While the rest of the league is pivoting to sharpshooting guards and swingmen, the Pelicans have turned back the clock and are trying to win games an old-fashioned way — with two very big men in the frontcourt, Cousins and Anthony Davis — making their performances this season a major point of intrigue for N.B.A. fans.
“It really has become a guard-oriented league,” the Pelicans’ coach, Alvin Gentry, said during an interview in his office at the team’s practice court. “Look at Washington’s backcourt and Portland’s backcourt. We’re bucking the trend and seeing if we can start a fad of our own by playing big guys and trying to take advantage of mismatches.”
It wouldn’t be so much starting a fad as resurrecting an old one. The Houston Rockets reached the N.B.A. finals in 1986 on the backs of their formidable frontcourt, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, nicknamed the Twin Towers. Tim Duncan and David Robinson adopted the same nickname several years later when they turned the San Antonio Spurs into one of the league’s most consistently excellent teams, winning two titles.
Credit Barton Silverman/The New York Times
But now, in a league dominated by the relatively diminutive Warriors, who work most of their magic far from the basket, pairings like the Twin Towers feel as quaint as Etonics and short shorts.
Cousins joined the Pelicans in February, in a trade from the Sacramento Kings. So this is the first full season that he and Davis are together. Like Cousins, Davis is 6 feet 11 inches with a wingspan of more than 7 feet. Like Cousins, Davis spent one year at Kentucky before being selected in the N.B.A.’s draft lottery. Like Cousins, Davis is an established All-Star who has spent most of his career with weak supporting casts.
There is deep skepticism leaguewide about whether the Pelicans’ strategy will be successful, primarily because of the lack of shooters surrounding Cousins and Davis and the team’s failure to make the playoffs for the last two seasons. Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni recently said in an interview that it was no longer “ideal” to play two traditional centers at the same time, but it is possible to be successful playing two big men who are able to shoot 3-pointers.
Neither Cousins nor Davis is a particularly dangerous 3-point shooter. But the Pelicans’ approach could eventually prove to be so far out of vogue that it confounds opponents.
“There’s very few bigs in the league compared to 20 years ago,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said, referring to the Pelicans as an anomaly. “Who else is going to get two bigs like these guys? They present a challenge because they make us play a different style of defense than what we’ve grown accustomed to.”
Despite the team’s 1-3 record entering Thursday night’s game at Sacramento, the early results for the Cousins-Davis tandem have been promising. The Pelicans outscored their opponents by 19 points in the 87 minutes in which both Cousins and Davis were on the court. Last season, the Pelicans outscored opponents by 41 points in the 394 minutes their two big men played together.
They have managed to produce big numbers without negating each other. In the 17 games Cousins played with New Orleans after the trade, he averaged 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds. Davis averaged 28.3 points and 11.1 rebounds.
Davis, who scored 35 points in the Pelicans’ loss to Golden State (as did Cousins), said he was encouraged by how well he jelled with Cousins on the floor. He said that he felt it was an improvement from previous games.
“We knew that we were bigger on the inside and we just wanted to play in the post and attack their bigs,” Davis said. “I think we did a good job of that because all their bigs were in foul trouble. That’s the way we want to play.”
The Pelicans didn’t necessarily set out to revive an old lineup strategy. When they acquired Cousins from the Kings, they were 23-34 and in need of a shake-up. The initial thought in the Pelicans’ front office was simply to find a proven talent to complement Davis, who had made the playoffs only once in his first five seasons.
“It’s really hard to get elite players,” General Manager Dell Demps said. “We had the opportunity to get elite players. That’s where it started.”
Cousins said he could have resisted the trade, but chose not to because he had “never had an opportunity to play with a talent like” Davis. He was willing to explore the partnership because a few other teams have enjoyed recent playoff success while playing two big men. San Antonio often pairs Pau Gasol with LaMarcus Aldridge. Memphis’s Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph powered a long run of postseason appearances before splitting up this season.
For that reason, Cousins is hesitant to call his pairing with Davis an experiment. Instead, he said he believed they were remixing an old tune. Demps pursued the pairing because he felt Cousins and Davis were versatile and multitalented enough to be a functional foundation.
“They’re not typical bigs,” Demps said. “They’re both really skilled. They can shoot, they can pass, they can handle the ball, they can make plays for other people. Now, the key is to make it all mesh.”
Cousins and Davis did not attend Kentucky at the same time. Their college coach, John Calipari, has developed a long list of modern big men — centers and power forwards who can make plays, step out away from the basket to create space and even shoot 3s.
“We teach our bigs to start like guards and finish like bigs,” Calipari said in a phone interview. “I hate to give away trade secrets, but that’s my mentality with my big guys. I don’t want you to play like you’re a big guy. You start like you’re a guard. I want you to attack the basket, but I want you to finish like you’re a big — go dunk on somebody. I want you to rebound and block like you’re a big guy.”
Cousins and Davis spent the summer working out together in Los Angeles and Las Vegas with their teammates Rajon Rondo — another former Kentucky player who also played with Cousins in Sacramento — and Jrue Holiday. In their workouts, it became clear that the double big man lineup would be successful only if supported by talented guards.
Rondo, a starting guard, is sidelined for a month after hernia surgery, leaving New Orleans in desperate need of another playmaker and perimeter shooter.
During my interview with Gentry in his office, he took a call from the veteran guard Jameer Nelson, who became a free agent last week when he was released by Denver.
“I play guys that I think will help us win,” Gentry said, pitching Nelson on coming to New Orleans. “You could really help because you’re a shotmaker, too. We could use someone that has confidence in their shot. Obviously, if we do well, a lot of the credit will go to the guys we added to this team.”
Gentry’s pitch worked. Nelson signed with the Pelicans after clearing waivers and will now be asked to help address the Pelicans’ need for long-distance shooters who can help balance the floor. In his first game, New Orleans defeated the Los Angeles Lakers for its first regular-season win.
“It might take some time to get all the parts moving together,” Gentry said, “but when we do I think we are going to be very efficient and we can be a different kind of N.B.A. team.”
After spending six-plus losing seasons in Sacramento, Cousins has bought into his new coach’s vision.
“It’s going to work,” Cousins said, peering over the top of his sunglasses. “I’m confident about that.”