As Anthony Davis goes, so goes the Pelicans — and likely the fate of New Orleans two “Big Tymers.”
The New Orleans Pelicans have had many rebuilds and rearrangements over the course of the Dell Demps era, including many on the fly due to injury and in-season trades or signings. Since entering the league as the top pick in 2012, Davis has been the backbone through all of these mutations and facelifts, even with the latest additions of another superstar big man and a possibly misunderstood yet well respected floor general/leader basketball genius.
In the past, I felt that Anthony Davis was initially misdiagnosed as an incredible defender and an offensive player that needed time to blossom — hence the plan of surrounding Davis with high usage offensive guys like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. However, his defensive capabilities early on were likely overestimated as much as his offensive arsenal was underrated, and injuries derailed any chance of that construct seeing what it could have been.
Davis made tremendous jumps on the offensive end, rapidly turning into a diverse force that could score in a multitude of ways. His progression as a scorer began to surpass that of the initial forecast of defensive abilities; however, he was always above average and is now one of the most versatile defenders for his size in the league. In fact, the Pelicans will be banking on that versatility and other-worldly athleticism this season to go big, swimming upstream against the NBA’s current trend of small ball. Davis mentioned during media day that he spent much of the offseason working on guarding guards and wings to counter the smaller lineups opponents will throw at him.
The addition of DeMarcus Cousins has given Davis the big man sidekick he has long sought. A big body that can play the five, allowing AD to play the four spot for the bulk of his minutes. The addition of Cousins has also given AD his first Pelicans team with a clear uniqueness. It’s an identity that I’m all on board with as I have already detailed in my Shooting is Overrated offseason plan — however, just as the Pelicans marketing team missed the mark with it’s branding, I fear that Alvin Gentry may also muck up what could truly be a historically great frontcourt pairing.
First, let me officially get this marketing misfire rant out of the way. The Pelicans always seem to narrowly miss the mark when it comes to catch phrases, tag lines, arena music, and graphic design. Despite clearly embracing this team’s new identity, the Pelicans current #DoItBig works, but it could have been better.
I’ve heard plenty of nicknames batted around for the Davis/Cousins front court. More recently I’ve heard “The Benson Towers,” which is okay, but I don’t think locals really have much affinity for or emotional connection with the actual Benson Tower. The best moniker (and I’m pretty sure I first heard it from Chris Trew) was “Big Tymers.” It’s perfect — especially if you are familiar with New Orleans. Cash Money Records has a special way of cutting through all of the racial, political and socioeconomic barricades in our hearts and gets the blood flowing.
Seriously, the next time you are at a wedding in the Crescent City, ask the DJ to play Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” As soon as they hear, “Cash Money Records taking over for the ‘99 and the 2000,” your wheelchair bound great-uncle Earl will magically bolt out of his seat, your aunt who survived the polio outbreak will shed her leg braces, and your distant racist cousin who is named after some city in Texas will remove his bolo tie, yank the snuff out from under his lip and shove it into his empty Bud Ice Lime bottle. They will all join the masses flooding the dance floor, shaking their backsides completely off-time with pupils dilated and sweat streaming down their backs like Kenny Powers on ecstasy at a high school dance — but with mini muffalettas.
I’m so sure of this phenomenon that it has me considering leaving the bartending, freelance writing, illustration and design worlds behind to become one of those snake oil salesmen tent-vigil preachers that Daniel Day-Lewis would be inclined to throw bowling balls at.
I would only prey on the New Orleans area, and instead of planting ringers in the crowd, I’d rely on the healing power of that intro. I’d go back to one of my best “freethinker” stuck in a Catholic school coping mechanisms and run headphones down my sleeves along my arms with ear buds taped to the palm of my hands. I’d place those hands over the ears of the infirmed, with that powerful song intro playing on loop. The congregation would throw money at me as they saw the paralyzed lower extremities of their family members begin to shake uncontrollably, rising them from their wheelchairs and sending them into dancing fits down the dirty floor, oyster shell covered aisles between the folding chairs under my tent.
So yes, Cash Money is in our blood.
While the Pelicans surely could have gone the #BigTymers route, I’d say they would be better served using Big Tymers as a nickname for the Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins pairing, and should have referenced Big Tymers member and the backbone of Cash Money — Mannie Fresh — with #RealBig — a punchier two-syllable alternative. Mannie Fresh should be a Pelicans brand ambassador — like Drake with the Raptors or Jay Z with the Nets. Someone please go yank him out of the Hi-Ho Lounge and get him seated in the front row at the Smoothie King Center. #RealBig would have even come with a perfect theme song for the team. It’s disappointing that this obvious connection was missed.
