LOS ANGELES — This was supposed to be a coronation. A moment of affirmation, justification and jubilation as well.
Instead, Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game is just the setting for a familiar scene.
Anthony Davis is, once again, the New Orleans Pelicans’ lone representative participating in the international showcase.
“Honestly, these all kind of run together,” Davis said while surrounded by a media throng on Saturday.
His partner in the paint, DeMarcus Cousins, is marooned to the sideline by a torn Achilles tendon, denying him the starter’s spot fans, players and coaches elected him to last month.
The scenario is what makes this a particularly bittersweet moment. While Davis mentioned his appreciation to be selected to his fifth All-Star Game, there was a chance to make this one particularly memorable.
“I was really looking forward to both of us playing together in that setting,” Davis said earlier in the week. “But stuff happens. We have to move on. And now, I have to represent for him.”
All-Star starters share the stage, literally. They’re announced separately and carry a different hierarchy in the game’s glitzy, glamorous pregame introductions.
And while Cousins will bask in the Staples Center limelight, he and Davis are denied the chance to take the floor as Team LeBron teammates.
It was a moment each was eager to experience together.
“I’m just really happy for DeMarcus,” Davis said upon learning they were All-Star starters. “He’s earned it. He’s put in the work. And this shows a lot about how much he has done for us and can do for us.”
The story was writing itself.
As long as Davis and Cousins are together, the All-Star Game will forever be tied to their narrative. It is the event when they merged together one year ago and now serves as a reminder of the opportunity lost this season and the lingering questions forming on the horizon.
Put bluntly, Cousins and Davis may never play together again. On July 1, Cousins enters unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, and a straightforward process was blasted into a myriad of divergent paths in the millisecond it took for his tendon to snap last month.
The calculus expanded.
Cousins’ future would have hinged only on whether the Pelicans were successful and if he was willing accept a maximum contract. Now, the Pelicans need to gauge the progress of Cousins’ healing tendon, while balancing which version of the Pelicans’ turbulent season painted the most accurate picture and just how successful his pairing alongside Davis had been.
It’s not how anyone foresaw this unfolding a year ago.
Midway through last year’s All-Star Game in the Smoothie King Center, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps pulled the trigger on the most explosive addition in franchise history, acquiring Cousins by surrendering Buddy Hield (the No. 6 pick in 2016), a 2017 first-round pick and a handful of expiring contracts.
Cousins learned about the deal at his locker in the midst of a postgame media scrum, when a staffer leaned into his ear and informed the Kings’ franchise player he was sitting in his new home arena. The news came as a shock, considering just months earlier he committed to signing a long-term extension in Sacramento upon the conclusion of his current deal.
While Cousins was told publicly, Davis found out more discreetly. Just minutes after being named the game’s MVP in the Smoothie King Center hallway, he poked his head through a curtain, got the attention of agent Thad Fouchon and gave a thumbs up or thumbs down signal.
Fouchon responded with a thumbs up. A smile beamed across Davis’ face as he raced back to the locker room.
For the first time in his NBA career, Davis had an All-Star running mate.
Meanwhile, Cousins privately brooded over the decision, despite an excitement to pair with Davis. Those close to the situation described Cousins’ dealing with a lingering foot injury, hurt feelings from being traded and a sense of sadness over leaving Sacramento, the only professional city he’d called home.
But as the weeks wore on, Cousins grew into New Orleans. He rode in the Zulu parade at Mardi Gras, made quick trips to visit family in Mobile, Alabama, and fully bought into the Pelicans this offseason.
He hired a chef to slim down, badgered Jrue Holiday to re-sign in free agency, lobbied to add Rajon Rondo and even commissioned sweatshirts depicting the Pelicans’ foursome replicating the famous Hot Boys' “Let ‘Em Burn” album cover.
Most importantly, he learned to share the floor with Anthony Davis, living up to the “Fire and Ice” moniker Cousins bestowed on them during his introductory news conference.
