By Bryan Toporek
When DeMarcus Cousins tore his left Achilles tendon in the waning moments of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 115-113 victory over the Houston Rockets on Friday, it irreparably changed the trajectory of the franchise.
After an inconsistent start to the season, the Pelicans had caught fire in recent weeks, going 8-2 over their last 10 games. While they’ve been prone to letdown games throughout the year—see: their recent road losses to bottom-feeders such as the Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks—they’ve also notched victories over Houston, the Boston Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Heading into Sunday, the Pelicans sat sixth in the Western Conference, with a three-game lead over the ninth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.
With Cousins done for the year, the Pelicans’ playoff hopes take a major hit, too.
In the 1,093 minutes Cousins shared the floor with Anthony Davis this season, the Pelicans outscored their opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions. The big man featured in four of New Orleans’ 10 most-used two-man lineups, and three of those four pairings had positive net ratings on the year. Overall, Cousins had the fourth-highest net rating of any Pelicans player, trailing only Davis, Jrue Holiday and Darius Miller.
Can New Orleans still make the playoffs sans Boogie? What does this injury mean for his free-agency prospects in July? Let’s dive in.
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Impact on the Pelicans
New Orleans’ decision to zag toward a Twin Towers lineup as the rest of the league trends toward Golden State’s pace-and-space small-ball was paying dividends prior to Cousins’ injury. He and Davis were the only pair of teammates in NBA history to be averaging at least 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Cousins added 5.4 assists, 2.2 triples, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks in his 36.2 minutes per game. In a cruel twist of fate, he became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to notch 40 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a game during a double-overtime victory against the Chicago Bulls four days prior to his Achilles tear.
Since both Cousins and Davis tout three-point range, the Pelicans avoided the typical spacing concerns associated with playing two traditional bigs alongside one another. Cousins’ passing ability also allowed New Orleans to use him as a weapon in transition, where he could feed the ball to Davis in the paint before opposing defenses had a chance to get their half-court defense set. Cousins assisted on 66 of Davis’ 409 made baskets on the year to date, trailing only Holiday (69) among all Pelicans players.
“We were just getting it. We were just figuring everything out, that’s the tough part,” Davis told reporters after Cousins went down Friday. “We’ve just got to keep going and just keep finding a way to win. … We’ve just got to make sure we’re locked in.”
New Orleans has a net rating of plus-2.8 with Davis on the floor and Cousins off, per NBAWowy, but when both Davis and Cousins sit, opponents have outscored the Pelicans by 19.7 points per 100 possessions. If head coach Alvin Gentry increases Davis’ minutes to counteract the deleterious effects of Cousins’ absence, he’s playing with fire given the Brow’s lengthy injury history. But if he keeps Davis’ playing time as is, the Pelicans could get blown off the floor whenever he sits.
The Pelicans “are remaining aggressive” heading into the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline, according to Scott Kushner of the Advocate, as they’re hoping to add someone who can “make up for some of Cousins’ absence and ease the shift into this second season of sorts.” New Orleans should also receive a boost when Solomon Hill returns from the torn hamstring that has sidelined him since the beginning of the season.
Regardless, there’s no simple replacement for a player of Cousins’ caliber, which will make it difficult for the Pelicans to hold off the surging Clippers in the playoff race.
Cousins’ free agency
Had Cousins not torn his Achilles, his upcoming foray into free agency was likely to be uneventful. The Pelicans were planning to offer the big man a five-year maximum contract worth roughly $175 million, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times, who wrote earlier in January, “The marketplace, as it stands, isn’t exactly teeming with attractive alternatives for Cousins to consider.”
The leaguewide free-agent spending splurge of 2016 is but a distant memory at this point, as salary-cap space has by and large dried up around the league due to smaller-than-expected jumps in the cap. At the moment, only a half-dozen teams are projected to have $20 million or more in available cap space this summer, per Spotrac, and that includes the Houston Rockets, who are sure to spend that on retaining Chris Paul. Worse yet, most of the teams with significant available cap space are nowhere near contending for the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Lakers loom as perhaps the most significant threat to New Orleans’ chances of retaining Cousins, particularly if their plan A of landing Paul George and LeBron James in free agency goes up in smoke. (George recently hinted that he’s leaning toward re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer, while James’ free-agent intentions remain unclear.) L.A. is already projected to have nearly $50 million in available space—far more than necessary for one max contract—and it could carve out even more room by salary-dumping Jordan Clarkson between now and July 1.
That places enormous pressure on the Pelicans, who can’t afford to lowball Cousins and push him out the door. If they offer Cousins the five-year max and he underperforms relative to his past performance, they’re going to be stuck in salary-cap hell. If they refuse to offer him the max and the Lakers do dangle such an offer (albeit with smaller annual raises and one fewer year on the contract), it could be enough to lure Cousins away from New Orleans.
The question marks about Cousins’ performance moving forward should give any suitor pause. According to ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton, “On average, players coming back from Achilles injuries see their production decline by about 8 percent compared to what we would project based on their past performance and age.” If the injury affects Cousins’ lateral mobility upon his return, it could complicate a team’s ability to build an elite defense around him manning the middle.
Comparisons between Cousins and former Los Angeles Clippers big man Elton Brand are only natural, as both were 27 at the time of their respective Achilles injuries and were nightly 20-10 threats prior to going down. Brand played eight additional seasons following his injury, but his production plunged once he left the Clippers and signed a massive five-year free-agent deal with the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 2008. The same may not hold true for Cousins, but teams likely will keep Brand in mind as the cautionary tale for throwing a huge free-agent contract at a big man fresh off an Achilles injury.
Further complicating Cousins’ free-agent outlook is his uncertain timetable to return. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Cousins could take anywhere between six and 10 months to recover, which means he may wind up missing the beginning of the 2018-19 regular season. A team offering a four- or five-year deal shouldn’t fret much about the prospect of him missing a few weeks’ worth of games, but that could likewise factor into contract negotiations come July.
The smart money would be on Cousins remaining in New Orleans on a five-year max deal, but the butterfly effect could be profound. If Cousins is a shell of himself in the wake of the injury, Davis’ free-agent clock will begin ticking more loudly each day. If he declines his $28.75 million player option for the 2020-21 season, the Brow will become a free agent on July 1, 2020, giving the Pelicans only two years to recalibrate their roster in the wake of Cousins’ injury. A hobbled Cousins could lead to a frustrated Davis, which would result in Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge lobbing trade offers at New Orleans 24/7.
Losing the NBA’s only 25-10-5 player to a season-ending injury would be painful for any team, but it could prove to have particularly disastrous short- and long-term consequences for the Pelicans.