They begin, of course, with Cousins. He is set to be one of NBA free agency’s most fascinating test cases in years. No one has ever questioned Cousins’s talent — he was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists at the time of his injury and has a skill set few players can match.
But Cousins also has his share of detractors, often criticized for a lackadaisical approach, particularly defensively, and off-court issues with coaches and teammates. That’s why, despite his undeniable talent, he wasn’t expected to have the same kind of obvious market of other top players expected to potentially change teams this summer, such as LeBron James and Paul George.
The overwhelming opinion around the NBA was — at least until Friday night — that Cousins would get a full five-year max contract from the Pelicans this summer, a deal that would pay him in the range of $175 million over five seasons. New Orleans was well on its way to making the postseason, and Cousins has meshed nicely with fellow superstar big man — and close friend — Anthony Davis in their first full season together.
Now, though, the numbers on Cousins’s next deal become much more difficult to figure, for New Orleans or anyone else. There is arguably no more devastating injury for a basketball player than a torn Achilles’, which has derailed the careers of numerous players. Few return from the injury the same player they once were, and the data on a player as big as Cousins (listed at 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds) is thin.
The most analogous comparison to the position Cousins finds himself in is Elton Brand in 2007. Cousins will turn 28 this summer, and is in the midst of his eighth NBA season. Brand was 28 and had completed his eighth NBA season when he tore his Achilles’ in an offseason workout.
After playing just eight games once he recovered from the injury at the tail end of the 2007-08 season, Brand signed a five-year deal worth just under $80 million as a free agent with the Philadelphia 76ers. But after averaging at least 18 points and nine rebounds in his first eight seasons — and over 20 points and 10 rebounds in six of them — Brand never averaged more than 15 points or 8.8 rebounds in a full season after the injury, and was never again an all-star.
Surveying five people within the game — four NBA executives and an agent not affiliated with Cousins — the consensus was that a team, and possibly multiple teams, will still be willing to pay big money for Cousins.
The only question is how big.
One exec said Cousins will likely sign for no less than 80 percent of his max, citing the fact that, “He’s not a power guy. He’s not an athletic guy. It’s more power, skill and bullying than any kind of athleticism.”
Multiple executives said they expected New Orleans to still find a way to get a deal done. Why? Because Cousins is so tight with Davis. And if Davis, who is a little more than two years from free agency, wants him back, the Pelicans — who will have little flexibility either way — will have no choice but to try to keep him.
“If he can convince them there is any likelihood he could go elsewhere,” said one executive, “their only recourse is to give him the max.”
That sentiment however, presumes the same decision-makers in place now will still be there this summer. And that is very much an open question. The seats were hot for both General Manager Dell Demps and Coach Alvin Gentry coming into this season, with the consensus around the league that the Pelicans needed to make the playoffs for them to keep their jobs.
Before Cousins got hurt, that seemed like a lock. Now? Not so much. Yes, the Pelicans are 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers, and 6.5 ahead of the 10th place Utah Jazz. But both teams on the outside finally have their own star big men healthy (Blake Griffin and Rudy Gobert, respectively) and should be able to make a surge.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, already were viewed as a team with three pillars — Davis, Cousins and Jrue Holiday — holding up a largely piecemeal roster around them. How will losing one of those pillars impact the rest of the group? New Orleans is expected to be active over the next 11 days before the Feb. 8 trade deadline to upgrade the roster. But the Pelicans are limited both by being only a little more than a million dollars below the hard cap — a number they cannot go over at any point this season — and by a lack of intriguing young assets after sending out their past five first round picks in trades.
If a significant deal is going to happen in New Orleans between now and Feb. 8, it is very likely the Pelicans would have to ship out yet another first rounder to make it so.
All of these questions lead back to the most significant one of all: How does Cousins getting hurt impact how Davis sees his future in New Orleans? When the Pelicans stunned the basketball world and landed Cousins in a deal with Sacramento during last year’s All-Star Game, it was viewed as New Orleans’s chance at convincing Davis — universally considered one of the game’s 10 best players — around for the long-term. Between the friendship between the two big men and the way the Pelicans were beginning to round into form, there may wind up being truth in that line of thinking.
But with Cousins sidelined, the league is on high alert to see what happens with Davis. Teams around the NBA — Boston most notably — would jump if Davis is made available. That could come down to whether Davis indicates he’s ready to leave the Big Easy.
As Friday’s game was winding down, that time appeared as far away as it has in years. The Pelicans finally appeared to be heading in the right direction, with a fascinating set of stars playing in a unique style, and having success doing so.
Then Cousins fell to the floor, grabbing at his left heel. And, in that instant, a franchise that finally was appearing to find some stability was again left with far more questions than answers.
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