Yeah. It sucks.
With the news that Demarcus Cousins accepted the MLE to sign a one-year deal with the – ugh – Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans fans are scratching their heads at best and, at worst, doing….this:
I’m not here to tell you to not be mad (at least, not in this paragraph). Cousins brought All Star talent to put alongside Anthony Davis. He was instrumental in setting up one of the most memorable runs in franchise history, and he himself gave fans exciting games against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, a night that ended with the injury that would eventually lead to his exit from New Orleans. Cousins helped this franchise raise the bar and set its sights on a more ambitious goal than a “we’re just happy to be here” first round playoff exit. And now he’s gone.
There are many reasons, finger-pointing, and rumors flying around, which will be covered in depth elsewhere. The crux of the issue is this: Cousins bet on himself. He took a severe pay cut for a one-year deal with the Warriors. If things work out, he is signing a max deal (likely not with the Warriors due to their already sky high payroll) with a freshly-ringed hand a year from now. But things could easily not work out for Cousins. If he looks like a shell of his old self a year and a half into an injury recovery that traditionally is a two-year timetable, he may find even less of a market for himself in 2019. If there is even a whiff of internal struggle from the Warriors, who do you think everyone will blame? As much of a sure thing as the Warriors seem to be, this is a high risk move for Cousins.
Conversely, keeping Cousins would have been a high risk move for the Pelicans. After the initial shock of his injury, the Pelicans picked up the pace of their game. Considerably. Once Nikola Mirotic was on the roster, the Pelicans led the league in pace, with a rating of 104.59 (for the half season Boogie played, they were sixth with a rating of 101.48). The faster style unlocked both Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday and played to head coach Alvin Gentry’s strengths. Mental issues like lack of effort, turnovers, and defensive lapses were reduced. The team had its greatest success in the Davis era, underscored by a ten-game win streak and a sweep of the Portland Trailblazers in the first round of the playoffs. All without Cousins.
The Pelicans were doubling down on this style of play in the hours before Cousins’ departure by signing forward/center Julius Randle to a two-year/$18 million deal. Randle is a much better fit in this system than Cousins, and a frontcourt of Davis, Mirotic, and Randle should be among the fastest in the NBA. Losing Cousins hurts and it remains to be seen if the success with Mirotic can be sustained over an 82 game season, but this is far from a death sentence for the Pelicans. Is it worth the Pelicans hard-capping themselves to keep a player who doesn’t fit their style and who may not ever be elite again?
Make no mistake: if Demarcus Cousins were healthy, Dell Demps would have offered him a max contract at 12:01 AM July 1st, and it would have been the right move. But Demarcus Cousins is not healthy, and there is a more-than-reasonable chance he’ll never be the same player again. Cousins’ brief time in New Orleans made the Pelicans realize the heights they could reach. In a cruel twist of irony, it is possible those heights may be best reached without him.