METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Whether the Pelicans are better off with Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton than they were with DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo remains to be seen.
All general manager Dell Demps could do on Friday, as he sat between his two new players, was offer assurances that New Orleans All-Star Anthony Davis was an ardent advocate for signing Randle and suggest that the “two-way” abilities of Payton and Randle give the Pelicans a promising opportunity to build on a formula that served them well late last season.
“When we finished the season last year, we felt like found a rhythm, found an identity,” Demps said, alluding to the playoff push and first-round sweep of Portland that the Pelicans pulled off without Cousins, who was rehabilitating his torn left Achilles tendon.
“We feel like the team’s improved,” Demps said. “On paper, everything looks really good. But, obviously, we have to do it on the court.”
Before Cousins spurned New Orleans in favor of a one-year, reported $5.3 million deal to join defending champion Golden State this month, the Pelicans’ party line had been that they wanted Cousins back.
But with Cousins still recovering from a serious injury, the Pelicans would not offer the maximum allowable contract for NBA free agents who are eight-year veterans: Five years and around $177 million. They tried to negotiate a shorter deal instead, to no avail.
Cousins, who turns 28 next month, was named a 2018 All-Star before his injury in late January. He averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds in 48 games last season. But Cousins also averaged five turnovers and regularly could be seen lingering near the basket after missed shots, expressing dissatisfaction with officiating while opponents raced five-on-four the other way.
After Cousins’ injury, the Pelicans improved defensively, played with a faster pace and went 21-13 to finish the regular season sixth in the Western Conference.
“Obviously we want to build off the success we had last year,” Demps said, emphasizing that Randle and Payton “are two-way players” who can “push the ball in transition.” In addition to talking up Randle’s and Payton’s defensive play, Demps highlighted their relative youth and repeatedly referred to them as “unselfish.”
The 6-foot-9 Randle, who turns 24 in November, averaged 16.1 points and eight rebounds in just 27 minutes per game with the Los Angeles Lakers last season. He also led Los Angeles in assists seven times.
Demps said he heard from Davis the moment word spread that the Lakers had decided to let Randle go after agreeing to terms with LeBron James.
“I was like, `Yeah, we’re on it,”‘ a grinning Demps recalled.
Randle said Davis also called him “like three times in a row to pretty much get the job done.”
Randle called Davis’ outreach a “very important” factor in his decision.
“It’s their star player,” Randle said of Davis, whom he also knew because they both played in college at Kentucky. “So for him to see me fit in well to that plan A and a part of their future means a lot.”
Randle also said he expects his game to improve alongside a dynamic front-court player like Davis, who Randle said will be “the best player in his prime that I’ve played with.”
Randle also played one full season with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles in 2015-16, but that was the last of Bryant’s 20 seasons.
Like Randle, the 23-year-old Payton is entering his fifth NBA season, having averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 assists last season Orlando and Phoenix.
Rondo, who will turn 33 next season, averaged 8.3 points and 8.2 rebounds last season. But his production spiked in the playoffs, when he averaged 10.3 points and 12.2 rebounds – and displayed a knack for finding Davis with lobs at the rim.
While the 6-4 Payton is a New Orleans native who played in college at Louisiana-Lafayette, he downplayed how much his Louisiana ties influenced his decision to sign with the Pelicans.
“It didn’t matter if this team was in – wherever,” Payton said. “I just felt like this was the best fit.
“I’m best in transition, when we’re pushing the ball,” Payton added. “It definitely fits my strengths.”
Demps said he had studied Payton since before the guard turned pro and “always felt like he was a great fit for our group, especially the way we want to play.”