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Trade Deficit

Why the Boogie for Buddy swap was a bad idea

Mark Menard
February 24, 2019 - 3:58 pm

What if I told you that adding the best player at his position is not always the most advantageous move for a basketball franchise starved for success?

In the Pelicans’ case, bringing DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans via a surprise blockbuster All-Star Weekend trade in February 2017, while heralded almost unanimously at the time, was the move that started the countdown to the end of the Anthony Davis era.


A Half-Season of Sizzle

When Cousins arrived, the Pelicans welcomed one of the NBA’s most polarizing stars with open arms, knowing they had about 14 months and change remaining on the former Sacramento center’s contract – just a little over a year to turn this trade from a rent-a-player act of desperation to a lasting relationship.

And indeed, “Boogie” offered an intriguing glimpse of outside-the-box championship-chasing. He spent the remainder of the 2016-2017 season and the entire ensuing offseason learning to co-exist with Davis on the floor.

At a time when the entire Association is trying to shrink down to play small-ball with the dynastic Golden State Warriors, the Pelicans went all-in in the other direction. Embracing “Do It Big” as a marketing slogan and a basketball philosophy, the truth is the Pelicans spent large stretches of games with either Davis or Cousins on the floor by his lonesome. To be sure, that in itself was a luxury, and when the two did play together in clutch time, they were hard to stop.

But they were only truly beginning to find their stride when disaster struck. On a night when the Pelicans scored a statement victory over James Harden and the Houston Rockets, Cousins’s season, and essentially his tenure in New Orleans, came to an end thanks to a torn Achilles.

That was January 26, 2018. The “Boogie and the Brow” experiment lasted less than a calendar year. While the Pelicans did advance to the playoffs in part thanks to the fact that the presence of Cousins helped them avoid the early-season slumps that had plagued them for years, Cousins was unavailable for a postseason run that ended in a suffocating series loss to the Warriors, and his injury complicated contract talks to re-sign him in New Orleans.

Animosity ramped up quickly during those negotiations, and Cousins opted to bet on himself and his recovery, signing a one-year deal with Golden State. And that’s the true travesty of the Demarcus Debacle. Not the injury, but rather letting him walk away so easily and so quickly after what they gave up to get him.


Shooting Star

From the moment that a favorable draw in the NBA Draft Lottery allowed the rights to Anthony Davis to land in the Pelicans’ lap in 2012, now-former Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps embarked on a series of “get rich quick” schemes when it came to roster-building around The Brow.

Rather than saving their draft assets to assemble a team of talented young ballers that would mesh with the potential and development of Davis, Demps favored dealing away nearly every draft pick over the next several years to try and put “win now” pieces around a very young player whose game still needed seasoning.

Setting aside the 2013 draft-night trade that brought Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for #6 overall pick Nerlens Noel – the only move in the bunch that involved acquiring anything resembling a young talent that could grow alongside Davis in the Big Easy – the Demps track record of deals has been awful, and each one further mortgaged the Pelicans’ future for some perceived quick fix.

But in 2016, the Pelicans were poised to make and keep a first-round selection in the NBA Draft for the first time since taking Davis four years earlier. And with the sixth overall pick, they got exactly the type of player they needed in sharpshooting Oklahoma star Buddy Hield.

Hield had been a monster in college, earning the nickname “Buddy Buckets” for his prowess at pouring in points from all over the floor but especially from long-range, a coveted and necessary skill in today’s NBA. His rookie season though found him struggling to find his touch in the pros, and apparently a half-season of first-year growing pains was all it took for Pelicans brass to grow impatient as they shipped Hield to Sacramento when the opportunity arose to trade for Cousins.

But while the early thinkpieces praised Demps for fleecing the Kings, history has viewed things much differently just two short years later. Why? Because Buddy Hield, that’s why.

