August 23, 2018, 3:08 pm
After dropping 47 points on 23 shots to lead the underdog New Orleans Pelicans to a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, the first playoff series victory of his six-year career, a stoic Anthony Davis made it clear he was far from satisfied.
“I’m trying to build a legacy here in New Orleans,” he said, “and let people know we’re for real.”
Four months later, the Pelicans might not be any further removed from an overcrowded group of Western Conference playoff competitors than they were after advancing past the opening round of the postseason for the first time in a decade. Most of the optimism stemming from New Orleans’ surprising dominance against Portland was erased in the Conference Semifinals, where the Golden State Warriors casually dispatched of Alvin Gentry’s team in five games. No one expected Davis and company to test the defending champions, let alone beat them. Any hopeful notions otherwise were lost when DeMarcus Cousins tore his achilles in late January, robbing the basketball world of the chance to watch the Warriors bang with the league’s most talented pair of big men in recent memory.
Cousins, Golden State’s fifth All-Star, is gone for good now, and the circumstances that prompted his departure are still somewhat murky. After signing a one-year, $5.3 million deal for the full tax-payer’s mid-level exception, Cousins implied the Pelicans, who reportedly offered him a two-year contract worth $40 million in the aftermath of his injury, ultimately opted to go in a different direction.
“I’m gonna put it like this: Only me and Dell Demps know what was said on the phone that night,” he said at his introductory news conference with the Warriors. “We both know the truth. And I’ll leave it at that.”
Regardless of the real facts surrounding Cousins’ exit, it’s implicitly clear that a different truth informed New Orleans’ decision-making most. The Pelicans went 21-13 after Cousins went down, a 51-win clip extrapolated over 82 games, spurred by the league’s fastest pace and a trade at the deadline for Nikola Mirotic. More crucial: Davis averaged 25.4 minutes at center once Cousins was sidelined, according to data compiled at NBA.com/stats, an increase of more than 15 minutes per game compared to the first three-and-a-half months of the regular season.
New Orleans’ success with Davis playing the 5 close to full-time was hardly a revelation. League followers have been clamoring for him to embrace that role for years, not only creating an imminent mismatch against nearly all opposing centers, but allowing his teammates to reap the rippling rewards of that advantage. Both benefits were on full display against the Trail Blazers, with the Pelicans aggressive pick-and-roll coverage forcing the ball out of Damian Lillard‘s hands and their sweet-shooting, rim-running frontcourt almost playing the plodding Jusuf Nurkic out of the series entirely.
Mirotic and Davis posted a net rating of +11.5 during the regular season, over seven points per 100 possessions higher than Davis’ number with Cousins. For all the talk of basketball’s new-age twin towers slowly and surely coalescing before Cousins’ injury, New Orleans’ new starting frontcourt almost immediately made more of a positive impact – on both ends of the floor – than its previous one ever did. Portland, backwards as it may sound, was more equipped to handle Davis and Cousins than Mirotic and Davis. No team in the league has an answer for Davis, and putting a marksman with shooting range to 28 feet next to him maximized the extent of his strengths, while Mirotic’s superior mobility allowed the Pelicans to amp up the defensive pressure and dare the Trail Blazers’ role players to beat them.
Julius Randle, signed to a one-plus-one contract for the full mid-level exception, isn’t quite as seamless a fit next to New Orleans’ franchise player offensively. Davis’ skill set expands incrementally every season, but he’s still barely approaching his ceiling as a shooter. He shot just 33.1 percent on catch-and-shoot triples last season despite notching career-highs in makes, attempts and accuracy from beyond the arc. The strides Randle took in 2017-18 are even more impressive considering he made them without expanding his shooting range whatsoever. He attempted fewer mid-range jumpers and 3-pointers than the previous season, focusing instead on attacking overmatched defenders from the perimeter and mid post with his rare blend of power, quickness and footwork.
In theory, spacing should be hard to come by for the Pelicans when Randle and Davis play together. But there are other ways to open up the floor than dotting it with shooters, and New Orleans’ commitment to running will make exploiting them easier than it seems on the surface. Neither Davis nor Randle needs a reliable long ball to beat their man off the bounce. Only four true bigs averaged at least four drives per game last season, according to NBA.com/stats, and Davis and Randle are among them. First on that list? Cousins, who rumbled to a whopping 9.3 drives per game, more than double Randle’s second-ranked mark.
Offensively, Randle provides a similar dose of the off-dribble dynamism that made Cousins an increasingly effective partner with Davis. Both players can grab and go, make plays on short rolls, sprint to the rim in transition and attack scrambling defenses with three-to-four dribble drives in the halfcourt. They can also run inverted ball screens, goading a switch that presents either player with an even greater advantage than before.
But it’s on the other end that Davis playing the 5 looms largest. Cousins’ aversion to defending the perimeter and overall penchant for laziness shoehorned Davis into a defensive role that ignores his most natural skill: protecting the basket. It’s no coincidence that Davis led the league by contesting 7.3 shots per game from the restricted area after Mirotic arrived in New Orleans, 3.4 attempts more than he averaged prior to Cousins’ injury. Also no accident: The Pelicans allowing opponents to shoot 61.1 percent at the rim overall, fifth-best in the league, once Davis played a lion’s share of his minutes at center, a 5.1 percent dip that accounts for a significant portion of their large-scale improvement defensively.
The concept addition by subtraction is a tired cliché in sports, and doesn’t even necessarily apply to New Orleans. Randle’s signing, even if he’s in New Orleans for just a single season, could prove one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Still, from a pure talent equation, replacing Cousins with Mirotic and Randle leaves the Pelicans in the red. But what that sum doesn’t factor in is the possibility of Davis reaching heights that the presence of Cousins, by no fault of his own, would have inherently prevented.
