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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans

The Spurs ride a five-game winning streak into New Orleans to face the league’s newest superstar duo.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

For a modest investment at this year’s trade deadline, New Orleans acquired a mercurial player capable of altering the trajectory of a franchise by himself. DeMarcus Cousins, unable to drag his lowly Sacramento Kings above the 35-win threshold in seven seasons, is among the most polarizing athletes in professional basketball. (If not the most.)

Cousins puts up superstar numbers (24-12-3 for his career), but he’s often been forgotten or pointedly eliminated from the superstar discussion, because his team was terrible.

The over-arching reason for Sacramento’s failure to build a contender around one of the best basketball players in the world is uncertain. Incompetent management played a part, for sure. This was a franchise, after all, that drafted Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Isaiah Thomas in a span of two seasons and couldn’t make it work. Whiteside was released before his career renaissance and Thomas battled with Cousins over touches until he was traded to Phoenix.

Years later, Whiteside signed a four-year, $98 million contract to be the lynchpin of a top-10 defense. Thomas is second in the league in scoring this season behind only Russell Westbrook. Cousins, meanwhile, spent valuable years of his basketball prime mired in hopeless mediocrity.

Cousins — a malcontent with a penchant for throwing tirades during games and practices — didn’t help foster a culture optimum for long-term success, either. Failure falls on both parties, though the degree to which is impossible to gauge.

Regardless, after years of instability and repeated failure, Cousins was traded from a terrible basketball to a slightly-less-terrible-basketball-team. The slightly-less-terrible-basketball-team has something Sacramento never did: A legitimate superstar in 23-year-old Anthony Davis.

That, alone, paints a more promising picture for New Orleans. The Kings, already an unattractive free agent destination, never secured another great basketball player to feature alongside Cousins.

And all it cost New Orleans was the next Steph Curry Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-round pick. Cousins still has one year left on his contract, meaning the Pelicans have another season to work out the kinks and convince him to re-sign with the franchise.

Many fans envisioned a playoff series between the first-seeded Warriors and eighth-seeded Pelicans after the Cousins deal, but those plans should be tabled until next year. New Orleans is four games behind Denver for the eight spot with a fourth of the season left. It would take a massive collapse from the Nuggets and a spirited rally from the Pelicans to make the playoffs. Neither seems likely.

This experiment will take time. New Orleans was a fringe-playoff team at best before the deal. Adding Cousins isn’t a magical elixir for a roster with serious flaws at the other three positions.

Jrue Holiday is the de-facto third banana and his impending free agency muddies the Pelicans future. Holiday is due for a large raise over his $11 million salary this season; he might even earn a max deal on the open market with point guard desperate teams in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. New Orleans might have to fork over the money in order to keep a quality player on the roster, even if the price is high. The alternative is letting Holiday walk and signing another guard for a fraction of the money, which could prove disastrous if the drop-off is significant enough to dissuade Cousins from re-signing. That’s the real goal here, anyway.

The rest of the team is dubious. Omri Casspi, acquired in the Cousins trade, broke his hand and he’s out for the year. (New Orleans later released him.) Terrence Jones, a rangy forward, was waived last week. Solomon Hill is scoring 8.2 points per 36 minutes while shooting below 40 percent from the field, a year removed from signing a four-year, $48 million contract. Donatas Motiejunas is easily exposed as a defender. Hollis Thompson signed a 10-day contract with the team and started at shooting guard the same night. The Pelicans are desperate for warm bodies, much less NBA-level players.

Wednesday night’s win over Detroit was the team’s first since the franchise-altering trade. There’s just one caveat: Cousins missed the game due to a one-game suspension levied by the league after committing his league-leading 18th technical of the season. In his absence, Davis was unleashed for 33 points and 14 rebounds.

Early returns haven’t been positive. With Cousins on the floor, New Orleans is outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions — a level of futility the Brooklyn Nets can’t even reach. It doesn’t get much better when Cousins shares the court with Davis; the Pelicans are still bested by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Even with two superstar bigs, the offense craters without competent shooters and playmakers dotting the perimeter.

New Orleans’ infrastructure isn’t prepared for winning this season, but there’s a framework for success for the first time since Chris Paul was in town. To make this experiment work the Pelicans need to appease the egos of two superstar big men and create a pliable offense capable of competing in a league incentivizing 3-pointers, versatility and space. All the while dealing with a looming contract deadline for Cousins and his habitual temper tantrums.

Which is easier said than done.

San Antonio Spurs (46-13) at New Orleans Pelicans (24-37)

March 3, 2017 | 8:30 pm CDT

Watch: ESPN, FSSW; Listen: 1200 AM WOAI

Spurs injuries: None

Pelicans injuries: Omer Asik (illness), Quincy Pondexter (knee)

Chasing the No. 1 seed

As it stands, San Antonio is trailing Golden State by three games for the top spot in the Western Conference. FiveThirtyEight pegs the Spurs’ chances of claiming the first seed at 15 percent.

The odds are still slim, but here are a few things to consider if you’re a hopeless optimist.

  1. Kevin Durant is injured. He’s out for at least a month and possibly the rest of the regular season.
  2. There’s two matchups between the Spurs and Warriors left this season. Or, in other words, two opportunities to shave the deficit by one full game.
  3. Both games are in San Antonio.
  4. Golden State will travel to San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back for both matchups.
  5. San Antonio plays 15 of its remaining 23 games at home.

So there’s a chance.

Just don’t expect Gregg Popovich to care too much about playoff seeding.

"We don't try to catch anybody. We just play. We always have. Where we end up, we end up."

Vegas line: Spurs by 6.

Game prediction: Spurs by 11.

For the Pelicans fans' perspective, visit The Bird Writes.

As always Tony must dominate Fisher.

PtR's Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR's Twitter feed.