Upon his arrival on the west coast, Hield’s points-per-game skyrocketed from 8.6 to 15.1, and he raised his shooting percentage by nine percentage-points to 48%. According to an advanced metric by Jonathan Roberts, who covers the Kings for Fansided site, Hield sits tied with Warriors star Kevin Durant as the third-most accurate three-point shooter in the NBA, trailing only Golden State’s Steph Curry and Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris.

And Hield’s ascension has led to a big surge forward in the standings for the Kings, who sit three games above .500 and just outside the Western Conference’s top eight, in prime position to end the NBA’s longest active playoff drought, a span that has stretched 12 seasons.

Of course, the trade wasn’t simply a Cousins-for-Hield swap. It also included forwards Omri Casspi (to New Orleans) and Tyreke Evans (to Sacramento), and guard Langston Galloway (to Sacramento). And of course, it wouldn’t be a Demps-approved deal if the Pelicans didn’t lose some draft picks in the process, sending both 2017 picks to the Kings. But Hield was the lynchpin that made Sacramento choose to do the deal with the Pels. And the Pelicans, eyeing yet another “instant contender”-type solution, couldn’t offload him fast enough for a player who they couldn’t guarantee would stay in New Orleans long-term.


A Stay of Execution

Perhaps the biggest travesty of the Cousins trade is that its perceived awesomeness at the time took the heat off of Demps. Whatever thinking might have gone into making the deal, the perception now is this: An NBA general manager in desperate need of any sort of win sacrificed a rookie with potentially difference-making shooting talent in order to make a deal sure to grab short-term positive headlines.

I don’t pretend to have any inside information on the inner machinations of the New Orleans Pelicans, but it sure feels like the Cousins deal may have saved Demps’s job. Public approval was certainly not in his favor, and he changed the conversation by bringing Cousins to the Crescent City. But the reality of the situation, again, is that he shipped off a premium NBA commodity – a young player who can space the floor with his long-range touch – for a player who he had no guarantees he could keep for more than about 14 months at a position that isn’t nearly as valued as it once was.

Essentially, all the trade really did was assure another two years of employment for Demps, who has now been relieved of his duties as the team spirals towards the impending end of the A.D. era.


Furrowed Brow

The bottom line is this: The DeMarcus Cousins trade was, on its surface, meant to pair a superstar with Anthony Davis in order to show him that the Pelicans franchise was serious about becoming a championship contender and enticing him to re-up with New Orleans when his current contract runs out in 2020. But the team would have been better served standing pat and being patient with the assets they already had.

We all watched Jrue Holiday emerge as a two-way star late in the season and in the playoffs. But Holiday had long been an incredible complementary piece to Davis on both sides of the floor, often matching A.D. in both scoring prowess and defensive tenacity. His star rising across the NBA media was simply a product of Holiday finally getting the postseason exposure needed for people to notice.

Furthermore, the Pelicans didn’t need Cousins in the fold to execute the 2018 trade for Nikola Mirotic, and with Hield still on the roster, they would have potentially had two reliable long-range snipers with which to terrorize opposing defenses. I believe a Rajon Rondo-Holiday-Hield-Mirotic-Davis main five would have been more potent offensively than the version that featured E’Twaun Moore with Hield watching the playoffs on his couch in his new home in Sacramento.

And when it comes to the postseason, the Pelicans didn’t need Cousins to sweep Portland out of the playoffs and become second-round cannon-fodder for the Warriors. But having Hield’s three-point prowess might have helped them put up more of a fight against Golden State in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo offensive scheme.

And if, after all that, a disenchanted Davis still allowed LeBron James and his henchmen to whisper sweet nothings in his ear about taking his game to the west coast in the service of helping James salvage something of his Lakers tenure under the guise of the Brow’s “legacy,” the Pelicans would have been far better positioned for his departure with Hield as a building block for the next incarnation of the Pels, whatever that might look like.

Instead, the good people of Sacramento will get to cheer on the Bahamian Bomber, and New Orleans hoops fans can do nothing but cock an eyebrow and wonder what might have been.

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