Last night we previewed the statistical matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans, first-round foes in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. But the overall 2017-18 numbers don’t take into account a season-changing event for New Orleans: center DeMarcus Cousins going down with an Achilles injury in late January. Obviously the Pelicans miss the 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds that Cousins brought to the floor. (Reference for Trail Blazers fans: that’s the statistical equivalent of losing Damian Lillard.) What else might they be missing? How did their production change after Cousins went down?
To answer those questions, we’ve re-run the statistical tables. This time instead of measuring the Blazers against the Pelicans, we’re comparing New Orleans’ performance up to January 27th—the day Cousins got scrubbed for the season—with their final season results, looking for categories that varied upwards or downwards.
On the left side of each chart are the DeMarcus Cousins (or DC) numbers, New Orleans averages with him in uniform. On the right side are the final season results, including the DC games and games played by what we’ll call the Makeshift Alternative Roster, Very Egregiously Lacking. Numbers in red indicate that production and NBA rank declined after Cousins left, numbers in green indicate New Orleans production and rank rose in the post-Cousins era.
The Pelicans posted a 27-21 (56.3%) record with Cousins in the lineup, 21-13 (61.8%) without him. They lost 5 of 6 games immediately after he went down, then finished the season winning 20 of their last 28.
Efficiency and three-point percentage slipped slightly after the Cousins injury, but not enough to draw conclusions. Percentage of overall points from three-pointers and rate of free throw shooting per play dropped semi-significantly. Turnovers dropped as well.
Nothing on the percentage/efficiency chart is remarkable enough to indicate a weather change due to the Cousins injury.
Aggregate offensive numbers do show a significant shift after Cousins’ departure. The Pelicans made up for his scoring by playing faster and getting more shots up. Their three-point and free throw attempts declined, but they got far more points in the paint and on the run.
As the sea of green indicates, New Orleans’ defense probably performed better after Cousins went down. Most gains were small, with the biggest leaps coming in opponent three-point percentage and overall efficiency. Unsurprisingly, the Pelicans move faster and cover more of the court with Cousins on the sideline.
New Orleans’ increase in defensive efficiency gets balanced out by the increase in number of opponent attempts in the aggregate chart. They remain who they were with Cousins, scoring and giving up plenty of points. Covering three-pointers better remains a theme. Everything else—including allowing more points in the paint and field goal attempts while generating more blocks and steals—is influenced by the increase in overall possessions.
You’d expect rebounds per game to rise with tempo, and they do. The Pelicans didn’t care about offensive rebounds much this season. Their defensive rebounding trended downward slightly after Cousins left.
There’s little doubt New Orleans would be a more imposing team with Cousins in the lineup, particularly against the Trail Blazers, upon whom he feasts. Though his injury touched multiple aspects of team play, it didn’t devastate as much as you’d expect given Cousins’ talent and production level. Not only did the Pelicans survive, they actually prospered. That was due, in part, to an increase in possessions and aggregate production, plus a wider-ranging defense.
New Orleans did not suffer in the typical ways teams losing a key center do. The Blazers won’t face the same Pelicans that started the season, but they’re not getting a wounded and broken version either. Cousins was an important cog and a dangerous weapon, but he’s not the hub of New Orleans’ system. They’ve compensated well for his absence.