New Orleans Pelicans: The Cousins Free Agent Conundrum

The New Orleans Pelicans had a season to remember, showing resiliency and earning national respect. After a stunning sweep of the Trailblazers, the Pelicans season ended against Golden State.

Pelicans All-Star DeMarcus Cousins has been rehabbing his Achilles since tearing it on January 26. One of the biggest questions since has been whether the Pelicans should resign Boogie or not. Let’s measure the pros and cons of the move.

Cousins has been rehabbing following his injury against the Rockets. Every broadcast since has asked, “How far could we have gone with a healthy Cousins?’ Some have asked if this team is better off without Cousins. Every pundit with a trade machine dream and a Boston address wants to believe the Pels are blowing things up.

Davis, Holliday, Rondo, and Mirotic were outstanding once settled, leading the playoff push and first-round sweep of the Trailblazers. Against the Warriors, the need for another big contributor was evident. By next year’s playoffs, Cousins could be that contributor to get us over the hump or he could be the albatross holding the team back.

If Cousins comes back at even close to his former self, he would be a welcomed contributor to any playoff contender.  Golden State countered Mirotic with Iguodala and had Draymond hounding Davis with help around every corner. Using Cousins would have made one more Warrior defender stay closer to his man and out of the lanes. The Gentry vs Kerr coaching battle would have been more even if Gentry started the series with all of his pieces.

Without looking at the money, but considering the injury, Cousins can still be a top 10 big man in the NBA. Another big body good for double-digit points and presented a variety of defenses against the Warriors would have been useful. It is also worth considering the Trailblazers were the best matchup possible for the Pelicans. Would have Gobert and Utah would have been a problem? Would Houston with Capella or Adams and OKC? Anthony Davis cannot defend two positions against the better playoff teams. That is the team’s Achilles heel.

The History of the Achilles Injury in the NBA

The history of Achilles injuries in the NBA is mixed. Kobe was in his mid-30s and already dealing with nagging leg issues. Dominique Wilkins was 31 when he came back from surgery, and he averaged 30 points, almost 7 rebounds the year after. Cousins is 27, had the injury happen at a time that allows him to possibly play the following season and has more medical technology than any previous athlete. Boogie may not leap out of buildings, but once his strength is back, it is likely that in 2 years he is again playing in the All-Star Game.

The Pelicans are accustomed to starting offseason without a full roster. Cousins can be eased into the team with the only goal being healthy next April. Regular season basketball with the new identity should help the Pelicans clinch a spot before the final game. A recuperating Cousins should not be needed to save the Pelicans season. A contributing Cousins should be expected to make a difference in a couple of playoff games.

Playoff basketball is notorious for being slower than a regular season game in January. In both series, the Pelicans offense bogged down at times. Even when they stuck with plays that were working, the effort to create shots is far greater in June. Having Cousins to create points in those unsure moments is huge. Boogie has proven he can do that. While the injury is disheartening, a lot of his key skills will remain effective. In fact, if he plays more reserved instead of trying to use athleticism to escape trouble, Cousins may reduce his turnover rate.

The Pelicans were beginning to show their quality before Boogie went down. The Pelicans were 8-2 in their last 10, and with Boogie at the free throw line, were icing away a win against Houston. Before the All-Star break, the Pelicans led the league in the Hollinger NBA Pace Rankings with 102.9 a game. When the Pelicans want to play fast, they do so at warp speed. Coming out of timeout calls for a smarter and more deliberate approach. Cousins still fits in this team for more than 24 minutes a game in 2019.

Cousins value before the injury

Before the injury, the Cousins trade was a resounding success. In Cousins first 8 years, he had never had to share the court with other stars. Yet this season was unfolding as his best yet. Cousins was efficient, getting 25.2 points on 47% shooting. He also grabbed 12.9 rebounds and dished 5.4 assists in 48 games. In those 48, he had 38 double-doubles. The Pelicans had two MVP candidates.

Trading for Cousins was the price to pay to resign Jrue Holliday. Trading for Cousins and signing Holliday were the price to keep Anthony Davis happy. The front office has a mandate from ownership to win, and that any moves that make the team better will be supported. Bringing back Cousins on a smart contract is the new price to pay if this team want to remain in relevant in the larger NBA narratives, and more importantly, Anthony Davis and New Orleans proper.

However, bringing Cousins back at the max or near-max levels of cash that are being reported has too many risks to ignore. Without the right deal, Dell Demps and Gentry must be prepared to cut their losses and change course.

Is signing Cousins to a max deal a risk?

A max contract in itself is a major risk, as that is just less salary cap space to use and one injury can ruin a season. Teams have shown there are ways to fit 3 max level players on a championship roster. However, a max contract for a heavy and sometimes loafing center would be a catastrophe. History is fraught with men falling short of their potential because of a bum wheel, and not just in basketball.

Once the history of arrogance and defiance is considered, the possibilities for frustrations become more apparent. How much will Cousins want to dictate his minutes and playing time? Gentry is smart to let Rondo control the ball in certain moments. However, he must set boundaries with Cousins. It would be crucial that Boogie respond positively and be on board.