As the league shrunk into a game built on tempo, versatility and shooting, Davis and Cousins added size to the equation. On a nightly basis, opposing coaches spoke about the unique challenges New Orleans presented them, due to simultaneously facing two skilled big men.
When paired this season, Cousins and Davis outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions, and that number ballooned into the 6.8 points over the Cousins’ last 10 games.
After a topsy-turvy first three months, the experiment was yielding positive results in January.
And Pelicans staff members believed Cousins was happy with the arrangement. So did those close to Cousins, particularly when the Pelicans’ caught a hot streak, winning eight of nine games.
“Night and day,” Cousins said, when asked to describe the difference between this season and where he was this time last year. “I felt like I was at my darkest moment then. And now it seems like it happened so long ago. It’s just night and day.”
Receiving his first selection as an All-Star starter, and his first opportunity to enjoy a winning record midway through the season, helped cement the notion that sharing the spotlight wouldn’t cost him any appreciation.
In fact, many held Cousins in an even higher regard.
“I actually wasn’t concerned about individual accolades,” Cousins said upon his All-Star selection. “I have gotten everything in this league except to win. When the trade went down, I thought this was going to give me the chance to win. That’s why I was okay with it. It was never about the accolades.”
And the Pelicans’ executive brass believed in the brand. The team changed its motto to “Do It Big” and finally had more than just Davis to sell to the city.
“I sincerely believe that when the trade was made, the vision and expectation was that they would perform at this level and bring winning basketball to our team,” team president Dennis Lauscha told The Advocate. “Let’s also not forget the incredible amount of offseason work these players, along with other players, performed this summer. These accolades are certainly a reflection of hard work and dedication.”
If January’s trajectory held true, and the Pelicans reached the postseason, sources indicated the team was prepared to offer Cousins a five-year, $175 million deal, more than any team could match. And those close to Cousins expected him to look around in free agency, but likely re-sign.
But, now, the path forward remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, what the Pelicans created across the equivalent of nearly a full season caught the league’s attention and admiration.
“Those guys were getting it going,” Pistons center Andre Drummond said Saturday. “They were showing there’s more ways to play this game than what everyone thinks, and they are both great players who made each other better.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni caught the duo at its peak and witnessed Cousins’ injury in the Pelicans’ 115-113 win over Houston on Jan. 26. It was their lone blemish in 29 games this season when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capella all played.
“Man, I saw enough of those guys in that game,” said D’Antoni, who is coaching Team Stephen. “It’s just too bad for Cousins. That’s just horrible. They were hitting their stride and had everyone on that team playing well. Who knows what could’ve happened.”
But now, the focus shifts entirely to the future.
Since the injury, Davis has largely avoided the specter hanging in front of the Pelicans in interviews, including the large gathering of national reporters surrounding him on Saturday.
He’s danced around inquiries about what the next six months means to his and Cousins’ futures as individuals and teammates.
How much money and security can the Pelicans realistically offer Cousins after undergoing a major Achilles surgery? What does Cousins’ future mean for Davis’ future in New Orleans? Is there anyone who could fill the gap if Cousins doesn’t return?
Instead, Davis has chosen to focus on the positive, while Cousins has yet to speak publicly. Rest assured, they both saw what worked and believe the early pitfalls were more of a transitional period than a statement of inconsistency.
And they believe, with the right bounces, their potential as a duo is as formidable as any in the NBA.
“It seemed like they were getting there,” Hornets guard Kemba Walker said. “They played great together, and I loved watching them play. Really hard to stop.”
Now, standing together on the All-Star stage on Sunday night, their individual accomplishment will be properly recognized, but that was never in doubt.
The dare was pairing these two accomplished, but playoff-starved, superstars together. But, an even larger leap of faith will come this summer when the Pelicans and Cousins decide whether or not the tandem is a long-term solution or a short-term experiment.
“We want to make this work,” Demps said earlier this season. “We believe this is the present and the future of our franchise, and we didn’t do all of this for a one-year fix. We did it because we think they can be together for years to come and make this franchise successful at the highest levels.”