Thanks for indulging me in that small marketing rant — now back to regularly scheduled basketball talk.
Since before his hire, I was not a fan of Alvin Gentry’s vision for Anthony Davis. In his first season as the head coach, Gentry had Davis drifting away from the basket, shooting a lot of jumpers and often posting up — sometimes 12’ from the basket, instead of facing up near the rim, attacking the offensive glass and pick-and-popping more than he pick-and-rolled. While drifting from Davis’ obvious strengths has improved some areas of his game, it steered him away from what he is elite at and likely hurt the team’s winning percentages.
Once Dell Demps masterfully inserted another giant square peg into Gentry’s up-tempo visions of small ball round hole with the DeMarcus Cousins trade, we’ve seen both head scratching concepts (five out sets) mixed with promising wrinkles. While I don’t trust Gentry to nail it — I do believe he will just miss the mark ever so slightly enough — like the Pelicans’ PR staff’s hashtag choices — that this pairing will still be successful and fun, but not as historically great as it could be.
However, if there is hope for a big man tandem to make noise in the small, ball-movement, uptempo shoot all the threes world we are living — and lets not pretend that the Thunder with Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Kevin Durant or the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson didn’t give them fits by attacking the glass — there is no better fit than Davis and Cousins — from personality to skill sets.
Gentry said that the offense would be up-tempo and rely on reading and reacting, less on play calling during media day. While I’m not sold on playing up-tempo constantly with this bigger team, I do see a lot of merit in the read-and-react flow in transition. It reminds me of a strategy employed by one of my favorite bands — Fugazi.
Fugazi were the poster-children of the DIY movement, but they were also pioneers in they way they ran their live shows — always all ages, always $5 (despite being a massive draw), booking their own shows and never selling merchandise. In 2003, the band with directer Jem Cohen, an obsessive documenter of all things Fugazi, released “Instrument,” a documentary that had the Fugazi ethic, aesthetic and way of life on full display.
There’s a moment in the film where bassist Joe Lally discusses how the band never used set lists for shows despite having hundreds of songs in their catalogue. Rather they relied on their understanding of each others body language, hand gestures and sometimes freelanced guitar moves or drum fills to know what song was next or what parts of songs they were going to extend into a jammy bridge or breakdown. He said that on nights when they were clicking, it was like magic, but on some nights it could be a disaster. I dug up this portion of an interview guitarist Guy Picciotto did with Chip Chanko for Pitchfork in 2002 to further explain how this technique works.
Pitchfork: Well, I’d say you guys are one of the tightest bands around that I can think of.
Picciotto: We’re not, actually.
Pitchfork: Seriously? It comes across that way.
Picciotto: We fake it. I mean, we know each other really well. We’re actually incredibly sloppy, but the thing is we’ve honed ESP. We know where we’re all going with each other and I think that’s what makes it really unified… and that’s also why the band can’t function without all four of us. It’s not like a cog you can replace. It’s much more than that.
Pitchfork: Yeah, you play without set lists. Is part of the communication that goes on knowing what you’re gonna do next? You don’t even talk about what you’ll be playing each night?
Picciotto: Yeah, we have signals and we have… we have tons of stuff.
Pitchfork: Maybe what you’ve played the night before you wouldn’t want to repeat as much?
Picciotto: Alternating between the vocalists is kind of a template, and right before we go onstage, we pick the first song. So, let’s say, “Alright, we’re gonna start with ‘Break’ — we know Ian’s going to sing that, so we know that I’m gonna sing the second one, and people should be paying attention to what I’m doing.” And then some songs… like “Number 5” has a hand signal; “Oh” has a hand signal. You know, it’s just a weird language that we’ve developed.
Pitchfork: You’ve played so many times live.
Picciotto: But that doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t have to be paying constant attention. Eye contact and paying attention is what keeps us fresh on stage. I think a lot of bands play the same set list every night, and with that, there’s something kind of automatic that develops. Not that they’re not great, but you can kind of disappear in your head a little bit. But we really can’t because you don’t know what’s gonna happen and you don’t know what the next guy’s gonna pull out of his hat to play. There’s just this constant edginess to everything because you’re really trying to keep it together. There’s times where we’ll start stuff and one of the guys doesn’t know what’s going on and we have to cover for him. But the songs have built-in safety nets. There’s a lot of room to improvise and there’s a lot of room to stretch the songs out, so it’s almost like… we’ve developed a way to cover for each other.
