Jan 26, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) and center DeMarcus Cousins (0) react after a basket during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center. Pelicans defeated the Rockets 115-1

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Get real! The Pelicans are absolutely better with Boogie

Seth Dunlap
March 08, 2018 - 8:23 pm
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It’s an interesting time to be inside sports media during this modern age of 24/7 news cycles and the takeover of social media.  Some of the most popular shows are ones that emphasize off-the-wall hot takes and nonsensical speculation.  “Yell-tainment” has proliferated throughout our sports media landscape like wildfire - an unstoppable force that we can only hope to contain.

This week the nonsense has reached new levels of absurdity here in New Orleans.   

The Pelicans have won 10 straight games, thrusting themselves squarely into the middle of the Western Conference playoff race and exciting a city that rarely cares much about basketball.   Their much maligned general manager has made at least two key moves down the stretch, trading for Nikola Mirotic and signing Emeka Okafor.  Their oft-criticized head coach has transformed the offense into a pace of play wrecking ball that even Mike D’Antoni and his Houston Rockets must be a bit envious of.

All of this, they’ve done without their All-Star center who was having perhaps the best season of his career.   Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins tore his Achilles tendon on January 26th and was lost for the season.  Many thought the Pelicans would also see their season lost, but they’ve rallied and used the adversity to propel themselves on this franchise record-tying winning streak.

Yet, those aren’t the headlines we see this week.  Instead, we’ve been inundated with a constant barrage of hot-take, and undoubtedly click-bait worthy, stories questioning whether the Pelicans are actually better off without Boogie Cousins. 

Here’s one

Here’s another. 

Also this. 

I could go on.  Those are just a few samples from some really good local sports writers and broadcasters.  

Nationally, the barrage is still incoming

First, let’s talk about the premise behind all of this.  We are supposed to believe, I guess, that Cousins was such a determent to the team's pace of play and to team chemistry that the Pelicans were better off without his 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. 

Indeed, the Pelicans' pace of play has gone up, but not by the dramatic amount that some people would like you to believe.   Before Cousins’ injury the Pelicans were averaging 101.48 possessions per game, which was already the fourth most in the NBA.   Since, they’ve averaged 105.7 possessions per game, roughly four extra possessions than they did with Boogie, and good for best in the league. 

Those extra possessions have been critical because the team isn’t shooting as well without Boogie.  They’re field goal percentage has dropped from 48.6% to 47.6% and their 3 point shooting has taken a slight hit, falling from an even 36% to 35.7%, although that is statistically insignificant given the relative lack of data and games since the Cousins injury. 

The one area where they have greatly increased their efficiency is field goal attempts per game, which have gone from 85 to 95 per game, a whopping 10 shot per game difference that looks remarkable on its face.

However, when you dive deeper those numbers are more easily explained. 

First, the Pelicans are shooting at a lower percentage which in turns leads to extra opportunities via offensive rebounds.  Indeed, the Pelicans are grabbing nearly a full offensive rebound more per game in their post-Cousins games, 9.2 compared to 8.4 per game before.  I suppose somewhere, somebody is going to argue that Cousins was a bad rebounder, right?

Boogie was also getting to the free throw line consistently, and field goal attempts where players are fouled and don’t make that shot aren’t counted as official field goal attempts.  The Pelicans are shooting a full two and a half less free throws per game without Cousins that they did with him.  In other words, there’s another statistically explainable reason why the field goal attempts per game have gone up.

In fairness, Cousins turned the ball over too much, as did the team as a whole, when he was on the court.  The Pelicans were among the league’s worst with 15.7 turnovers per contest with him, and have dropped that to 13.6 in his absence.    Less turnovers equal more shot attempts, and further explain the pre-to-post Cousins disparity. 

So, analytical explanations are one thing but what about the actual composition of this team?  Remember, there was no Mirotic or Okafor when Cousins was healthy.  Are we now just completely discounting the effect those two have had on this team?  Okafor has been a revelation, and Mirotic’s impact as a scorer off the bench cannot be overstated.  

Now, imagine this current Pelicans team without either of those players.  Do you still think they would be winners of 10 straight games and in the fourth spot in the Western Conference?  No, and I don’t think anybody would have been talking about how good this team is without Boogie either. 

Imagine Okafor coming off the bench to spell Cousins and Davis.  Imagine the 6’10” Mirotic on the floor with those two bigs and the incredible matchup problems that would present. 

Oh, and about the Pelicans winning streak without him?  Well, the team had won seven out of eight games prior to his injury and looked like one of the hottest teams in the NBA.  Are people now going to pretend like the team was in some kind of disarray before the Cousins injury?

In fact, the Pelicans proceeded to lose five of their first six games after the injury.   What was one of the hottest teams in the league instantly turned into one of the most dysfunctional.  It wasn’t until Mirotic and Okafor were brought in and got acclimated that this team turned into the machine we are seeing now.

Here’s the truth – the Pelicans are NOT better off without Demarcus Cousins, who was playing like one of the best ten or so players in the NBA before his injury.   He is a remarkably gifted player who is squarely in the middle of his prime, and who was undoubtedly the best center in the NBA.   Ask anybody inside that locker room, and they’ll echo those sentiments. 

It’s also time to ask why exactly there is this rampant discussion around Cousins’ value when other injured stars have escaped similar criticism.

Where were all the “Celtics better off without Gordon Hayward” articles? 

I couldn’t find any “Carson Wentz dragging Eagles down” headlines during, and after, Nick Foles’ march to a Super Bowl championship.  

Most of the talk around Kevin Love’s injury for the Cavaliers have been how much they miss their star, not how much they might better be without Love.

The one star that seems to be facing criticism similar to Cousins is John Wall.  The Washington Wizards have continued to win without their star, and there has been consistent headlines and discussion both locally in Washington and nationally that perhaps the team is better off without Wall.

Now, what similarities do Hayward, Wentz, and Foles share that they don’t with Wall and Cousins?  It’s an uneasy question, but one that needs to be asked. 

I doubt any of these men and women consciously thought about race when writing or discussing Cousins’ value.  These aren’t racist men and women, there was no malice in their words.  I truly believe that. 

Yet, in my opinion, the pattern nationally has been clear – the injured white star athletes have been treated differently than their black counterparts. 

Demarcus Cousins is a better player than Kevin Love or Gordon Hayward, yet it is Cousins who is facing an onslaught of articles, TV segments, and sports talk radio discussions about his “true value” to the Pelicans franchise.

It’s absurd.  Whatever the reason.  It’s absurd. 

Now, let’s all get back to reality here and dispense with this hot take nonsense.  The Pelicans are unequivocally better with a healthy Boogie Cousins on the court.  Hopefully we’ll see that next year when the Pelicans could become a legitimate Western Conference title threat. 

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