As DeMarcus Cousins reached at his torn Achilles, roiling in pain, many in the basketball world erased the New Orleans Pelicans from playoff contention.
Nearly three months later, those same Pelicans unleashed their refurbished brand to seal up the third-best record in franchise history. They won five consecutive games to finish the regular season, including a road victory over the reigning champion Golden State Warriors before blowing out the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs to achieve the team’s best Western Conference finish since 2008-09.
Revamped. Revitalized. Renewed.
Those three words sum up the whirlwind renovation New Orleans underwent, piecing together a 21-13 record in the wake of Cousins’ devastating injury. An increased reliance on pace and defensive versatility allowed the Pelicans to earn a tie for the West's fourth-best record, the No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The series begins at 9:30 p.m. Saturday in Portland.
“I thought we were close to figuring it out, and then DeMarcus got injured and from then I give our coaching staff credit for making an adjustment for how we played,” general manager Dell Demps said. “At the same time, our players get a lot of credit for learning and executing the changes quickly. It took a little while after that, but the group was resilient.”
They covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but it wasn’t a flawless start. Anthony Davis acknowledged the Pelicans needed to mentally regroup as Cousins had Achilles surgery.
They lost five of their first six games without him, and doubts swirled.
However, the Pelicans learned to harness the remaining personnel by redefining and clarifying roles, accentuating the roster’s abilities rather than focusing on what they lost.
“I thought we were going to be OK anyway,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “I just think that when you take a major piece — I think everyone forgets that DeMarcus was putting up MVP-type numbers. You know, he was averaging (25.2) points, (12.9) rebounds per game. The last guys that I know that had those kind of numbers seem to always come up and be MVP in the league.
“So, I think what we had to do, we just had to adjust the style of play that we have. All of the sudden, we had to be more of an open-court team, play with more spacing and things like that.”
The change in tempo was obvious. The Pelicans turned from a Corolla into a Corvette.
Without Cousins, New Orleans averaged the most possessions in the league (104.5 per game), allowing Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday and Davis to run the floor with reckless abandon. It opened routine advantages in transition, and the Pelicans averaged a league-leading 19.1 fast-break points in that span by attacking staggering defenses, whose frontcourts simply couldn’t keep up.
“I think any team doesn’t want to play against half-court defense,” Rondo said. “Any time you can go out and get numbers, it’s to your advantage.”
It also unleashed Davis, who became the game’s most statistically dominant player, averaging a league-leading 30.2 points over the season’s final 33 games, converting 51.4 percent from the field and pulling in 11.9 rebounds per game (sixth-best in that span). No matter how defenses aligned to slow him down, the Pelicans ripped up those plans by getting Davis on the move and then forcing defenses to choose between him and Holiday in a variety of pick-and-roll situations.
It elevated Davis into the Most Valuable Player conversation; he’s likely to finish in the top 3. More important, though, it allowed the Pelicans to maintain offensive vitality despite playing without Cousins, who commanded so much defensive attention.
Davis’ outburst and the free-wheeling style led to a 10-game winning streak encompassing nearly four weeks and propelling New Orleans back into heart of the playoff hunt. After nearly withering away at 28-26, the Pelicans won 20 of their final 28 games.
“The biggest adjustment for us was trying to figure out how we wanted to play,” Davis said. “We lost five out of six. We figured out how we wanted to play. Just play faster and move the basketball and play a little different. We decided to do that and were able to get that win and then more after that. Probably after we got that first win, we knew we could.”
Quietly, the Pelicans also grew into a dynamic defense. Starting with Davis' and Holiday’s ability to smother pick-and-rolls, New Orleans posted the NBA’s No. 5 defensive efficiency (103.7 points per 100 possessions) after Cousins’ injury.
A personnel move also proved to be a difference-maker: trading for Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic in exchange for a first-round pick, languishing center Omer Asik and a pair of minimum contracts. It was a move Demps said he’d been working on before Cousins’ injury.
But Mirotic fit perfectly in Cousins' absence, providing a reliable, lengthy 3-point shooter on the outside and an additional rebounder to help alleviate some pressure from Davis. In the Pelicans' five-win finishing kick, Mirotic exploded for 25.8 points and 12 rebounds per game, adding a significant spark after a nearly devastating four-game losing skid.
“I think (trading for Mirotic) showed we still believed we could be a good team and he helped a lot,” Davis said. “And Niko does a lot of the things we need him to do, and we just tell him to keep shooting and keep competing.”
It takes more than a single adjustment or a single player to make up losing an All-Star starter in the middle of the season. In many cases, teams never overcome it and certainly don’t thrive.
But the Pelicans found a way, and they’ll enter the playoffs for the first since 2015 with a fresh style and a strong belief.
“We are rooting for the next man beside us,” Rondo said. “Earlier in the season I couldn’t really say that for this team. Now it seems like guys are happy for each other generally. Regardless if guys are playing bad or playing great, when we come in that locker room with a W, everyone has the same mindset and joy for each other.
“It’s like a brotherhood. The time we spend together also helps understand a person's personality. It’s been fun watching this team grow.”