With 2016-2017 being another year of disappointments for the New Orleans Pelicans there were a few surprises. Dante Cunningham proved to be one of them in an area that throughout the season the Pelicans desperately needed added production and consistency.
No matter your opinion on Dante Cunningham, it is hard not to like what he has turned himself into.
When the New Orleans Pelicans first signed Cunningham in 2014, they believed they were getting a scrappy defender, who could knock down a few open mid range jumpers.
He soon turned into a decent defender, who every once in a while could do great things.
That includes guarding LeBron James extremely well for a full game of basketball.
In the quest to not only expand his game, but meet team needs and the direction of the league, Dante needed more. He needed to be able to not only make long range baskets but make them at a respectable percentage.
In 2014-15, Dante Cunningham started his change. He started as a player who shot ten three’s for the season making only one. The next, he took 174 long range shots, making just under 32 percent. His best percentage was last year, where he finished making them at 39 percent (39th in the NBA among qualifiers).
That may not be mind blowing or three-point shootout invitation worthy. However, it is impressive, when you remember how far he has come. That percentage is also better than Kevin Love and 0.02 lower than Paul George.
There’s not a New Orleans Pelicans fan in the world who did not at one point cringe, when Dante would get ready to heave up a three. This year made him one of the few fans actually wanted shooting from deep any where on the floor.
Dante Cunningham did not offer much else in regards to playmaking (0.5 assists) or slashing ability. Still, he was a piece that fit very well, as he did not need the ball to make an impact.
He also provided flexibility. He could slide next to Anthony Davis at power forward, or play small forward, where he made defenses pay for sagging off.
On a team that shot 35 percent for 19th best in the league last season, Cunningham finished first. He worked best in either corner, waiting to make a collapsing defense pay. Defensively, he continued to be a positive impact at either position.
While no one would call Dante a defensive star by any means, his defensive rating (109.4) ranked third on the 9th ranked overall defense of Pelican players who played over 60 games with the team.
It’s no question Cunningham serves best as a versatile bench role player. When Dante was healthy and saw the starting lineup, the Pelicans were slightly more successful.
In the 28 games he played in that were wins ,19 of them involved him starting. In comparison the 38 losses he was available for, only 16 were starts.
Some of that deals with the early struggles and inconsistency of Solomon Hill. However, there is no question the Pelicans were better with Dante Cunningham on the floor.
From the time Dante joined the Pelicans, he brought grit, fight, and eventually leadership every night. He filled whatever role was asked and was fearless night in and night out.
Dante fits everything the Pelicans need right now especially if they decide to re-sign guard Jrue Holiday. An inexpensive role player, who can spread the floor offensively and defend multiple positions defensively.
The issue is that the Pelicans need what so many other teams in the NBA do. With ESPN’s Chris Haynes reporting that Cunningham is planning to opt out of his $3.1 million player option, he will get the chance to see how many.
You have to wonder with the Pelicans number one priority being to resign Jrue Holiday if Dante will be quick to sign with another suitor.
Dante Cunningham has now hit the age of 30. For the first time since he was drafted, he will be seen as an important part of a team. That includes a bigger paycheck.
The New Orleans Pelicans are cap strapped and having multiple pieces needed to finish constructing a possible playoff darling. That means they will need to make smart and low-key signings. In other words, sign maybe three more Dante Cunningham’s.
Will they be able to afford a guy, who may be willing to take more money or a better chance at a championship?
For the Pelicans future to go where everybody would like, believe it or not there needs to be a hope that they can get a guy like that on this current roster.