Four years of the Pelicans paying out near max money is a tough commitment. There is a good chance that the Pelicans history of stars missing games is going to happen again. Cousins is likely to be restricted or in street clothes for a quarter of that type of contract. New Orleans cannot afford to take another year off to regroup with AD and Jrue under contract in their prime. It would be a waste of time and money for all involved. I doubt Cousins wants it on his conscience that he held back the hometown team.

Alvin Gentry and Chris Finch have finally assembled a team that can play winning basketball at their desired pace. Cousins had never experienced a season this intense, nor had he even been asked to play at such a high pace. With his playing style and this new injury, Cousins may not be the type of player this team wants, nor what the coaches or Cousins need in a situation.

Especially when Rondo was sitting out games, Cousins served as the main ball handler in many starting half court sets. When he wasn’t running the high-low game with Davis, he found himself in too many iso situations. Seemingly every game he tried to do too much with the ball. Sloppy handling led to turnovers, which cannot happen in the 4th quarter of a playoff game. Those bad habits hold this team back.

Furthermore, with Mirotic proving a great fit next to Davis, where will Boogie find his rotation minutes next season? Could he, or even should he, attempt to play at this pace? Perhaps some time at the end of quarters, or with the second units would suffice, but is that where tax money is best spent? Even f Gentry staggers minutes, Cousins and Rondo on the floor at the same time would alter the playing style. Both prefer the ball, like to move at a more plodding pace and neither are that good off the ball.

Point Boogie proved useful at times last season but not revolutionary. The twin towers approach won more on talent and athleticism in two world-class 7-foot talents. The scheme was basic and worked in the regular season, but that cannot be the focus of the team anymore. As a team, there is a higher ceiling running with pace. Cousins may be a great individual talent, but the front office must trust in the system. No more will repeated iso drives and turnovers once the first action in the half court breaks down be tolerated. No more will this team overpay for devalued talents.

So what are the issues once money is more of a factor than this injury? By all accounts, including Boogie’s Insta, the rehab is going well. Everyone in his camp is expecting a full recovery. Within 18 months, Boogie will be mean mugging the youth and step over grandmas with his usual talent and swagger.

Would Cousins agree to a sign-and-trade?

A sign and trade for depth should be a non-starter. Any sign and trade would likely hard cap the team. The options to resign Boogie should only be about using him for this team or saving money to use on the next free agent class. That class will be huge, as Davis will be one year closer to a possible departure decision. One extra year of not paying the luxury tax saves the team tens of millions that could be splurged next offseason, once this team has had more time to develop

Besides, if the pace is the biggest strength of the team, does Cousins really fit? If Cousins’ rehab timeline and salary demands do not fit the team’s new path with Davis, Jrue, Rondo and Mirotic is it worth it to sign him? While Cousins and the Pelicans were finding their next gear until the injury, there is a chance this setback demands a course change.

However, this franchise cannot afford to change courses and risk losing the goodwill of the fanbase. Also, teams cannot afford to lose talent for anything, especially ALL-NBA talents with Bird Rights flexibility. Simply being capable of winning a playoff series makes New Orleans a more attractive destination than small markets are usually. Players are learning the benefits of small markets that can compete outweigh those of tanking teams in big markets. Icons can exist between NYC and LA.

Neither the Pelicans nor Cousins have ever dealt with a season like the last, nor an offseason as critical to future success as the next. With success comes expectations and pressure far beyond what this city had for the Chris Paul led teams. The Pelicans have never had a brighter future or as many stars. Cousins has never had a complete team around him, enabling him to compete for championships. It may be a touch apprehensive on both sides, but a deal short of the max must be negotiated.

Rondo and Mirotic made the Pelicans a playoff team

Davis and Holliday along with a few competent role players can be a competitive team. Rondo and Mirotic made the Pelicans a playoff team. With the right matchup and momentum, a series sweep was possible. Without Boogie, the Pelicans proved to be just a tough out for a truly great team.

Demps and Gentry cannot allow an All-Star capable talent like Cousins to leave for nothing so soon after the trade. A wing upgrade may be high on fan’s wish list, but that is going to be difficult with limited options either way. Having Cousins gives the Pelicans a higher ceiling on their best case scenario. If either side goes for the maximum leverage or contract, both sides lose out.

Cousins had never experienced the playoffs, and now he has had to watch from the sidelines. Even then he seemed to genuinely be having fun with a bunch of old Kentucky alumni. Expect Cousins contract to be one of the last pieces of news this offseason, as Demps tries to sign a couple players into space and the MLE before using Bird Rights to give Cousins at least a 3-year contract. Once Cousins is signed, some options and cap space disappears.

As constructed the Pelicans are arguably a top 3 team in the West and top 5 in the NBA. With the right bounces and a few more foul calls, New Orleans will contend for a Western Conference Finals spot for several years. A couple more shrewd moves and one good draft pick and this team could be a chic Finals pick in a couple years, Warriors and LeBron move aside.

If Cousins cannot regain his former levels, the Pelicans will be stuck on a bad contract for a couple of years with a malcontent wanting more money. With a couple of assets, Demps would have to send Cousins packing quickly in order not to spoil to rest of the team’s chemistry. Each side has a long time to think it through but should feel the tension of a short leash yanking both backs to mediocrity if they don’t work together.