Not even two weeks have passed since the New Orleans Pelicans nearly traded for Jahlil Okafor in a deal that would have looked pretty similar to the one they used to acquire DeMarcus Cousins on Sunday.
It’s about time the Pelicans had luck on their side.
New Orleans isn’t nearly the sad sack franchise that Sacramento has been for 10 years, but you could imagine them headed in that direction. They drafted their own franchise player, Anthony Davis, in 2012, and they made the playoffs with him for the first time in 2015. For a moment, the franchise looked like it was on the way up.
Instead, the Pelicans fell apart last year, ravaged by injuries. The same thing happened this season, as New Orleans lost their first eight games missing several key players. They let Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon walk away last offseason, only to see them both prosper with a division rival in Houston. They gave Solomon Hill $48 million as a replacement, and he has rewarded them by shooting under 40 percent this year. They drafted a 23-year-old Buddy Hield over a 19-year-old Jamal Murray because they felt Hield was more NBA ready, even though the two have had comparable rookie seasons. Don’t forget they’re paying Omer Asik more than $34 million over the next three seasons, too.
Imagine if New Orleans had traded for Okafor — a player who doesn’t defend or pass, whose best skill (low-post scoring) is increasingly defunct in the modern NBA, and who has caused the 76ers to be outscored by 16 points per 100 possessions during his time on the court this year, by far the worst on the team. It’s hard to see how that would have worked. Even as the rumors circulated, that was seen as a last-ditch attempt by Pelicans general manager Dell Demps to save his job.
Now Demps is the hero.
He took the package he almost sent to Philadelphia, added Hield to it, and used it to swing a deal for the only other big man averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds in the league. What a turn of events.
To be sure, there’s a reason why the Pelicans were able to acquiring him so cheaply. The only explanation for Boston not attempting to make this deal is that they don’t want Cousins in their locker room. We’ve read stories about Cousins’ outbursts for years, and we know all about his 109 technical fouls and 11 ejections since entering the league.
You’ll likely hear more negative reports coming from Sacramento over the coming week, and it’s important to remember the Kings have a vested interest in painting Cousins in a bad light to help defend the move they made. We’ve already seen it from the Kings’ play-by-play man, whose Twitter rant about Cousins included calling his presence a “dark cloud” over the franchise while claiming he was universally disliked.
And here's maybe the most important thing. Most of Cousin's teammates the past 7 years hated playing with him! That is a fact!— Grant Napear (@GrantNapearshow) February 20, 2017
To what extent that is true is something New Orleans will now find out. The Bird Writes, our Pelicans’ blog, has high hopes.
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are the best front line in the entire NBA. Full-stop. They’re the best power forward and center combination since Tim Duncan and David Robinson teamed up in San Antonio. New Orleans will have to find a way to make that talent work together so expect growing pains in the beginning. There is even a possibility, however remote, that it takes too long to click this season and the Pelicans miss the playoffs. That’s okay. Getting DeMarcus Cousins in a Pelicans uniform is still worth it.
Either way, the Pelicans didn’t really have an option to say “no thanks.”
Not for that price, not with their team, not with Demps on the hot seat if the Pelicans hadn’t pushed back into the playoffs this year. Right now, New Orleans is 2.5 games out of the eighth seed. You have to like their chances now with Cousins joining the team.
There’s also the matter of Cousins re-signing with the team, which his agent said he wouldn’t prior to the trade. Still, New Orleans has to feel confident. There’s still one year left on his contract, so Cousins is clearly more than a rental. He grew up in Mobile, Ala., which is close enough to New Orleans that it might feel a little like home. If the Cousins experiment works, then it’s because they’re both top-15 players in the league and of course it works. If it doesn’t, for whatever reason, the Pelicans really only gave up a 23-year-old with moderate potential and what will likely be a draft pick in the mid teens.
There were half a dozen ways that this trade might not have happened for the Pelicans.
What if they had traded for Okafor? What if Kings vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac didn’t have an irrationally high opinion of Hield? What if the Lakers had been willing to part with Brandon Ingram, who the Kings reportedly wanted, in exchange for Cousins? What if the Celtics had got in on the bidding with their hoard of assets? What if Cousins hadn’t missed a surprising 108-92 win over the Celtics on Feb. 8 due to excess technical fouls, which played a “subtle part” in the Kings’ decision to move on?
Those aren’t factors that New Orleans controlled, the Okafor deal aside. Even that decision wasn’t made with Cousins’ availability in mind, but because they couldn’t work out the pick protections. The Pelicans just got lucky. It eventually happens to every franchise throughout their history.
It didn’t feel like the Pelicans had been lucky in the past few years. That finally changed.