The future has indeed changed for the franchise with Cousins guaranteed to be on the roster for at least one more season. But the Pelicans’ struggles in the immediate, with the Western Conference playoff field primed to fill out its last spot with a sub-.500 team, have at least turned down the fever pitch of interest around this franchise to more of a simmer.
So while a narrow win over the lowly Los Angeles Lakers, in which the Pelicans let a 14-point lead dwindle into a tie game with 1:55 left to play, is hardly a full-fledged realization of the awesome powers of their new-look roster, any tangible evidence of the clear progress they’ve made in this week-plus was ready to be welcomed with open arms.
“I’ll take any win,” Cousins said after a 105-97 victory at Staples Center earned him his first win in five games with the Pelicans. “It does feel good to finally get one. But right now it’s just about building off this win.”
What Pelicans general manager Dell Demps has constructed with the help of his All-Star break heist of a trade proved Sunday to be quite the foundation.
Cousins, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday combined for 77 points (73 percent of the Pelicans’ total), 29 rebounds (67 percent), 14 assists (70 percent) and 21 made free throws (88 percent). Cousins and Holiday both finished with double-doubles and Davis finished one rebound shy of the feat.
Perhaps more important, the offense appeared to exploit the best of its three best players better than in any game yet. Cousins brought down 15 rebounds, including seven in the first quarter; Holiday found a balance between scoring and distributing; and Davis again turned on the slow-drip dominant scoring that’s led to his most productive season to date.
Davis finished with 31 points, marking the sixth straight game he’s scored 29 or more since Cousins arrived. His 17 free throw attempts also tied his second-most on the season, perhaps a sign of increased aggressiveness and mismatches, as well as the ability to play at a peak more often and later in games, with Cousins occupying so much attention.
“I do think we’ve kind of got a routine down,” Holiday said. “Even a sub-pattern or schedule, or whatever you want to call it. Really, everybody just gets an opportunity to, at times, do their thing.”
There are certainly signs of concern, too, chiefly the lack of production outside of their trio. E’Twaun Moore finished with 13 points, the most by any “other” with Cousins in the lineup, but non-big-three Pelicans still finished 10-for-34 from the field and 5-for-16 from 3.
Cousins’ ability to lead the Pelicans with three 3-pointers may underline his rare blend of skills, but it’s hardly a best-case scenario, especially since his ability to find open shooters in the post is one of his best weapons. Much like Davis couldn’t simultaneously fill the roles of roll man and stretch-4 in the pre-Boogie days, Cousins can’t pass to himself.
“Guys are getting good shots,” Cousins said. “It’s just a matter of time before they start falling.”
That same sense of optimism and encouragement permeated a joyous visiting locker room after the game.
The Pelicans’ playoff odds are long. New Orleans, now 25-38 overall, entered the night with just a 0.5 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 20 percent chance of landing in the draft’s top three (thus keeping their 2017 first-round pick), according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
And though they’re still just 3½ games back of the eight seed, with three games left against the eighth-place Denver Nuggets still to come, their final 19 games are rated the seventh-most difficult schedule in the NBA.
“It’s very realistic for us,” Davis said about the Pelicans’ playoff chances.
That remains to be seen, but their victory Sunday, on the day Thompson began his second 10-day contract, at least provides some very real evidence that there’s reason to hope for this new-and-improved outfit.
“Any time you win, the locker room’s gonna be fine,” Davis said. “No matter what team or who you are. If you win, that trumps everything.”