I’m as excited for this technique to be used by the Pelicans as I am scared because this working relies on a few variables.
The one I’m not concerned about is personnel. The planned starting line up of Davis, Cousins, Holiday, Rondo and whomever wins the battle for the three spot is one of solid rebounders. In that order, these guys snagged 12.9, 14.8, 4.9 and 7.7 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions last season. No matter who wins the fifth spot in the starting unit, this is clearly a lineup that rebounds well, but they also can all push the ball up the floor instantly and initiate offense. We’ve seen this a lot already this preseason — check out the first highlight in the reel from the matchup with the Bulls on October 8th — with Davis and Cousins snatching rebounds and instantly running in transition as the ball handler.
Cousins and Davis are guards that like a young Josh Baskin found a magic Zoltar wish granting machine that made them giants. They have the ball handling skills, shooting range, passing vision and IQ to make this attacking style lethal. Also, Davis’ ability to run ahead of the defense on the break, combined with the passing ability of all the other rebounders, is now a talent that won’t be wasted like we saw during the Monty Williams era where we often saw Davis flashing to the rim, only to be ignored by whatever guard was walking the ball up the court.
We will see those instances where Tyreke Evans snagged a rebound and pushed hard to the rim, ignoring Williams waving for him to slow down and get into an offensive set on the regular — except now instead of Evans it will be Cousins, Davis, Holiday or Rondo pushing it with a better set of players surrounding him. Also, Cousins ability to shoot the three is perfectly suited for him the be the trailer should the Pels initial push to the rim be sealed off by the opponent’s defense — Davis has seemingly developed the passing chops to kick it back out to Cousins for the easy jumper. Everyone penciled in to that starting lineup can rebound, run, dribble, pass, drive and three out of those four can be comfortably described as good enough shooters for this to work.
No, my concern lies in honing that ESP.
On media day we heard everyone proclaim excitement over finally having a full healthy training camp with each other — not sure how that made Solomon Hill feel — however, that dream has been crushed. Starting point guard, alpha male and floor general Rajon Rondo just had surgery to repair a sports hernia keeping him out 4-6 weeks. His basketball IQ — an IQ that somehow garnered more praise on media day than my Twitter timeline heaps weekly on the Tony Romo man crush Sunday color commentary fest — and on court leadership was integral in executing these freelanced transitions with very little pockmarking.
Now, the Pelicans enter their final preseason game with the ability to apply for a hardship exception should they choose having Rondo, Hill, Frank Jackson and Omer Asik, all out with injury or illness. Thus, Gentry will likely slide Jrue back in as the defacto point guard — a role I still prefer for him in a vacuum than this “better as an off-ball guard” notion the matrix has been trying to brainwash me into accepting — creating a new audition for the other starting guard spot to join the current audition process going on on the wing. This is not helping chemistry or fluidity. Still, as long as Davis, Cousins and Holiday can figure it out among themselves, this offense should be potent — as they are the steak, potatoes au gratin and steamed veggies and everyone else is just the parsley. Even with Rondo’s injury, we enter this season in much better shape than any of recent memory.
The addition of Chris Finch to the staff has not made the drastic change in style of play I was hoping for, but we are now seeing a real focus to reduce inefficient shots which should remove all post-ups from Anthony Davis’ shot chart — as well as a clear shift from those mid-range pick and pops to more-efficient hard cuts toward the rim. We are likely to see AD continue to take threes, but we are hopefully going to see less five man out sets — though there have been a few troubling cameos by them this preseason — focusing more on the high/low game and side pick-and-roll action we started to see as Davis and Cousins began to figure each other out last season.
Cousins’ size and tools around the basket make him more adept at operating as a post up big whenever the Pelicans want to bang down low, keeping Davis as the efficient face up player he is. Davis has been used as a free safety before on defense, but with this system and with Cousins big body and passing ability, Davis can almost play a free safety role on offense — moving into the open spots on the floor created by Cousins’ presence, where Cousins can then find him with a nifty pass. This would easily allow AD to then use his athletic rubber-like body to contort and score from openings near the rim or to use his face-up game to hit an open jumper — with spacing like he’s never seen before.
Combine this with the amount of free throw attempts playing big will create against smaller line ups — Davis had 23 attempts against Chicago on Sunday — and hopefully a serious dedication to crashing the offensive glass and we should see Anthony Davis having his most efficient scoring season of his career, which should have many media members backtracking on their tweets and opposing coaches pissing their pants.
House real big, cars real big, belly real big, front court real big, expectations real big, pockets real big, rings real big. How the Pelicans live.
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