This Pelicans team had no quit. Not early in the season when the pieces weren’t quite fitting together, and not after most people wrote their season off when DeMarcus Cousins returned from an Achilles injury. With Anthony Davis playing like an MVP, Jrue Holiday finding his groove, and the addition of Nikola Mirotic to help space the floor, the Pelicans not only made it to the postseason, they swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
While they eventually couldn’t climb the Mt. Everest that is Golden State, the Pelicans have something real to build on.
But now they also face some tough questions in a Western Conference that has little margin for error:
• Do the Pelicans bring back DeMarcus Cousins? If so at what price and for how many years?
• Do the Pelicans bring back Rajon Rondo?
• Can the Pelicans add a scorer on the wing to balance the roster?
None of those questions have easy answers.
The Pelicans do want Cousins back — they were the No. 4 seed and playing well when he went down. Coach Alvin Gentry put it this way:
Is Cousins still a 26 and 12 guy coming off a torn Achilles? Probably not. But he still has value.
More importantly for the Pelicans, after this playoff run, the Pelicans don’t “need” Cousins back to win, and they know it. That gives the Pelicans leverage when the sides sits down. If Cousins walks they will struggle to get anyone as good in (they are capped out still), and they will have burned a good pick to get him, but this team just reached the second round of the playoffs without him.
On the other side of the table, it’s going to be hard for Cousins, who was going to get offered a five-year max contract from the Pelicans ($176 million over the course of it) before the injury. Now he’s not going to get a max starting at just north of $30 million a season, likely he lands more in the $22 million to $25 million range. However, the bigger issue being discussed around the league is the years — no team is comfortable being locked into four (or for the Pelicans five) years with him. Cousins’ best bet is two years and a player option for year three. If he wants to go that long.
Last summer, Rudy Gay was coming off a torn Achilles and got a two-year, $17.6 million contract with a player option the second year. While the money would be higher for Cousins, maybe he would bet on himself and take a one-plus-one deal knowing he could get paid next summer if he is healthy and shows he can still dominate. Or, the two sides could go with a longer deal that has some protections built in or performance goals, although that is far less likely to come together.
The advantage the Pelicans have: No other team is going to come in big now, either. Before the injury Cousins had options (just with one fewer guaranteed year and a little less money), now those teams — Lakers, Mavericks, others — will be cautious like New Orleans. There is nobody ready to throw max money cash or long contracts at Cousins.
Which is why he likely strikes a short deal with the Pelicans and tries to prove himself — and boost that value.
If Cousins remains a Pelican it limits what the team can pay Rajon Rondo.
New Orleans got him with what was a very good deal — one year at $3.3 million — for this season. Despite the flaws in his game, his price is going up, and the Pelicans want to keep him. New Orleans loves his impact on the locker room, and having Rondo at the point allows Holiday to focus more as a pure scorer sometimes working off the ball, a role he has thrived in.
Rondo is an unrestricted free agent. The most the Pelicans can offer him as a raise is $3.9 million, which will not be enough to keep him. New Orleans can use their $5.2 million taxpayer midlevel exception on him (which jumps to $8.6 if Cousins leaves because they go below the tax line). If another team comes in above $5.2 million, there is nothing the Pelicans can do.
What’s more, use that exception on Rondo and they lose an option to bring in a needed wing scorer. Mirotic helped fill that role, but the Pelicans could use some athleticism and defense on the wing to help round out an improving roster.
The Pelicans look like a team on the rise in the West, but they also could look different by the time summer is over.