To understand the Kings-Pelicans trade and what DeMarcus Cousins might be able to do with Anthony Davis in New Orleans, first we need to understand Davis.
The first thing to understand about Davis is, well, our misunderstanding of him.
At 23, Davis is bouncing back nicely from a lost-ish season last year. He’s averaging 27.7 points per game, a career high, pulling down 11.9 rebounds, also a career best, and even dishing a career-high-equaling 2.2 assists per contest. To really drive the point home that he is a top talent restored, he scored a record 52 points in the All-Star Game last night.
Here’s the catch, though: He’s still not really that Anthony Davis you’re thinking of. Not quite.
He hasn’t been a top-10 player by really any publicly available advanced metric. Not by BasketballReference’s win shares/48, or by box plus-minus, or by vorp. Mosey on over to ESPN and he doesn’t register in real plus-minus or rpm wins.
And setting aside the arbitrary top-10 grouping, more crucially he hasn’t been nearly the player he was in 2014-15, when he authoritatively claimed the crown of Best Young Player Alive and might have even won the MVP if not for a few missed games and Steph Curry and the Warriors’ wild breakout season.*1
So, even though he looks and feels like the Anthony Davis who was set to one day rule the world a couple seasons ago, statistically speaking he’s actually a lot closer to being the merely very good player he was as a 20-year-old in 2013-14.
And that’s not to knock what Davis has done this season, or to imply he can never recapture the heights of ’14-15. In fact, it’s remarkable he rates as well as he does given the glaring flaw that, hopefully, Cousins can help correct: He takes too many dang threes.
Before last season, Anthony Davis almost never shot threes. Then, perhaps spurred on by what Curry and the Warriors, and others like James Harden, did that year, suddenly decided to step out a bit. Davis’ percentage of shots from three spiked from 0.010 in 2014-15 to 0.095 last season, holding at 0.080 this season. That’s absurd. He’s not gunning like Curry or Harden, but the size of his shift is like going from Draymond Green (.365 career rate) to Klay Thompson (.435).
And that wouldn’t necessarily be such trouble, except Davis is a decidedly not-good three-point shooter. He dropped 32.4 percent of his threes last year, which is not good, and he’s at 30.6 percent this year, which is even more not good. Anthony Davis is not good, some might even say bad, at shooting threes.
Which is weird, because he’s quite good just inside the three-point line. He can pop elbow jumpers and looks at the top of the key all day long. It makes sense that he tried taking a step back, but that experiment has failed. Basketball can be a weird beast to tame sometimes.
The good news is this is an easy thing to fix. A large part of his dampened efficiency can simply be chalked up to taking more shots generally. His usage rate is a career-high 32.5 (think Russell Westbrook-with-Durant), and he’s scored almost 25 percent of the Pelicans’ points this season, compared to 20.3 percent when they went to the playoffs two years ago. In raw terms he’s taking most of his other attempts in line with career norms, he’s just now added a bunch of threes he’s not hitting to the pie.
This is where DeMarcus Cousins can hopefully help. The Pelicans haven’t been able to run exactly the most spacious offense after losing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon for the likes of Langston Galloway and Buddy Hield. Despite New Orleans boosting their three-point attempts the last couple years, they’ve taken steps backward in overall effectiveness.*2
Davis doesn’t necessarily need to ramp down his attempts all that much, but he should at this point be giving up on the threes and trying to trade them for the longer twos he can actually hit quite well*3 and more frequent looks in the middle.
Cousins of course isn’t the greatest three-point shooter in the world, but he’s been steadily improving where Davis has been flailing.*4 More importantly, he’ll simply draw attention. Boogie and Davis are two of the most dangerous in the game from the elbows*5 and while it won’t make New Orleans’ floor-stretching suddenly look like Golden State’s, they ought to be able to draw enough heat off one another that there should be good room for both to drive into the paint, back into the post, or do either and kick out if need be, almost at will. Jrue Holiday will be able to run a hellacious spread pick from the top of the key.
No other team will be able to run sets from inside the three-point line like the Pelicans will be able to. It'll be almost impossible for teams to keep a body on, say, E'Twaun Moore out in the corner with the threat of Davis or Cousins crashing toward the hoop. And you can't help but think of how an undersized, soft-in-the-center lineup like, oh I dunno, the Warriors', might fare against them. It's going to be a captivating big-man-tandem experiment, and both players are skilled and creative enough to explore it in ways we probably can't even think of yet.
In any case, Anthony Davis needed a jolt, to be free to be the rim-shattering monster he was a couple seasons ago. This qualifies as a jolt.
(It’s important also not to overlook Omri Casspi’s potential role in spreading the floor when he gets healthy and integrated into the Pelicans’ scheme. He was a better than 40 percent three-point shooter the last two seasons before kind of falling out of favor and dealing with some health issues in Sacramento this year. It’s a bit crazy the Kings just appeared to have tossed him in there without a second thought.)
Defensively in theory they should both be quick enough and long enough that they can cycle between defending outside the key and protecting the paint. Davis is a better natural shot blocker and rim deterrent than Cousins, who has always looked a little more comfortable a few feet farther from the basket. The reality might be trickier, though: Cousins got to play some with a traditional rim-protector type in Sacramento with Willie Cauley-Stein, and the numbers were not pretty.*6
New Orleans can take heart in that their defense has actually been pretty good*7, particularly out on the wings where Holiday and Solomon Hill have fared well. Losing Hield won’t hurt in that regard, either (seriously, Kings, if you wanted another Jimmer Fredette that bad, the real thing is in China lighting it up and available for free.)
There are some pitfalls - defenses will really stack the middle and dare Cousins and Davis to beat them from distance, which might wind up a winning equation; they will need to prove they can flow together defensively; there’s at least some legitimate chemistry questions surrounding Cousins (though I think those are overblown).
It’s been at least since the late-90s Spurs (Tim Duncan and David Robinson) that two big men this talented have played alongside one another, and it’s next to impossible to say with certainty right now that it will translate into a style fitting today’s NBA.
But at the price of a bag of bag of beans, it’s pretty much an all-upside play for a Pelicans team that was in danger of thumb-twiddling away Anthony Davis’ rare talent. It is a moment that very could well be franchise-course-altering.
Heck, it could be league-altering.
*1: Davis, 16-17: .188 ws/48; +3.7 bpm; 2.7 vorp; 4.25 rpm; 8.75 wins; 14-15: .274; +7.1; 5.7; 8.18; 15.86. And, yeah, this season isn’t over yet and some of these comparisons are imprecise due to counting affects, but he only played 68 games two years ago and he’s already at 53 this season, and you can’t account for that much of a split in just 15 games.
*2: Pelicans for three:
16-17: 35.7% (17th); 26.5 attempts/game (12th); (27th in points per 100 possessions, 102.3)
15-16: 36.0% (9th); 23.8 attempts/game (16th) (16th in points per 100 possessions, 103.2)
14-15: 37.0% (4th); 19.3 attempts/game (23rd) (9th in points per 100 possessions, 105.4)
*3: 43.8 percent in those long-two bubbles the last three seasons.
*4: Cousins from three: 33.3% last year, 35.4 this season.
*6: The Kings allowed 112.5 points per 100 with them both on the floor in 125 minutes this season; 108.4 in 596 minutes last year.
*7: Eighth in the league at 104.7 points per 100 allowed.