The news was shocking — with less than 10 seconds remaining in New Orleans biggest win of the season (an upset of the Houston Rockets), All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins went down with what is known to be a torn left Achilles. He is done for the season and surgery is next, followed by a rehab that will stretch all summer and possibly into the start of next season.
The first reaction around the league was an outpouring of support for Boogie (this is just a small sample).
This was quickly followed by the “what’s next” questions, which focused on two fronts: How does this impact the Pelicans’ pursuit of the playoffs this season? And what does this mean for Cousins free agency this summer?
After the win, fivethirtyeight.com had the 27-21 Pelicans as almost a lock to make the postseason, at 89 percent. The Pelicans have won four in a row and 8-of-10, though they have not been blowing teams out (+4.4 per 100 in that stretch), the Pelicans have a top-10 offense and defense in those games. Now the question is that cushion enough? They are just 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-seed Clippers, and it looks like the eighth seed in the West will need to be .500 or a little above to get in. Can the Pelicans go 15-19 to close out the season and finish 42-40 and have a real chance? It’s going to be close.
On the positive side, Anthony Davis is having another All-NBA season (maybe first team again) and the Pelicans are +6.9 per 100 possessions this season when Davis is on the court and Cousins is off. While that number is a skewed some by poor opponent three-point shooting, the fact is the Pelicans are still a good team with Davis on the court. The problem is Gentry was able to stagger Davis and Cousins so one of them was almost always on the court, and a lot of the data we have with both of them out comes from meaningless garbage time. The Pelicans bench needs to step up now, and that has not been their strength this season. The team should get Solomon Hill back from hamstring surgery next month and they will need him to find his footing fast and contribute as a big, because the Pelicans look like a thin team now.
What happens this summer gets more complicated.
The first question is will GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry still have their jobs. They needed to make the playoffs and show this team had the potential to do more than just slip in to keep their jobs. How this injury impacts the decisions by ownership and upper management remain to be seen. Every move the Pelicans make right now has to be viewed through the “will this help us keep Anthony Davis in a few years?” lens.
Before the injury, it was expected around the league that the Pelicans would max out (or near max out, if they could) Cousins to keep him. Teams such as the Mavericks and Lakers might come calling, but if the Pelicans went in big he would stay in a city where he likes it and the team is winning. Now all of that is off. It’s unknown if other teams will come calling for Cousins with serious offers.
The max for Cousins next season will likely be just north of $30 million a season (the final number will depend on the salary cap), with raises it would have been a five-year, $175 million deal with the Pelicans, and four-years, $130 if he left.
New Orleans now will likely want to get Cousins back now at a small discount, maybe both in terms of money and years. Cousins will most likely be a little bit less of a player after this — most guys who come back from an Achilles see a dip in production — but he is so unique and dominant he will still be an excellent player. The Pelicans have gone all-in on the Davis/Cousins combo and have been active in trade discussions (according to other teams) looking for shooting and good players to put around their stars. Even if a new front office comes in, the two bigs plan likely stays just because of how big a step back it would be if Cousins leaves. Could the Pelicans now get Cousins on a shorter deal that lines up more with Davis (a free agent in 2020)?
There are no easy answers here. The Pelicans may still make the playoffs, but whatever happens, Cousins will still be in demand. He’s still going to get paid. It likely will not still be the max offer he was expecting.