The Pelicans have many questions to answer before establishing themselves as a surefire playoff team in a loaded Western Conference. The fallout from Rajon Rondo‘s departure could be steeper than many anticipate, and the fickle nature of health – especially for Davis and Jrue Holiday, excellent last season while finally avoiding the injury bug – affects them even more than it does their competitors. But with Davis finally entrenched at the position that’s long been his destiny, beside a pair of gifted fellow big men, there’s a better chance than ever that New Orleans makes good on the promise he made after eliminating Portland.
Are the Pelicans actually for real? Davis will give the basketball world his most definitive answer yet soon enough.
July 18, 2019, 8:11 pmTristan ThompsonC, Cleveland Cavaliers
Tristan Thompson will not play for Canada in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
This seems like a situation where Thompson is not participating to prepare for the grind of the NBA season in the fall. There was always some uncertainty with his participation but he was among the invitees to Team Canada training camp.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
July 18, 2019, 5:40 pmCameron ReynoldsPG, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have signed Cameron Reynolds to a two-way deal.
Reynolds played in 19 games with the Wolves as a rookie after playing for five years at Tulane University. As he moves to the Bucks, expect him to continue to compete for the opportunity to be a backup point guard in the NBA. With the Bucks entering next season as title contenders, there is no room for Reynolds in the fantasy landscape.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
July 18, 2019, 4:39 pmJavonte GreenF, Boston Celtics
Javonte Green will join the Celtics on a partially guaranteed contract.
After a strong Summer League performance where he averaged 10.8 ppg on 50% shooting, Green will get an opportunity to fight for a roster spot for the Celtics. He most recently played overseas in Germany.
Source: Tim Bontemps on Twitter
July 18, 2019, 4:31 pmAmida BrimahC, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have signed Amida Brimah to a one-year contract.
The seven-foot big man, Bridah, has had a couple short stints with the Spurs but has yet to play in a game. Expect him to compete for a roster spot come training camp but there are no guarantees that he will make the final roster.
Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter
July 18, 2019, 3:04 pmDaniel TheisPF, Boston Celtics
The Celtics have officially re-signed Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker.
The team rescinded their qualifying offer to Theis in a procedural move to maximize cap space, but he's back in Boston on a two-year, $10 million deal. He'll be battling for backup center minutes and his shooting ability (38.8 percent from deep last season on low volume) could set him apart from the rest of Boston's frontcourt options. As a player who can knock down threes and pick up some steals and blocks, there's deep-league potential for Theis should he end up pushing for something like 20 mpg. Wanamaker decided to pass on larger offers from European teams to return to the Celtics, where he may have a better shot at minutes with Terry Rozier out of the picture. Even so, he's not a fantasy target.
Source: Boston Celtics
July 18, 2019, 2:05 pmThanasis AntetokounmpoSF, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have made their signing of Thanasis Antetokounmpo official.
Antetokounmpo is believed to be on a two-year deal that is fully guaranteed for the veteran's minimum. Antetokounmpo has just two NBA appearances to his name, both coming back in 2016 with the Knicks. It's unlikely that he'll play much, if at all, though at least he'll get to hang with his MVP little brother.
Source: Milwaukee Bucks
July 18, 2019, 1:59 pmRondae Hollis-JeffersonSF, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have announced the signing of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Hollis-Jefferson had a tough season in Brooklyn, suffering an offseason adductor strain and then falling out of the rotation when he was ready to play. The Raptors will take a one-year flier on a player that can capably defend multiple positions while bringing great energy, and he'll fit in with the team's defensive identity. RHJ is only a year removed from being a top-100 fantasy player but it's unlikely that he holds standard-league value in a reserve role for Toronto. Deep-league managers can consider Hollis-Jefferson a late-round flier.
Source: Toronto Raptors
July 18, 2019, 1:41 pmKelly Oubre Jr.SF, Phoenix Suns
The Suns have officially re-signed Kelly Oubre.
Oubre is headed back to Phoenix on a two-year, $30 million deal and lost out on a bigger payday as teams alternately gobbled up cap space or played a long waiting game in free agency, leaving one of the top RFAs on the board to settle for a deal that clocks in below expectations. Oubre missed the end of the season because of thumb surgery but blossomed in Phoenix, averaging 16.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.7 3s on .453 shooting. That was good for top-50 value, and while that might be too lofty to expect a repeat without some breaks (the efficiency is a definite question mark), it's clear that Oubre is finally on a team that will commit to his future and there will be enough playing time to make him a late-middle round option in fantasy drafts.
Source: Phoenix Suns
July 18, 2019, 1:37 pmDavid NwabaSF, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have announced the signing of David Nwaba.
Nwaba will head to Brooklyn on a two-year deal after bouncing around over his first three NBA seasons. It's a nice pickup for the Nets, who will get a hard-nosed forward that's capable of defending and rebounding with tenacity. Nwaba's poor shooting might not do him favors in Brooklyn's system, but he's the type of hustle player that coaches tend to like. Expect him to play a part in Kenny Atkinson's deep rotation, though fantasy value is probably out of the question when everyone is healthy.
Source: Brooklyn Nets
July 18, 2019, 12:42 pmJR SmithSG, Cleveland Cavaliers
J.R. Smith will meet with the Bucks on Thursday, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
This is the first team other than the Lakers, who have already been deemed an unlikely landing spot, to be connected to Smith. Milwaukee is looking for another wing shooter and Smith would fit the bill in a perfect world, though it's unlikely that he would play a major role for any team after sitting out since November.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter