In the second Lord of the Rings book Saruman talks a lot about the power of the Two Towers, about how the Twin fortresses of Isengard and Barad-dûr will cast darkness over middle earth and rule with an iron will for thousands of years to come. Of course we all know that against all odds the little guys, with the help of a few big guys, overcame Saruman and Sauron and the Two Towers were destroyed. However, the New Orleans Pelicans seem to be buying in to the idea that two towers could rule the NBA once again.
In a spectacular move last week the Pelicans traded for Sacramento centre DeMarcus Cousins, pairing him with their own big man Anthony Davis and forming the most frightening big man combo the league has seen in decades.
It is by no means the first time that two giants have come together on an NBA roster. Briefly in the late 90s and early 2000s the San Antonio Spurs brought together an ageing David Robinson and a young Tim Duncan. The Spurs won two championships with this highly skilled duo who were, in fact, nicknamed ‘The Twin Towers’.
Likewise in the 80s the Houston Rockets had their own duo also know as The Twin Towers (everybody obviously got very stuck on Lord of the Rings metaphors when describing pairs of tall men playing basketball). Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon lead the Rockets to the Finals in 1986 but never won a championship together as Sampson’s career was blighted by injuries.
The pairing of two supremely talented bigs has been very effective in the past but the NBA has changed since those giants roamed the paint in tandem. The league is now filled with pesky hobbits and elves firing of 3 pointers with impunity and the age of the big man seems to have passed.
So are the Pelicans hopelessly delving into the past in hopes of recapturing a time long forgotten or are they on to something that will catapult the franchise out of mediocrity and into contention?
The evidence of the pair’s first three games together suggests the former. New Orleans has lost all three giving up an average of 114 points per game, including ugly losses to the Rockets and Mavericks.
It is of course far too early to suggest that AD and Boogie can’t play together but what has emerged is that having both of them on the floor causes the Pelicans huge issues at the defensive end of the floor.
Both Cousins and Davis are uncomfortable guarding smaller players on the perimeter and as more teams than ever are playing small and attacking from outside the paint having two bigs on the floor can be a liability. In addition to this neither Davis or Cousins excel at protecting the rim meaning that the perceived benefit of two bigs on the floor, great rim protection, is hardly a reality for the Pels.
There is no doubt that both Cousins and Davis have the required athleticism to become much better defenders. What is also obvious is that head coach Alvin Gentry needs to put in some serious work with the duo if they are to be successful on the floor together.
On the offensive end there are issues too. Both Cousins and Davis are ridiculously talented offensive players who can hurt opposing teams in a myriad of ways. Both can handle the ball, both can shoot from mid range or step beyond the 3 point line and both can hurt you inside with their combination of size and strength. However, they both have played a similar role throughout their careers and New Orleans can’t have them occupying the same role moving forward.
Cousin’s more developed post game and slightly superior size means that he will start at centre and Davis at power forward. What is unclear is how Gentry can combine their skills to get the best out of both players.
To play Davis as a traditional stretch 4 is to waste his best attributes, which are to attack inside, and frankly he is not a good enough shooter to fill the role that say a Kevin Love does in Cleveland. What Gentry needs to do is find ways of exploiting the double teams that both men will command to get open looks around the floor.
Gentry could learn from the way Greg Popovic used his combination of Pau Gasol and LeMarcus Aldridge at the start of the season. With both comfortable passing out of double teams the Spurs can create easy shots for others. It’s not rocket science but it requires good ball movement and an understanding of were each man is supposed to be on the floor.
The big problem that Gentry has is those ‘others’. In San Antonio Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Danny Green and Patty Mills can knock down the open shots that are created. In New Orleans the supporting cast leaves much to be desired.
This is perhaps the biggest issue facing the Pelicans moving forward. If they are unable to surround their ‘twin towers’ with at least some decent shooting teams will continue to crowd the paint and force someone apart from Cousins or Davis to beat them from outside. Jrue Holiday has shown flashes of providing the Pels with a perimeter threat and it is perhaps harsh to judge him too much on this season given what he has been through off the court.
That is what the Pelicans must focus on, not on making the playoffs this year just so they can get whacked by Golden State. They have to look to add more pieces to take the pressure of their two stars. The future can be bright for New Orleans with Cousins and Davis at the core but it is crucial that they are surrounded with the right players. Both men have almost exclusively played as one man armies throughout their careers and it would be foolish for the Pelicans to believe that simply bringing them together has solved this.