Do the Pelicans need DeMarcus Cousins to be considered serious contenders?

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When the New Orleans Pelicans pulled off the trade for DeMarcus Cousins last season, there was a reason for fans to be excited. Yes, he comes with some baggage. But he is also a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court. With him on the roster, the hope was that the team would be in a better position to win now.

They had to give up some young talent and a couple of draft picks to get him, but they still had plenty of young talent left including one of the NBA’s finest in Anthony Davis.

Like with most acquisitions, there has been a learning curve. But with Cousins in the lineup, the Pelicans got off to a solid start this season going 27-21. When they lost him to a season-ending injury but beat the Houston Rockets on January 26, they were already in a good position to make the playoffs.

But with 34 games left to play, anything was possible. When they lost five of their first six without Cousins, it looked like the worst was going to happen. A promising start was going to be for nothing because one guy got hurt.

They completed a trade for Nikola Mirotic in the days following Cousins’ injury. But it would take some time for him to gel with the rest of the team. Assuming he could, would it happen soon enough to help salvage the season?

The answer began to take form on February 10 when Anthony Davis led the Pelicans to a 138-128 2OT win over the Brooklyn Nets. Beating the Nets wasn’t exactly an impressive accomplishment. But it appeared as if at least Davis decided that he was going to step up his game —which he did with 44 points and 17 rebounds.

Starting with that game against Brooklyn, the Pelicans went on to win 20 of their last 28 games. With Davis turning in one dominant performance after another, the narrative changed from whether the Pelicans were going to make the playoffs to speculating how far they could go.

Sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round helped turn some skeptics into believers. Some even bought into what Anthony Davis was claiming: that the Pelicans could indeed beat the Golden State Warriors.

As the wins began to pile up, fans and the media began to debate another question: do the Pelicans need Cousins?

Yes, they won games with him. But they actually won a better percentage this season without him (56.3 percent with him; 61.8 percent without him). The acquisition of Nikola Mirotic helped turn things around. Maybe if they hadn’t acquired Mirotic, the season would have continued going downhill.

That could be considered evidence of the value Cousins brings to the team. But at the same time, it could say that Mirotic is a better fit for the team than Cousins.

Many in the media, like ESPN’s Zach Lowe, think the Pelicans are better off without him:

“The Pelicans look better, faster, stingier, more versatile with Davis at center, Jrue Holiday in an elevated role and Nikola Mirotic spacing the floor for Davis’ borderline pornographic rim runs.”

Comments like that are easy to say when a team plays well despite losing one of its better players. The narrative supports it, and it can’t be proven false until that player returns. In this case, since Cousins is set to become a free agent, the opportunity to disprove it may not arise.

Of course, the narrative could quickly change if Kevin Durant goes wild in the paint and the Warriors eliminate the Pelicans in four games in the Western Conference Semifinals. Having a 6’11,” 270 lbs center on the court would certainly make life more difficult for guys like Durant.

New Orleans may not need Cousins to make it through the regular season or to even get by some of the other playoff caliber teams in the Western Conference. But when when playing the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, it sure can’t hurt to have a center that averages a double-double on the court.

Does that mean they are not contenders without him? Absolutely not. They have an extremely talented roster with plenty of scoring options. If they can bring their ‘A’ game every night, they can play with anyone.

But therein lies the problem. Are they good enough to do that? Probably not. But with a guy like Cousins in the lineup—assuming the injury doesn’t cause him to lose a step – they are more serious contenders.

The question the front office will have to answer following the end of the season is how much they are willing to pay to become more serious contenders. Prior to the injury, it was considered a given that Cousins would get a four or five-year, max deal. Now? Not so much.