METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Pelicans held the first practice of their new, more challenging reality Saturday — less than 24 hours after losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the rest of the season because of his Achilles tear.
The question now is: What happens to a team that has won seven of eight and was coalescing around its somewhat unconventional lineup featuring Cousins and fellow All-Star big man Anthony Davis?
“It changes for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t accomplish what we set out to do,” coach Alvin Gentry said after practice. “And that’s to be a playoff team.”
The Pelicans’ offense has largely run through Cousins, who’ll miss his first game this season Sunday afternoon, when New Orleans hosts the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We have to obviously realign some things and rethink some things that we’ve done and probably add a few things and take away a few things,” Gentry said. “We have to adjust and figure out how we can best work with what we have now.”
Cousins, named an All-Star starter little more than a week ago, has averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Cousins routinely dribbled up court after rebounds and initiated the offense, which is somewhat unusual for a center, as is his shooting range that extends beyond the 3-point line.
When the high-flying, 6-foot-10 Davis and powerful, 6-11 Cousins were on the court together, opponents trying to defend them both had tough choices to make. Meanwhile, New Orleans was looking increasingly comfortable with the scheme lately. That was evident in recent victories as well as in Cousins’ production; he registered two triple-doubles in New Orleans’ past three games, including 15 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in Friday night’s victory over Houston before his injury in the final 15 seconds of that game.
The Pelicans’ decision to attack with a tandem of dynamic post players ran counter to a trend in the NBA toward smaller lineups that rely on tempo, spacing and reliable perimeter shooting to create scoring opportunities. Even Gentry was a proponent of “small ball,” having served as a lead assistant for a Golden State squad that won a title with that style of play three seasons ago. Gentry took over in New Orleans with the intent of running a similar system — until the Pelicans seized the opportunity in a trade last February to pair Cousins with Davis in the front court.
For the final 34 games of this regular season, Davis said he expects the Pelicans to play more like they did before Cousins arrived. Davis added that he expects to play more at center and is prepared for that.
Davis also expressed optimism about the Pelicans’ playoff prospects, given a recent rise in production from guards Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore, as well as small forward Darius Miller, who hit six 3-pointers against Houston.
“Everybody’s playing well,” Davis said. “We’ve just got to carry that over to the rest of the season. Of course, missing one of our main guys is tough, but it just means guys have got to step up.”
Other players didn’t want to sell short what the Pelicans could still accomplish with Davis leading the way.
“There’s still only one Anthony Davis; no one can match that,” guard Rajon Rondo said. “We’ve got to continue to trust one another and it’s a team sport, so we’ll play team basketball.”
During their recent surge — which included victories over teams with the second- and third-best records in the NBA (the Rockets and Celtics) — the Pelicans climbed to sixth in the Western Conference and woke up Saturday just three-and-a-half behind third-place San Antonio.
But New Orleans also is only three games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers, who sat just outside the eight-team playoff structure.
A person familiar with the situation said New Orleans is aggressively trying to upgrade its roster before the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline. The person said Cousins should have surgery within the next week, but that it’s too early to estimate how many months of rehabilitation he’ll need before he can play again. The person spoke to The Associated Press Saturday on condition of anonymity because the Pelicans do not typically disclose trade talks.
The Pelicans also hope veteran guard Tony Allen returns from a fractured fibula next week, and that former starting small forward Solomon Hill returns in late February from a hamstring tear. Both players worked with assistants on practice courts Saturday.
Cousins also was at team headquarters — on crutches — but did not speak with reporters.
“There’s a sadness for DeMarcus. He’s worked extremely hard to be where he is right now and to me he was having as good a year as anybody in the league,” Gentry said. “We’ve just got to regroup and recalibrate and say this is the new normal now.”
The 27-year-old Cousins, now in his last season under contract, never has played in a playoff game. This season provided his best chance yet. Instead, he heads toward free agency with questions about his health — and still no postseason experience.
“It’s tough not knowing what’s going to happen, how big you’re market is going to be, if teams are going to trust you, are you going to be the same coming back, especially with a major injury like that,” Davis said. “But I think he’s done enough in his career to show guys that he’s very solid.”
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