On Friday (USA time) the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 131-123 and, with that victory, completed one of the more surprising playoff sweeps in recent memory. Since the injury to Demarcus Cousins and the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic the Pelicans have been something of a revelation. The Pelicans finished the regular season with the fastest pace in the league and their primary line-up of Rondo, Holiday, Moore, Mirotic and Davis has outscored opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions. They have been elite on defense and not far off elite on offense. In the first round against the Blazers they flexed big time and showed the league that they are for real. This squad has been desperate for playoff success and 2018 has delivered in a big way. Going into the second round, most likely against the Golden State Warriors, they are playing with house money. The pressure is off and we should see a wildly entertaining series. Win or lose 2018 has been a watershed season for the New Orleans Pelicans.
But all this leads to one really big question, a 6-11, 270lb (211cm, 122kg) sized question. Demarcus Cousins, a perennial all-star, two time All-NBA Second Team player, sits on the New Orleans bench recovering from a torn Achilles Tendon. The Pelicans have been better since Cousins went down, they finished the season 21-13 (.617) after starting 27-21 (.563). Their team chemistry has been much improved and the numbers back this up. Don’t mistake this for degradation of Cousins’ value or skill. He is a supreme player and still has potential to be a transcendent big man. The Pelicans have found some success with Cousins this year, and at times the twin towers approach has worked, which is what we all wanted to see. We wanted a team to Zig when everyone else was Zagging.
However the success of Cousins at the Pelicans comes under specific circumstances. Primarily he must be surrounded by shooters. When he and Davis share the court with a combination of Holiday, Moore, Miller and Clarke the Pelicans fly on both sides of the ball. As soon as you add Cunningham or Rondo the wheels fall off. Even when Cousins is the lone big man, sharing the floor with Rondo presents spacing issues.
Most importantly however things have to be going his way. As soon as his offense isn’t working, or he has to share the ball or foul calls are not going his way he disengages, mostly on the defensive end but also on the offensive end. And these moments are costly. There are concerns that his personality and temperament may forever hold him back from reaching his potential and these concerns are not unfounded.
Cousins is an unrestricted free agent this off-season and this presents a big decision for the Pelicans. Commit to the All-Star with a max contract, a 5 year contract worth approximately $180 million, test the trade market and find a sign and trade partner, or let him walk.
Should the Pelicans sign Cousins they will have approximately $80 million tied up in the salaries of Davis, Cousins and Holiday (to whom they gave a 5 year $131 million contract to in the offseason, which is looking much better now than it was 6 months ago). The Pelicans will have limited flexibility to put supporting players around their core and will need to bank on smart drafting and luck to fill out their roster. They will however, have three All-Stars (Holiday was an All-Star in 2013) and if they can optimise that talent anything is possible. Holiday playing like an elite two way point guard certainly gives the pelicans a lot to be excited about.
On the other hand they move on from Cousins. It might seem ludicrous but hear me out. First and foremost, Cousins is recovering from an Achilles Tendon tear. This is a serious injury with a six to eight month recovery time, however very few players who have suffered this injury have reached their pre-injury prime. This is by no means a career ending injury however the evidence suggests it will be a tough road for Cousins to get back to his dominant self, that may take years not months.
Secondly, resigning Cousins will not address their biggest weakness, wing depth. For Cousins and Davis to flourish the Pelicans need to put a well above league average 3 and D player on the wing. They currently have a stable of good but not great wing options in Clarke, Miller, Moore and Hill, but for this team to reach the zenith of the NBA they need a reliable two way guy at either wing position. Signing Cousins will make acquiring such a guy incredibly difficult, leaving drafting an NBA ready rookie as their only viable option. If they resign Cousins it almost certainly means moving on from Rajon Rondo, who has not fit well with Cousins at all but has been an integral part of their First Round Series win and Play-off Rondo has yet again reached cult hero status.
As it always does with Cousins, it comes back to his attitude and temperament. If Cousins is struggling with injury he is liable to give in to his frustrations and be a risk of disrupting team chemistry and morale. Additionally without that wing support and playing with a non-shooting point guard will almost certainly lead to a disenfranchised franchise guy.
Their best option may be to find a sign and trade partner. The Pelicans have some leverage in this situation. When the Kings traded Cousins at last year’s All-Star break he lost access to his potential designated-veteran-player contract extension, known as the supermax contract, costing him about $30 million. That said, the Pelicans can offer cousins an additional year and approximately an additional $45 million than other teams wishing to sign him in free agency. Furthermore a sign and trade allows teams who are not currently capable of clearing the cap space to sign Cousins in free agency to get in on the action by trading for him.
A sign and trade could be in both parties best interests, allowing Cousins to maximise his contract, and the Pelicans to get something in return for their All-Star. There are some wrinkles, first of all Cousins may want a say in where he goes, which is not uncommon in a sign and trade, but not guaranteed. Second, following his injury there is no certainty teams will be lining up to take Cousins off the Pelicans hands at his max contract rate. If the Pelicans cannot find a trade partner willing to take Cousins at his max this would significantly diminish the their leverage.
Should the Pelicans look to trade Cousins the proposition is simple, find a package built around a 3 and D wing player. Recently we have seen the trade value of All-Stars plummet, and Cousins will not be yielding an All-Star in return, however a young prospect with plenty of upside, or an established player with a pick is very feasible. Here are three potential trades that might work for the Pelicans:
Otto Porter Jr would be the ideal piece in return for Cousins. A versatile player who can slide up to the 4, can defende multiple positions and is emerging as an elite shooter and passer. Washington have had their eye on Cousins but may not be willing to move such an important player. Failing this the Pelicans could be enticed by a package built around Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre has showing significant growth this year and has potential to develop into a high end two way player. Adding a first round pick along with the overpaid but very serviceable back up big man Ian Mahinmi could be enough to get this deal done.
Toronto may not be inclined to do anything too radical with their roster given their 2018 success, however if the Pelicans are trading Cousins they will be calling to check on the availability of OG Anunoby. A late first round pick, OG has been outstanding in his rookie year, defending all five positions and showing signs of becoming a more than serviceable shooter. The Raptors would also need to add significant salary here meaning Jonas Valanciunas would more than likely be included.
The Bucks are facing a make or break proposition. Giannis has made it clear it’s time for the front office to hold up it’s end of the bargain and put a strong supporting cast and coaching team around him. Adding Cousins to a core of Giannis, Middleton and Bledsoe will give the Bucks something of a big four, but is sure to pose chemistry and fit questions. It may not be in the Bucks best interests but there is no doubt the Bucks will listen to offers, especially if they think it helps them hold onto Giannis. To get him the Bucks will likely have to give up Jabari Parker (whom they are seemingly ready to move on from anyway) and Tony Snell. Parker is a young and intriguing prospect who has suffered two major injuries but is a former number 2 overall pick and still shows flashes of being an elite NBA player. Snell has been outstanding this year in the coveted 3 and D role, shooting 40% from three.
If they cannot find a suitable trade they may still be best served letting Cousins walk and sticking with what they have now. Re-signing Rondo at a significantly more affordable contract than Cousins and bringing in a high level 3 and D wing player, Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all available this offseason, is not the worst course of action. And indeed could be better for the Pelicans than resigning the big man. Of course these players will be in demand and the Pelicans management do not have a good track record of putting the right pieces around Davis, this changing all of a sudden is probably just as likely as Cousins coming back from the Injury 100% healthy and with an entirely new outlook on being an NBA basketballer.
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