Prior to late January 2018, it appeared DeMarcus Cousins was well on his way to All-NBA honors and set to follow that up by landing a monstrous new contract from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Then came the ugly Friday night moment, an Achilles tear nationally televised by ESPN, that changed everything.
Before that unfortunate landing that led to the injury, the Kentucky product was putting up obscene numbers on a nightly basis for New Orleans – 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks, marks that have only come close to being replicated once, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest player ever, in 1975-76.
Now, instead of hitting unrestricted free agency coming off one of the most productive seasons by a big man in recent league history, it appears Cousins is going to have to prove himself all over again before receiving max-contract consideration once more.
The injury also made Cousins’ impending free agency harder to get a read on. Even if New Orleans is tentative about offering the enigmatic big man a max deal coming off such a brutal injury, could that give other franchises, particularly those rebuilding and with cap space to spare, an opening to sign the elite center that they wouldn’t have otherwise had?
It’s certainly possible, if not likely.
We break down Cousins’ likeliest landing spots in free agency.
(Note: Though the Phoenix Suns have been bandied about as a potential Cousins suitor, they missed the cut for our exercise due to the fact it’s becoming pretty apparent they’ll be selecting Arizona big man Deandre Ayton with the top pick in the 2018 draft, essentially eliminating their need to go after a center in free agency.)
One of the main teams linked with Cousins’ impending free agency throughout recent months has been the Dallas Mavericks.
On June 5, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi stated that Dallas, as of now, does have interest in the Pelicans center, but that their intentions could change depending on what they do with the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Judging by most mock drafts, the two likeliest big-man candidates the Mavs could take with the No. 5 pick would probably be either Mohamed Bamba or Marvin Bagley, two promising centers from elite college basketball programs.
However, if Dallas goes with a wing instead (there aren’t many 2-guards projected go in the Mavericks’ range, and they wouldn’t take another primary ball-handler considering they drafted Dennis Smith just a year ago), like a Michael Porter or a Luka Doncic, for example, a Cousins free-agent chase would still make sense.
As far as why Dallas would want to sign a 27-year-old big man coming off a major injury, who will likely demand the max to even consider them in free agency, especially when you factor in that they’re currently in the midst of a rebuild, perhaps the idea of fielding one last competitive team before Dirk Nowitzki retires could appeal to team owner Mark Cuban.
Plus, landing Cousins would directly hurt a Western Conference foe, and theoretically give the Mavs a strong point guard (Smith), an almost-20-point-per-game-scorer on the wing (Harrison Barnes) and a proven, elite center (Cousins). That’s not a bad nucleus to build around.
Financially, Dallas is set to be one of the few teams with max-contract space this summer. After they renounce the free-agent rights to Nerlens Noel (basically a lock to happen after how poorly his lone full season with the team went), the Mavericks will have nearly $40 million in available cap room with which to chase free agents, including Cousins.
If Dallas signs the 6-foot-11 big to a three-year max, that would come out to a $90.9 million agreement between the two sides, and one that should help them settle into the post-Dirk era nicely, provided Cousins’ health doesn’t muck things up.
Los Angeles Lakers
Everyone knows who the Los Angeles Lakers’ top free-agent targets will be this offseason. They go by the name of LeBron James and Paul George. But if Los Angeles misses on both or lands just one of the two, the Lakers could see Cousins as a good fallback plan, especially if they’re able to land him on a short-term deal.
The Lakers are a team with a rich history of imposing big men, ranging from George Mikan to Abdul-Jabbar, and most recently, Shaquille O’Neal; Cousins would have huge shoes to fill if he wants to be considered among the frontcourt purple-and-gold elite, but seeing the absurd level he hit with New Orleans this year gives the hope he could get there.
Los Angeles could use a Cousins signing to show George or James that they’re ready to compete at a legitimate level, and not force the superstar wings to carry the load playing with a team full of young guys. Granted, the Lakers have one of the best 24-and-under cores in the NBA, but even so, neither James in his Age-33 campaign nor George in his Age-28 season are going to want to leave their current situations for a non-contender. And unless someone like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram or Kyle Kuzma takes a major step forward in their development this summer, that’s the exact type of situation James or George would be walking into: one without much hope for a title.
A healthy Cousins entering the picture would immediately change that outlook.
Because the Lakers have a ton of long-term cap room that they won’t want to muddle, in this case, a two-year deal at the max (so a two-year, $60.6 million contract) seems more likely than the three-year agreement we presented from Dallas.
Landing Cousins would give Los Angeles’ operation under Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka an air of legitimacy, making them look more appealing to other free agents, potentially such as James and George. For that reason alone, going after Cousins makes sense. Add in the fact that when healthy he’s one of the best bigs in the game and this union only looks all the more logical.
San Antonio Spurs
There has been literally no scuttle tying Cousins with the San Antonio Spurs, but a few factors could make this shocking pairing possible.
For one, the Spurs are known for being great with how they handle players either coming off injuries or past their primes, especially when discussing big men. After all, there’s a reason Tim Duncan and David Robinson were able to remain so effective late into their 30s.
What’s more, San Antonio has also shown a propensity for going after players who may not seem like perfect fits for their culture, but can be had for cheaper than expected. A good example of that would be when they gave their mid-level exception to Rudy Gay last summer. Gay, though a good player, has been seen as an iso-centric ball-stopper throughout his career, someone unfit for a pass-happy system like the one created by Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. And yet, the Spurs signed him anyway, and the results weren’t half bad.
The same could occur with Cousins, with the dividends being even richer thanks to Cousins’ absurd talent level.
Financially, though at first glance it would appear that San Antonio doesn’t have room for Cousins on their books, they could create enough to make the big man a competitive offer if club legend Tony Parker, who saw his role diminish last season to 13 minutes nightly in the playoffs, signs elsewhere this summer. That would leave them with approximately $24.3 million in cap space, enough to offer Cousins a two-year, $40 million deal.
Whether that’s enough to entice Cousins remains to be seen, but considering the situation – getting to play under a legendary coach for a franchise that has historically done so well by placing an emphasis on playing out of the post – maybe this potential union shouldn’t be totally ruled out.
It’s a long shot without a doubt but not an impossible one financially, and it’s a fit that would make San Antonio a true contender once again, at least if they can clear up their rift with Kawhi Leonard.
New Orleans Pelicans
Owners of the big man’s Bird Rights and the team where Cousins has come closest to tasting postseason action for the first time, New Orleans holds all the cards when it comes to the four-time All-Star’s free agency.
Though it may not be the absolute lock it was before the injury, most signs still point to a Cousins return to the Pelicans. He’s got a great relationship with the franchise’s cornerstone, Anthony Davis. Their team made the second round of the playoffs without him, so with him, they could be even better. They can offer him the most money.
The issue is, however, how much of that money are they going to be willing to shell out at a big man coming off a torn Achilles? If they’re adamant about offering less than the max, will that turn Cousins off and push him to look around at other potential opportunities?
In his own not-so-subtle way, Cousins has already made clear the type of deal he expects to sign this offseason…
…so that latter question may already be answered.
Ultimately, though, the heavy favorite in Cousins’ free agency still has to be New Orleans. Whether he accepts less than the max or the Pelicans ask him to take a one- or two-year deal as opposed to a four- or five-year contract (just to see how heals) will be an interesting subplot, but at the end of the day, Cousins sticking around in the Bayou and starting something special alongside Davis just seems like the most obvious outcome to his time on the free-agent market.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.