There was never a moment of hesitation or apprehension.
From the moment Dante Cunningham entered the New Orleans Pelicans’ locker room on Dec. 4, 2014, the connection was clear. On a team starved for veteran leadership, consistency and toughness, Cunningham helped fill a void, and the Pelicans knew it.
“There was not even a blip of ‘Who is he?’ or ‘What can he do for us?’ or anything like that,” Cunningham said. “I was just treated like some long lost brother who finally showed up and was here to make the team better and get us on the right track.
“It’s a blessing to come to this organization and this place because everything just fits perfectly for me here.”
As a wing who plays both forward positions, Cunningham added flexibility to the Pelicans’ rotations and boosted areas not easily reflected on box scores. He averaged 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in 25 minutes per game but was often cited as a source of success when teammates dissected the Pelicans surge to the playoffs.
So as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Cunningham hit the open market uncertain of what awaited him. But he said if the money was close, the path of continuity that Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps laid out made New Orleans a very attractive option.
“This was definitely the highest place on the list just because of the rest of the guys and the relationship I built with them,” Cunningham said. “I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t put myself first in the negotiations, but this group was a very close second and closer than I ever expected when I went through free agency again. Everyone wanted to come back and try this again with a fresh start.”
When his three-year, $9 million contract (with a player option in the final season) with New Orleans was signed this summer, it gave Cunningham a sense of belonging he hadn’t experienced in his previous stops with Portland, Charlotte, Memphis and Minnesota.
“The priority was for him to stay with New Orleans,” Cunningham’s agent, Joel Bell, said. “He could have gone somewhere else for a bit more money, but the priority was to stay where he was.”
It’s meaningful considering the path he’s had to go down to get to this place. Not only had the former second-round pick bounced to four teams in his first five seasons, a domestic assault charge in April 2014 essentially shut down Cunningham’s free agency and marooned him to the NBA’s fringe for eight months.
Despite the charges being dropped entirely and the case getting tossed out of Hennepin County (Minnesota) court, league executives were still wary of adding him to a roster until the Pelicans called.
“I give a lot of credit on that to Dell Demps, because as the whole situation was unfolding in the summer and then into the season, Dell was a constant among NBA executives in wanting to know that if everything was above board, which it obviously was, then he wanted him to be there,” Bell, said. “He really helped them, and it really fit well. It’s pretty easy to plug Dante Cunningham into any situation.”
And now Cunningham is trying to fit in even better by expanding his game this preseason.
He effectively spread the floor last year by connecting on 56 percent of his 142 shots from between 16-feet and the 3-point line, developing a reliable midrange weapon in the corner. But he struggled badly when stepping beyond the arc and prioritized perimeter shooting in his offseason workouts.
In five preseason games, he’s converted 2-of-11 attempts from 3-point territory but said just the act of taking those shots will help him when the regular season begins.
“It’s something I’ve been working on in my own time and now on the floor,” Cunningham said. “I can shoot it. I will shoot it. It’s just about getting game time reps because they’re completely different from practice or a workout. It’s a totally different rhythm. And when you’re going full speed on defense and running down the court, it takes a level of concentration to make it, so these games are a good opportunity.”
It’s all just part of trying to fit into the framework and scheme of the Pelicans.
“Dante does anything you ask him,” Anthony Davis said. “He’s perfect for us in a lot of ways.”