For a series with such a definitive result, the Pelicans’ sweep of the Blazers generates a fair degree of uncertainty for both teams. Jrue Holiday imposed his will upon one of the most lethal backcourts in the NBA (and will attempt to do it again in a matter of days). Anthony Davis dominated both ends of the floor, capping off the series with a 47-point, 11-rebound, three-block game. The promise those two displayed makes for a bright future, but that it came without one of the Pelicans’ best players complicates their long-term outlook.
The Pelicans have fully unlocked Davis by surrounding him with shooting, thus broadening the spaces with which he had to work. Most every play on either end of the floor centered in some way on Davis, who controlled the action with authority and ease. And though an injury to DeMarcus Cousins necessitated that style, New Orleans’ casual dismantling of the Blazers validated it.
The Pelicans may not be materially better without Cousins, but his absence simplifies the team’s approach and mandates Davis be used in his optimal capacity. The two big men made their fit work because of the prodigious talent each possesses, but figuring out how to best deploy that frontcourt is a complicated endeavor.
Davis played a significantly higher chunk of his minutes at center in the second half of the season, allowing New Orleans to slot four perimeter players around him and play more traditionally on both ends of the floor. The space once occupied by Cousins’ brutalizing post-ups and rampages to the rim became extra real estate for Davis, and while Cousins was effective in those spots, having two players of such similar skill sets reaches a point of diminishing returns when it encroaches upon that team’s ability to space the floor.
Without another star to accommodate, Davis feasted on a near-nightly basis as the Pelicans won 20 of their final 28 games. Davis averaged 31.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.4 blocks over that stretch. Guards could funnel ball-handlers into the paint, where Davis was constantly lurking, no longer pulled away from the basket by stretchier forwards. Cousins doesn’t offer quite the same rim protection, nor does he possess Davis’ foot speed to chase other forwards around the perimeter. Davis can only do one at a time. The Pelicans’ defense was over three points per 100 possessions better after Cousins’ injury.
Cousins will seek max money this summer, in New Orleans or elsewhere, but the idea of locking in a player with injury concerns and a checkered emotional reputation will give suitors pause. Still, when healthy, New Orleans has the ability to keep two of the dozen most talented players in the NBA on its roster. That isn’t an easy prospect from which to simply walk away. Davis continues to improve his 3-point shooting while Cousins already hovers around league-average in that department, which could remedy possible spacing concerns.
For the time being, only Golden State (or San Antonio!) should be of concern to the Pelicans. They are playing well enough to warrant any team’s best shot, and have a chance — albeit a spare one — to slay the giant their first-round opponent could not.
Major questions as to the direction of the franchise will surround the Blazers this summer, perhaps rightfully. The argument for keeping this bunch together would be understandable. Portland won 49 games, the third-best mark in an unforgiving Western Conference, with convincing efforts against some of the league’s best teams. Damian Lillard is a foundational lead guard at his peak and CJ McCollum a perfect complementary scorer. That situation should not be readily detonated, but can’t be squandered, either. Lillard may never have a season this good again, and after years of running into similar walls, it’s unclear how much better this version of the Trail Blazers can be.
Their books are already tight, with several key players locked into multi-year deals. Irresponsible spending in the summer of 2016 will haunt Portland for years. Doubling down on this core would have further long-term implications.
The most convenient point of flexibility is at center, a position where shooting and switchability have become prerequisites for playoff effectiveness. Jusuf Nurkic will be a free agent this summer, and the Blazers might not be able to afford shelling out that hefty of a contract to a big man who can be played off the floor against the best teams in the league. McCollum’s name has swirled in trade talks — hypothetical ones, at least — for years. Maybe this is the summer Portland considers that possibility more strongly.
Forecasting precisely which changes must be made is futile, and maybe impossible, but this series marked a clear pivot point for the Blazers. They cannot continue running into the same wall year after year. The Raptors and Clippers faced similar existential crises last summer with stale teams stuck on the verge of contention. Each franchise took its own route back toward relevance. Where Portland goes from here is unclear, but it undoubtedly must move in some direction after reaching a point of stagnation.