Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins were top-10 NBA point producers last season, finishing fourth and seventh, respectively, in scoring average. How rare is it in today’s game for a team to receive that type of offensive production from its power forward and center combination? The next-best duo was Memphis’ venerable tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who ranked 32nd and 63rd (and Randolph departed for Sacramento this summer in free agency).
By pairing All-Star talents at the “four” and “five” positions, the New Orleans Pelicans are going completely again the grain in the contemporary NBA, where virtually everyone else is relying on backcourt firepower. To help make the unique combo work, new Pelicans assistant coach Chris Finch said Tuesday that the Pelicans want to capitalize on the multi-dimensional nature of Davis’ and Cousins’ abilities.
“They’re super skilled, highly talented, and we want to make sure they’re able to use all of their skill set,” Finch said on a local radio interview with 1280 AM. “The key is going to be understanding each other’s spacing, being able to read and play off of each other. We don’t want to make either of them robotic.
“You’re going to have to give them a lot of freedom. It’s going to be, how do they share the space on the floor with each other? That’s going to be one thing we prioritize with them.”
Finch coached in Denver last season, helping the Nuggets emerge as one of the league’s best offensive teams (No. 1 in the NBA after Dec. 15), particularly when Nikola Jokic was inserted at starting center and made the hub of an attack with outstanding ball movement. Finch envisions using Cousins in a similar vein, with the above-average passer able to find open teammates for quality shots.
“We want to play through DeMarcus and Anthony at the top of the floor,” Finch said. “We want those guys to be able to make plays. DeMarcus is an elite passer; Anthony has really been working on his ballhandling. Their job is going to be to make the players around them better, to create high-quality shots by forcing the defense to react to what they do.”
Last season, over a six-week stretch that spanned from Cousins’ New Orleans debut through his final game April 4, the Pelicans improved from a bottom-tier offensive team to a middle-of-the-pack one (16th in efficiency at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com). While that jump in production was encouraging, New Orleans hopes to make additional progress in 2017-18. Chemistry between their two perennial All-Stars will be important, but the Pelicans also need accurate shooting from supporting players. New Orleans finished 19th in three-point percentage (35.0) in ’16-17, a rate that dipped slightly after the All-Star break, partly due to trade departures of Buddy Hield and Langston Galloway.
“The last component (of NOLA’s offensive effectiveness) is getting the other guys to understand how to play with (Davis and Cousins),” Finch said. “It’s really going to be about working to get the right shots. Hopefully those shots are going to be the very efficient ones, where you’re attacking the rim, getting to the free-throw line, or getting three-pointers as a result. I like to give guys a lot of freedom, and when that happens and things are clicking, guys will gravitate toward their strengths. It’s going to be up to us to coach them into those positions.”
Cousins’ shot attempts decreased a bit after he arrived in New Orleans (from 20.3 to 18.5 per game), which was fairly predictable after he’d been the unquestioned No. 1 option in Sacramento’s offense. Finch envisions similar sacrifices being necessary for Cousins and Davis as they figure out how to complement each other.
“It’s really about those two guys being able to sacrifice for each other, make the teammates around them better,” Finch said. “There is no basketball reason why it shouldn’t work; it will only be the human reason. Everybody seems to like each other, so that’s a great start. If we can’t figure it out, it’s going to be a human dynamic and we’re going to have to solve that one. But I don’t anticipate that to be the case, either.”
Asked what will be the first thing Pelicans coaches emphasize to players during September training camp, Finch stressed that an unselfish mindset will be important. The coach said he considers passing to be “the glue of offensive chemistry.”
“We’re just going to have to sacrifice,” he said. “Everyone is going to have to give up a little bit to get a lot back. That’s really going to be our message.”