For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
– Old Proverb
That’s how often DeMarcus Cousins converted free throws last season. Almost three out of four tries. In fact, that night in Houston, Cousins had made three of four attempts. But then…
That one event, that one free throw, launched months of events that has now culminated in one of the craziest moves in NBA offseason history. DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Golden State Warriors for the midlevel exception of 5.3 million dollars over one year. Sitting here, less than twenty-four hours after the bedlam, it feels unreal. Crazy. Insane. Not normal.
But the course of events that followed that free throw are all completely logical. As the proverb above suggests, the injury created a world where general managers and players make decisions in their best interests, and those decisions led to the Pelicans without the Fire to their Ice.
Let’s look at the negotiation from both sides, analyzing the decisions that both parties made.
Demps approached the contract negotiations exactly how you would expect him to in this situation: cautiously. In interviews leading up to free agency, he measured his words carefully. He said that they would like to bring Cousins back “in a perfect world.” He said the right things, but it was obvious that the injury affected everything. According to reports from Will Guillory, the Pelicans offered at least three times what Cousins took from the Warriors. They were never prepared to give a max deal, or a long deal, and that makes complete sense knowing the seriousness of an Achilles injury. It has taken down guards and big men of all types, and there is very little evidence to suggest that players can come back to full strength.
Being hesitant in this negotiation also makes sense when you consider Demps’ history with contract negotiations. Twice before Demps has traded for someone whose contract soon expired, and twice he felt the pressure of losing his trade piece for nothing, forcing him to sign contracts that limited the team. In the case of Eric Gordon, it was signing a player who didn’t want to play in New Orleans. In the case of Asik, it was outbidding himself and signing a deal that was viewed one of the worst in the league. So when it came time to negotiate with an injured Cousins, Demps most likely was concerned about not making the same mistake again. Handicapping the team by signing Cousins to a lucrative deal would be devastating if Cousins never recovered. It’s the kind of move that sets a franchise back five years, the kind of move that costs a GM his job.
It’s easy to be frustrated with Demps, to take the position of “You give Hill 12M a year but you won’t try to keep a star player?”, but the situation is more nuanced than that. Demps did the logical thing by not backing up the Brinks truck to Boogie’s house. He put the franchise first.
On face value, Cousins bolting to Oakland for less money seems like a rash, spiteful decision. And given that Cousins is known as an emotional player, it’s easy to say that his decision doesn’t make sense. But there are two very important things to consider when you’re looking at the negotiations from Cousins’ point of view: A) Cousins values respect very highly; and B) Cousins ruptured his Achilles, not his ego. Even knowing that he was hurt and that recovery is a long and questionable road, Cousins has been working hard to prove his doubters wrong, and he went into negotiations with the same resolve. From all indications, he received offers from a few teams, all with significantly higher dollar amounts that he ultimately took. But to Cousins, the lack of length to the deals showed a lack of respect.
Boogie felt disrespected by Dell because they met with Elfrid Payton and, according to Cousins, never made a formal offer (this has been repeatedly contradicted from sources close to the team). With that in mind, and with his market drying up with every headscratching Lakers signing, Cousins began to weigh his options. He didn’t want to go to a team that he felt didn’t respect him. So he went to a team that made sense for him personally. If he wasn’t going to get a lucrative contract from any team, why not take less money for a year with the defending champions? He can rehab his injury while watching the greatest team in history continue to dominate the league, and when he comes back there won’t be pressure for him to immediately contribute. Then, if he proves he is healthy, he enters free agency for a chance to make that payday he missed out on this season.
I’m not here to write about the death of competitive basketball, or the re-alignment of conferences, or how people’s respect for Boogie has plummeted. The decision itself makes sense for the player, and it makes sense in response to negotiations with the Pelicans.
Both parties did what was in their best interest. Both parties made decisions that make sense based on the situation put in front of them. Both parties wouldn’t have been in this situation had Boogie’s free throw not caromed off the side of the rim. Oh, and there’s one more thing that makes sense.
It makes sense for Pelicans fans to feel betrayed, heartbroken, and angry. Less than two months ago, the Pelicans looked promising. Now there are question marks. So it’s logical to need a few days to recover from this. There will be future articles coming out talking about the potential of Randle, and Payton, and how maybe the Pelicans will still be okay despite losing their two prime free agents. There will be points that make sense in those articles as well. But for now it’s understandable to grieve. (Don’t burn any jerseys, though. Don’t be that guy.)
One free throw. One missed step. And the entire fate of a franchise hurtled towards this sad but logical conclusion. And with that in mind, I will update the proverb accordingly:
For want of a free throw, the Achilles was lost
For want of an Achilles, Dell’s confidence was lost
For the want of confidence, the negotiation was lost
For the want of negotiation, the Boogie was lost
For the want of Boogie, the Pelicans were lost
And all for the want of a free throw.