Pelicans must keep DeMarcus Cousins to have chance to build winner

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Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins

NEW ORLEANS — The Pelicans season will come to an end Wednesday night in Portland.

They were mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with four games remaining.

They were generally considered eliminated from the playoff race after a 0-8 start, though they did hang around within striking distance of the eighth and final playoff spot before opening eyes by acquiring DeMarcus Cousins during the All-Star Break.

But New Orleans will wind up with a sub-.500 record after the trade and their record with Cousins will be marginally better or marginally worse than it was prior to the trade depending on what happens against the Blazers and what happens a night earlier in the penultimate game at the Lakers.

The numbers don’t lie: The Pelicans have had a below-average season, it was a below-average team before Cousins arrived and it was a below-average team after he arrived.

But make no mistake about it: by far the Pelicans’ best chance of becoming an above-average team in the near future rests with keeping Cousins teamed with Anthony Davis.

Sure, there’s an important decision to be made in the offseason regarding guard Jrue Holiday, who is due to become a free agent. But whether New Orleans chooses to spend the exorbitant amount of money it would take to keep Holiday, or whether it chooses to spread that money among multiple players — neither the presence nor the absence of Holiday will mean much if Davis and Cousins aren’t together for the foreseeable future.

Cousins has one year remaining on his contract and at this point it’s unclear whether he will be willing to sign a long-term deal before next season, though it would behoove the Pelicans to try and get him to do just that.

The trade cost Cousins $30 million that only Sacramento could have offered him. It would be understandable if he were determined to test the open market after next season and get the next-biggest contract he can.

Even if his considerations aren’t strictly monetary, he needs more than a third of a season to make an educated decision about how he feels about the Pelicans and New Orleans.

There are a lot of other factors for Cousins to consider as he evaluates New Orleans as a potential long-term home.

First and foremost is how well he and Davis will fit together. The early returns are encouraging, but an offseason, training camp and full season together will be far more illuminating as will be the knowledge of how the roster changes between now and late October.

Then there is the question of whether the franchise chooses to stick with general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry or get rid of one or get rid of both.

It’s clear that New Orleans has a unique combination of big men with Davis and Cousins. No other team can come close to matching that one-two punch, though plenty of teams have different types of elite one-two punches.

The Pelicans have a lot of pieces to fill in around the two big guys, but having them is a heck of a head-start toward getting back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

Regardless of who is the general manager and who is the coach, New Orleans needs to enter this offseason determined to get Cousins to sign a long-term deal. If the Pelicans aren’t able to entice Cousins to do so, they’ll find themselves similarly hamstrung to how Sacramento was when it shipped him here for relatively little in return.

In short, the Pelicans’ fate for the foreseeable future rests with their ability to make sure DeMarcus Cousins is a part of their foreseeable future.

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Les East

Les East

SportsNOLA/WHNO-TV/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renown freelance journalist. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

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