pelicans re-sign the enormous center with the enormous statistics to an enormous contract this summer despite his enormous injury, a torn Achilles tendon suffered last January?
Pelicans players, especially superstar Anthony Davis, have been saying and doing all the right things, Davis wearing Cousins’ number at the All-Star Game, Cousins on the bench and in the celebration for the Pelicans’ historic playoff sweep of the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers as they now await a series with the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals.
It was the Pelicans’ first playoff series win in a decade, the first time Davis, regarded as one of the elite half dozen players in the NBA, was on the winning side in a playoff game in his six years in the NBA.
So the Pelicans must not re-sign Cousins.
It would be the basketball equivalent of an elephant stampede. Very few good things would come of it.
Just a look at how the Portland series showed why the Pelicans are better without a player who can average 25 and 10; because basketball can be a zero sum game. Helping one may take substantially from another.
Obviously, Davis was great. He’d be great with Cousins, but he never was great enough because Davis is such a good person. He acquiesced to Cousins way too much. Davis is way better. And it was evident in not just that Davis averaged 33 and 12 in the series. Being up 3-0, New Orleans was going to win. But you still don’t want to give a team at 1-3 life going back to their place. They make it 2-3 and then the pressure is on you to close.
Remember, this was the higher-seeded Portland team. And eventually someone will come back from 0-3. With Portland playing its best game of the series in Game 4, it was Davis with brilliant, powerful putback slams and offensive rebounds over Jusuf Nurkic to save the game down the stretch.
Maybe Cousins gets them, sure. But with Cousins there, Davis is outside.
And it was the defense on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum that was crucial and pivotal in the series.
The Trail Blazers accomplished that with an aggressive trap, a defense Lillard said he really never saw much, the blitz man staying long enough to force the ball out of Lillard’s hand or make him take a tough shot. Cousins never would have done that, and even if he ever cared to — which he never has in his career — he’s not about to be able to coming back from Achilles surgery, which robs quickness. In addition, with players like Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans were able to continue switching on the perimeter, which is the approved defensive tactic in the NBA these days and further flummoxed Portland.
Could anyone see Cousins doing that?
And then on the other end slow down the game to accommodate Cousins while Davis stands around watching from outside?
Like in the first half of the season when Davis wasn’t nearly as great?
Cousins has a notorious reputation as a terrible teammate.
Not so much personally as he is, by most accounts, a good person. But on the court he’s so emotional and angry that it has the effect of virtually intimidating even his own teammates. Look, he’s a supposed star eight years in the NBA who never has come close to the playoffs.
How does that happen?
Sure, Cousins was likely getting there this season as New Orleans was 27-21 and in sixth when he was hurt Jan. 26. The Pelicans were shook and lost five of six when Cousins went out. But then with the trade for Mirotic, and later in the season when Mirotic became a starter, the Pelicans have won 22 of their last 30. “A completely different team without DeMarcus,” noticed Golden State’s Draymond Green.
Better; much better.
With Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, the Pelicans’ other regular starters, New Orleans outscored opponents by about three points per game with Davis and Cousins. With the same lineup replacing Cousins with Mirotic, it’s been by about 17 points per game. Smaller sample, sure. But even without Cousins and Mirotic off the bench, it was by about 15 points per game.
It’s because of the way Cousins dominates the ball.
He’s an excellent passer for a big man and may have, overall, the most skills of any NBA player with his shooting range and quickness, which will be in question when he returns. Which may not be, by the way, until the end of next season. But Cousins tends to hold the ball and survey the floor.
New Orleans has become one of the fastest-paced teams without Cousins.
Plus, Cousins is a disaster on defense, in part, because he’s always arguing with officials after a miss. So he rarely gets back to defend. The Pelicans’ defensive rating went from 22nd in the league with Cousins to fifth once he was out of the lineup.
Plus, the Pelicans, who rarely sell out, are in salary cap hell. Holiday has a $126 million contract. Davis, of course, makes maximum and when he comes up for an extension will likely qualify for the supermax deal of maybe some $250 million. He’s not going anywhere if that’s on the table.
Plus, he loves New Orleans. The Pelicans picked up Mirotic’s $12.5 million option for next season, and surely will want to keep him.
Because he spreads the floor for Davis, as does Holiday and Moore.
The Pelicans’ major weakness is a weak bench. If they re-sign Cousins to any significant deal this summer, Cousins being an unrestricted free agent, there’s no way they can add players for their bench in support. They’d be stuck with three players making about $80 million combined in a $100 million salary cap. The Pelicans rarely sell out in their small market.
Are they going to be the highest-spending team in the NBA?
Credit the Pelicans now for not laying this on Cousins given the obvious disappointment of being injured when he finally had a chance to go to the playoffs.
But this is one of the most obvious, no-brainers in the NBA. It’s just no one ever wants to talk about it because of Cousins’ talent and spectacular statistics. But he’s been a regular distraction, an often dysfunctional teammate.
Cousins is smart and he’s talented, and if the Pelicans are serious about being a regular contender they need to allow him to roam elsewhere.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”