TORONTO -- After the Pelicans won 45 games and made the playoffs in 2015, the future looked bright in New Orleans. The Pelicans had Anthony Davis, one of the best players in the league, and Alvin Gentry joined them as their new head coach after winning a championship as an assistant with Golden State. Two seasons have passed, and New Orleans has yet to return to the playoffs, winning 30 and 34 games the past two seasons. Now the clock is ticking on the new dynamic duo of Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
The Pelicans have struggled to find the right supporting cast for Davis in his first five seasons with the team, yet it has not been from a lacking of trying. New Orleans has a payroll exceeding $120 million this season but has over $30 million committed to Omer Asik, Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore, role players who have either vanished from the rotation or not moved the needle on the court. Acquiring Cousins from Sacramento before the trade deadline last season represented a significant talent upgrade for the Pelicans, but even that deal came with its own set of questions.
Cousins is the most polarizing, and some would say misunderstood, player in the league. On the court, he is dominant. The numbers speak for themselves. But in six seasons with the Kings, his team had never made the playoffs. If Cousins is one of the best players in the league, then why have his teams not succeeded?
So far, there has been no concerns about Cousins in New Orleans.
"He's a really intelligent kid," Gentry said at shootaround on Thursday in Toronto. "Because of his emotions, I don't think people see that."
Cousins and Rajon Rondo were teammates in Sacramento two seasons ago and have reunited in New Orleans this season. "He does it all," Rondo said. "Not every big can do it all. Some people say these other bigs are good passers, but no, Cousins is the best passing big. He's the most dominant scoring big in the game. If he wanted to, he could score 50 points every night. He makes plays and, right now, he's running the point sometimes. A lot of bigs, if they were put in that situation, would fail tremendously."
Any concerns about how Davis and Cousins -- who have plenty of overlapping offensive skills -- would fit together on the court have also been answered this season. They're putting up individual numbers that the league has never seen. Per Basketball Reference, no player has averaged over 28 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while making at least two 3-pointers per game over the course of a single season. Cousins averages 28.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks and is making 2.5 threes per game. Davis is not far behind, averaging 27.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks with 1.2 threes per game.
"They're good players and they like playing together," Gentry said. "They're willing passers. They're very unselfish players. Both of them have the ability to post up and put it on the floor and they share the ball."
Per NBA.com, when Davis and Cousins have shared the floor, the Pelicans are scoring 107.0 points per 100 possessions (a mark that would rank them close to a top-five offense in the league) and are outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions (which would give them the third-highest net rating in the league behind only Golden State and Boston).
"I'll flip a coin with my two bigs as far as MVP candidates go," Rondo said.
Despite what Cousins and Davis have done, the Pelicans are only 6-6 after Thursday night's loss to the Raptors. All of their wins have come against teams with below .500 records. Their overall offense is hovering near the bottom 10 in the league and they have been average on defense so far. The question remains: Do the Pelicans have a supporting cast to help out their two franchise big men? Asked what the team needs most to surround himself and Cousins, Davis was succinct: "Guys who make shots."
There aren't many options on the Pelicans roster, but one of them will have to be Jrue Holiday, who re-signed for five years and $126 million this offseason. Holiday has been shooting well below his career percentage from beyond the arc, but he put up a season-high 34 points in Toronto on Thursday.
"It's a little bit easier," Holiday said of his role on the team with the addition of Cousins. "I don't really have to do as much. The numbers they're putting up are outrageous. I just try to do whatever they need me to do, play defense and try to knock down some shots."
Gentry worries about the workload Cousins and Davis are shouldering so far, as they're both averaging over 36 minutes this season, but he might have no choice but to see how far the two big men can take this team.
"That's just who we are as a team," Davis said of the burden on himself and Cousins. "That's just the way our offense is."
The Pelicans don't have a lot of time to figure it out. Cousins is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and if the team isn't in a playoff spot by the February trade deadline, he might find himself on the trade market for the second consecutive season. That is the immediate concern for this team, but everything revolves around Davis' free agency (He can opt out on the summer of 2020).
If the Davis-Cousins experiment fails, or if Cousins leaves, the Pelicans don't have much cap flexibility to rebuild or try to acquire another star before Davis hits the open market. It's reminiscent of LeBron James' first tenure with the Cavaliers, when failed free-agent signings and trades eventually pushed their star to leave for a chance to win a championship in Miami.
Early in the season, the Pelicans remain optimistic. Rondo, who has yet to play this season after surgery to repair a core muscle injury he suffered during the preseason, envisions himself as the point guard on this team helping to facilitate the big three of Davis, Cousins and Holiday. When Cousins was acquired, many believed the Pelicans had the potential to give the Warriors trouble with their two dominant bigs. Rondo still believes that's the case.
"I think we'll give everybody trouble," Rondo said. "We've been together for such a short stretch. The Warriors have three to four years together. Chemistry, adversity, ups and downs, that's where we're behind. Talent-wise, there's no player who can go pound-for-pound with Davis. There's no big who can go pound-for-pound with Cousins. Those two are one of a kind in our league. It's up to us to figure it out."
Going toe-to-toe with the Warriors in the playoffs is a faraway proposition. For now, the Pelicans just need to string together wins and give themselves a chance to prove themselves in the postseason in April.