With Sunday night’s trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans from the Sacramento Kings, this NBA season’s second half just became more than a March Madness afterthought. It became the lab for a grand and daring experiment. With the 6’11” Cousins starting alongside 6’10” Anthony Davis—Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player—the Pelicans now feature a uniquely retro lineup that reverses the trend toward small ball that has become de rigeur the past five years.
In that time, the three-point line has become the NBA’s latest line of demarcation. Backcourt missile launchers such as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, and Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics have changed the game. The past two NBA Finals have featured the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, each of whom finished no worse than third in three-pointers per game in those seasons.
Now in his fifth season, Davis may be the league's best player under 25 years old, but he still has yet to win a playoff game USA TODAY SPORTS
As the scorers have moved farther from the basket, from low-post and high-post hoops to parcel post, big men have seen their roles reduced. The ultimate ignominy? Play-by-play guys and analysts now refer to them as “rim protectors,” as if these latter-day Kareems and Wilts are purely defensive pieces, goalkeepers in gym shorts.
Three of the top seven all-time scorers in NBA history were low-post players and 7-footers (the aforementioned two plus Shaquille O’Neal). In a bygone era, Cousins, now in his seventh season, and Davis, in the midst of his fifth, might have parked themselves on the low block and waited for an entry pass. That pass is not coming in 2017 (how often do you see three-second violations these days?).
Big-timber types with offensive skills such as Davis and Cousins have learned to adapt.
Cousins has the sheer strength to back down defenders if he prefers, but both are able to pop from outside or play the pick-and-roll game. What may render the Pelicans, currently two-and-a-half games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, such a headache to opposing teams is that nobody has two such players in the same lineup.
As the NBA heads into the season’s second half, Cousins is fourth in the league in scoring (27.8 points per game) and Davis fifth (27.7 points per game). While the NBA has seen teammates finish in the top five in scoring before, most recently in 2012 with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it has never witnessed such a pair who were both 6’10” or taller do so.
Davis (11.9) and Cousins (10.6) both average more than 10 rebounds per game, giving the Pelicans a pair of 25-and-10 beasts. The only other player hitting those marks this season is Oklahoma City’s Westbrook, the 6’3” dynamo who is averaging 31.1 points per game and 10.6 rebounds.
Related: Sunday's All-Star Game was like a boring version of Slam Ball
Part of the Pelicans’ experiment will be to see how Cousins and Davis, each of whom played one season at the University of Kentucky before moving on to the NBA, complement one another. Their individual numbers will likely decrease, as the last time either was paired with such a viable second scoring option was when they played for the Wildcats. Don’t expect Cousins or Davis to get too hung up on those numbers. These are two All-Stars who have between them played 10 full NBA season and collectively have won zero playoff games. Cousins has yet to appear in one. They must both be eager to discover what it feels like to win an NBA game in May.
In the wake of Sunday evening’s trade, much of the blather on the web and the sports bloviation fests has centered around how the Kings got fleeced in this deal. Talent-wise, sure.
But in six-plus seasons with Cousins as their premier weapon, Sacramento never won more than 33 games and seemed to lead the league in emotionally battered teammates. Cousins was a surly presence, and that is hardly a subjective assessment: He has led the NBA in technical fouls four of the past five seasons, including this one. It was time to start a new chapter.
A tempestuous talent, Cousins has led the NBA in technical fouls four of the past five seasons USA TODAY SPORTS
As for the Crescent City, this is the most inspired and audacious pairing since Gail Goodrich and Pete Maravich manned the backcourt for the expansion New Orleans Jazz 40 years ago. The difference with this coupling, as opposed to that one, is that both All-Stars are in their prime. The Pelicans (23-34) are primed to overtake the three teams that are ahead of them by fewer than three games out West and vault into the eighth spot.
If that were to occur, New Orleans could find itself taking the court against the Warriors—a franchise that swept them 4-0 two years ago—in the first round. That would be the most entertaining series of the opening round: the Splash brothers versus the Smash brothers. A team of threes versus a team of trees (the Pelicans also have a trio of 7-footers on their roster). East Bay versus the bayou.
In the next six weeks, basketball fans may actually remember that the NBA exists as college basketball stages its annual marathon of madness.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers