On April 21st, the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Portland Trail Blazers 131-123, completing a four-game sweep in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Pelicans placed sixth in the West, and even with their series victory, are not considered a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, and that’s primarily due to the loss of star center DeMarcus Cousins back in January.
If Cousins had not torn his left Achilles tendon, would New Orleans be seen as a serious championship contender?
Overall, the Pelicans have a solid roster led by MVP candidate Anthony Davis. In 75 games, Davis averaged 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game. He shot 53% from the field and 34% from behind the three-point line. A 6’10” 253-lb forward-center who can space the floor, Davis is the perfect big man for today’s NBA.
Cousins was limited to just 48 games this season but he made a huge impact when he was on the court. He averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while shooting 35% from three-point range. Cousins and Davis form the best power forward-center duo in the NBA, although their time together has been limited thus far.
Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and he will be one of the most sought-after players available this summer. The Pelicans will do everything in their power to retain him.
After Cousins and Davis, New Orleans has filled their roster with solid role players. Point guard Rajon Rondo averaged 8.3 points and 8.2 assists per game in the regular season, and his playoff experience was crucial during the first round. Rondo had 16 assists in the Pelicans’ Game 4 victory, and he will provide much-needed leadership against their likely second-round opponent, Golden State.
Jrue Holiday, a nine-year veteran, had arguably his best season as a pro as he averaged 19.0 points and 6.0 assists while playing in 81 regular-season games. In Game 4 of the first round, Holiday scored 41 points. Rondo’s presence has allowed Holiday to play more shooting guard as opposed to playing the point, and the entire team has benefited.
Former Warrior Ian Clark played just under 20 minutes per game, adding 7.4 points. E’Twaun Moore played in all 82 games, averaging 12.5 points while shooting a magnificent 43% from beyond the arc. Power forward Nikola Mirotic was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Bulls and has contributed 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest. He finished with 30 points on 12-of-15 shooting in Game 3.
The Pelicans have some nice players surrounding Davis and Cousins, but that’s really all they are. Holiday is a talent every team would be happy to have, but he is not on the elite level of a Klay Thompson or a James Harden.
Not A True Big 3
This is why they would not be contenders even with a healthy Cousins. They don’t have a legitimate “Big 3”. It’s a shame, but it’s all but required in order to win an NBA championship in today’s league.
Rajon Rondo is a fine defender when he’s locked in, but no one is going to be able to stop Stephen Curry or Chris Paul. The same goes for Holiday and the rest of the Pelicans’ wing back-court players.
Davis is essentially the perfect counter to a team like Golden State; he is a size mismatch for Draymond Green, he can space the floor, he’s a terrific defender and rebounder, he’s a great passer from the post, he can switch onto guards on the perimeter, and he can go off for 40+ points on any given night. But, Davis alone cannot win a series.
Cousins would have been able to provide more rim protection, spacing, and rebounding, but it wouldn’t be enough. Both the Rockets and Warriors score the majority of their points from three-point range, and having elite rim protectors doesn’t help with that. The Warriors could run pick-and-rolls to get Cousins to switch from defending Green to defending Thompson or Kevin Durant, and that is not a matchup that favors New Orleans.
Houston presents the same issue. They have many versatile two-way players who can shoot the lights out from deep. Clint Capela is the perfect big man for their team who would be able to keep pace with both Davis and Cousins.
In short, the Pelicans would have the advantage in the post, but that’s not going to affect the Warriors or Rockets all that much. New Orleans doesn’t have the star power or depth at their guard and wing positions to counter Golden State and Houston.
Topping The King
If the Pelicans somehow made it out of the West and advanced to the NBA Finals, they would have a much better chance against Cleveland. Anthony Davis would be tasked with guarding LeBron James in the post, and the two would have a fantastic battle all series long.
Rondo, Holiday, and Moore would be able to compete with Cleveland’s rather weak back-court. George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, J.R. Smith, and Rodney Hood are not consistent enough to be viewed as significant threats with the ball.
The post is where the Pelicans would dominate. Tristan Thompson does not have the size or athleticism to match up against Cousins or Davis, and while Kevin Love would probably have some success offensively, he would be no match for either big man on the other end. The Pelicans could score at will every time they had the ball, and the Cavs’ inconsistent offense wouldn’t be able to function well enough if LeBron James is having an off night or if he’s being defended well by Davis.
The Pelicans suffer from playing in the stacked Western Conference. They are a good enough team to make the conference finals at the very least, but they likely will not because of the buzz-saws that are the Rockets and Warriors. If they played in the East, and if DeMarcus Cousins was healthy, they would have a very good chance at winning the conference.
But, injuries are a part of the game of basketball, and the Pelicans were just unfortunate this season. If Cousins returns, New Orleans should be a force to be reckoned with next year.