Two years ago the New Orleans Pelicans went all in with the twin towers pairing of Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. Cousins was acquired at the trade deadline, and the duo went through some growing pains, learning how to play with each other, but they showed a lot of potential towards the end of the season.
Then at the start of the year, Davis and Cousins showed they had to figure it out. It wasn’t always perfect, but both were putting up monster numbers. It looked like it was working until Demarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in a game against Houston. The injury was devasting, and many figured the Pelicans season was over.
The Pelicans didn’t abandon the season and instead sent a first-round pick to acquire Nikola Mirotic from the Chicago Bulls. Davis moved to center, and Mirotic slid next to him as a stretch four. Mirotic struggled at first, but once he figured out his role, he and Davis became a deadly frontcourt duo. It showed in the playoffs when the sixth-seeded Pelicans eviscerated the three seed Portland Trailblazers in a sweep.
Of course, Jrue Holiday was a big part of that, but the Blazers had no answers for the Davis-Mirotic pairing. By the numbers, the Davis-Mirotic pairing was even better than the Davis-Cousins pairing. Davis and Mirotic had a +10.7 net rating in the regular season compared to +4.2 for Davis and Cousins.
Now, of course, Cousins is gone to the Golden State Warriors, and the Pelicans added Julius Randle to complement their dynamic frontcourt of Davis and Mirotic. So how good will this frontcourt be and how will they all fit with each other?
Well, we know this pairing works. There two games complement each other perfectly. Mirotic is at his best spotting up. Even though he is not as good as a shooter as you think at only 34%, but he takes a ton of threes and can get crazy hot. Defenders respect his three, which gives him great gravity and can unleash his underrated driving game. He is a good slasher and an underrated ball handler.
Plus a sneaky good offensive rebounder. Mirotic ranked in the 69th percentile spotting up according to Synergy Sports. He gave the Pelicans a much-needed shooting boost, and also fit their system in another way.
Transition. Once Cousins left, the Pelicans picked up the pace and were the fastest team in the league. Mirotic is an underrated transition player. He ranks in the 61st percentile in transition and knows how to spot up in transition situations.
Mirotic runs the floor off a rebound, goes right behind Holiday who gets the ball at the top right of the key. All Holiday has to do is hand it off behind him, and Mirotic is ready to fire. Mirotic smartly uses Holiday as a screen, and his release is dangerously fast.
Most importantly Mirotic’s skills perfectly complement Davis’s. Mirotic’s added space, allowed more space for two things, Davis post-ups, and Davis rolls to the rim. He is excellent at both ranking in the 76th percentile for post-ups and 71st for pick and rolls. Plus, it also added more space for Davis’s sneaky skills of cutting, where he is deadly.
All three give Davis more opportunities at the rim, where Davis is an elite finisher, shooting 73% at the rim according to Cleaningtheglass.com. Davis also draws fouls at an elite rate and is an excellent free throw shooter, making him a devastatingly efficient force.
On defense, these two worked as well. New Orleans finished 12th in defensive efficiency and 6th in the playoffs. Both are good defensive rebounds, low foul players and get steals at high rates, and Davis helps Mirotic where he is weakest concerning rim protection. Davis is an All-NBA defender capable of ruining opposing teams possessions.
He is at his best defending spot ups, where he can use his length and speed to cover up tons of grounds. In the playoffs, you saw him used like Draymond Green playing as free safety helping where needed. He would go out to swarm a Damian Lillard pick and roll, only to recover to prevent an opportunity at the rim.
The Kings run a high pick and roll and Davis switches onto Bogdan Bogdanovic to stop the pick and roll forcing Bogdanovic to pass to Zach Randolph on the top right of the key. Randolph recognizes the switch and feeds it to Kosta Koufos in the post. Once Koufos gets the ball and goes up over Holiday, Davis rushes back to swat Koufos’s shot into the stands. His ability to cover ground is ridiculous.
Mirotic is better than people give him credit for on defense. According to Bball Index, he rated as a B+ in interior defense and a B in perimeter defense. He was in the 82nd percentile defending spot-ups according to Synergy. Mirotic is quicker than you think, is smart and understands positioning. He is a perfect compliment to Davis on both ends.
What Randle Adds
Julius Randle is a starting caliber player who will come off the bench for both Davis and Mirotic. That is a luxury. Randle adds a lot to the Pelicans. He can replace a lot of what Cousins used to bring. Randle is an excellent passer for a big, a good post player, can handle and drive and is an excellent offensive rebounder. Defensively he struggles on the perimeter but is a solid interior defender. His weakness is still shooting, but the rest of his offensive game makes up for it. So how will he fit in New Orleans?
With this pairing expect Randle to play center on both offense and defense most of the time depending on matchups. Playing the five allows Randle to stay closer to the basket, while Davis roams and creates havoc. On offense, Randle can post up and get opportunities at the rim while drawing fouls. Davis can space the floor a little more with his midrange jumper and improving three-point shot. The best way to use Randle is probably in the high post, where the Pelicans can use his passing skills and unleash Davis as a cutter more. They used to do this with Cousins.
Cousins gets it at the top of the key, drives until he draws the help defender and then kicks it out to Davis for a corner three. Expect to see this from Randle, who is great at driving and kicking, and Davis is a good enough three-point shooter now to provide spacing.
While the lack of shooting is a little concerning, both are so talented they should make it work. Randle will thrive in a fast-paced offense and will wreak havoc on the offensive glass. Defensively as long as Randle isn’t in too many pick and rolls, he will be fine. He looks to be in the best shape of his life, and a new environment will do him well. Plus at the five he can handle post brutes.
I am very excited about this pairing on offense. Mirotic shooting will open up Randle rolls to the rim and post ups. Plus Randle’s passing will get Mirotic a lot of good looks.
Randle gets in the post on the right block. He takes three dribbles into the paint to draw some help defenders and then whips a cross-court laser to Kyle Kuzma for the open three. Impressive pass from Randle and expect to see this a lot when he plays with Mirotic.
Mirotic will feast off spot ups, and both will put a ton of pressure on opposing defenses since both can handle and drive. Their games compliment each other well. Defensively there is some concern as neither can protect the rim. Still, neither are trainwrecks and can hold their own in most matchups. It will be critical for the Pelicans to surround them with great perimeter defenders to protect them a little more. Expect them to play against weaker offensive frontcourts.
People have been asking will all three play together? Yes, Alvin Gentry will undoubtedly try this lineup. Mirotic is a good enough shooter to play the three and can handle himself against most wings on the perimeter. Don’t expect it against the Kevin Durant’s and Kawhi Leonard’s of the world, but I think it can work most nights. Davis and Mirotic bring enough spacing along with Holiday and E’Twaun Moore. That leaves space for Randle in the middle, and his passing opens up a lot of options.
On defense, Davis brings rim protection, and the ability to help all over the floor. Mirotic can take the easier wing to guard between him an Moore. Randle can take the easier frontcourt player. We all know how menacing Holiday is on defense. I think a lot of people are dismissing this lineup too quickly; I think it can be deadly.
Mirotic and Davis is a lethal duo, and the addition of Randle makes it even more versatile and deadly. Gentry will have to play with it on offense. Davis right now is at the apex of his powers and is in line for an MVP caliber season. Seriously people should be nervous. The Pelicans added the perfect frontcourt pairings of him.
They are probably a wing away from being serious contenders, but people are sleeping on them in the west. I do not doubt that their frontcourt will be one of the best in the league and cause opposing coaches headaches. New Orleans will be a problem to play and its because of their frontcourt, and I suggest you tune in because there will be impressive highlights every night!