The Pelicans are great … now what do they do with DeMarcus Cousins?

In the weeks after DeMarcus Cousins‘ Achilles tendon tear on Jan. 26, there was a consensus around the league that the New Orleans Pelicans would offer Cousins a full five-year, maximum contract despite the injury — or at least outbid (by a lot) what looked to be a limited pool of suitors for him. A small-market team desperate to win, with no cap space to replace Cousins, simply could not lose an undeniable talent for (almost) nothing.

As uncomfortable as it is to say, New Orleans’ raging success in these playoffs has to change that calculus. The Pelicans look better, faster, stingier, more versatile with Davis at center, Jrue Holiday in an elevated role, and Nikola Mirotic spacing the floor for Davis’ borderline pornographic rim runs. A long-term, near-max deal for Cousins is simply too risky given the Pelicans know this current roster — when healthy, an important caveat — can win at this level.

Cousins didn’t suffer a regular injury. He suffered perhaps the most devastating injury that can befall a basketball player. As Kevin Pelton has written often, the recovery track record is discouraging — if a little scattershot. The sample size of players as large as Cousins who have come back to full strength from an Achilles rupture is practically nonexistent. Cousins’ conditioning has sometimes been an issue, and it cannot be for any player rallying from this injury.

A max deal isn’t just a number on a cap sheet, though it is that, too. It is a signal: We believe in this player, and are ready to commit our entire organization — including our playing style — to fit him. If the deal goes bust due to injury, the team is trapped until it expires. A big deal for Cousins could also take New Orleans into the tax for next season, and it has done everything possible to duck it in the past.

The healthy version of Cousins would have gotten such a deal even if there is not much evidence he helps you win at the highest level. Some of that stain attaches itself to anyone who spends any time in Sacramento. But Cousins’ role in poisoning the culture there has been well-documented. He clashed with some — not all — coaches and teammates, and had the locker room on permanent egg shells. By all accounts, he has been a more congenial teammate in New Orleans, but no one is ready to assume that persists long-term.

New Orleans was better all season with Davis going solo. The twin towers setup shoehorned Cousins into a point-center role. He fared about as well as anyone could have hoped. He is supremely talented — unstoppable bulldozing the rim, accurate from 3-point range, a creative, pinpoint passer who can bring the ball up. A lot of his ground-bound, skill-based game can withstand a decline in athleticism.

He also hemorrhaged turnovers at a record pace, and too often failed to get back on defense. There are some diminishing returns in dispatching the league’s most unguardable post player since Shaq to the perimeter — fewer post-ups, the evaporation of Cousins’ beastly offensive rebounding. Davis also had to defend stretchier players farther from the rim, negating at least a bit of his otherworldly shot-blocking.

Cousins and Davis made it work well enough. The Pelicans outscored opponents by about 4.5 points per 100 possessions — 134 points total — in more than 1,000 minutes with both of them on the floor, per NBA.com. That was about the same as Utah’s differential for the season.

They are already plus-196 with the Mirotic-Davis duo in 300 fewer minutes combined over the regular season and playoffs — equivalent to about plus-14 points per 100 possessions, 5.5 points fatter than Houston’s league-best overall mark. After about two weeks in the injury-mourning doldrums, the Pelicans scrapped their twin towers offense in favor of playing ultra-fast and unleashing Davis. Cousins cannot play as fast as New Orleans is playing now. He could not smother Damian Lillard pick-and-rolls the way Davis and Mirotic just did.

Mirotic is even occasionally guarding centers, including Jusuf Nurkic for the last three games of New Orleans’ humiliation of Portland, so that Davis can keep calling himself a power forward if he likes. (Kevin Garnett isn’t 7 feet tall, either.)

All this has presented New Orleans with what looks like an obvious roadmap: Let Cousins walk, re-sign Mirotic to a more reasonable number after next season, and use draft picks and the midlevel exception to stock the roster with wings. With so many teams capped out, the midlevel is powerful again. It could net Danny Green or Will Barton this summer, and perhaps an equivalent player in the next one. Then, cycle through minimum-salary centers who can bang, and sop up minutes.

But no team-building decision is as obvious as it looks. The Pelicans are about to face the Warriors — a team with four legitimate stars. New Orleans without Cousins has one star in Davis about as good as Golden State’s two best players, and a second sometime-star (Holiday) who at his peak is somewhere close to Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. (Holiday has been way better than that in the playoffs, but he won’t maintain this level. I mean, if he did, he’d basically be Michael Jordan.)

Against the best teams, you need some base amount of talent. Cousins ups the talent quotient. He raises New Orleans’ proverbial ceiling. The two best teams in the West — Golden State and Houston — switch a ton on defense. A post-up brute with soft touch and exquisite passing skill is one of the only known antidotes to that sort of defense.

It’s not a foolproof counter. The Rockets and Warriors make it hard just to enter the ball into the post — ask Karl-Anthony Towns, though at least he has tried since Game 2. The Warriors might run Cousins off the floor. But it’s a better counter than anything Solomon Hill, Darius Miller, Ian Clark and Cheick Diallo are bringing. A Pelicans team with Cousins, Davis and Mirotic would have Golden State’s full attention.

Remember: Cousins never got to play with Mirotic. That infects all those splits that show opponents outscored the Pelicans when Cousins played without Davis. The Pelicans didn’t trade for Mirotic only as an emergency replacement for Cousins. New Orleans and Chicago discussed potential Mirotic deals weeks before Cousins went down, per sources familiar with the talks.

With Mirotic, the Pelicans could stagger minutes for Davis and Cousins as rigidly as the Rockets do with James Harden and Chris Paul. Houston played those two together a shade less than 20 minutes per game in the regular season, according to NBA.com. Cousins and Davis averaged 26 minutes together. Separate them longer, and New Orleans might get more of the best version of each.

That would require teaching two different styles of offense, but smart teams are adaptable. Mirotic could fill some minutes on the wing next to both bigs, though he is much less effective there.

Cousins and Davis had started to click when Cousins got hurt. They had won seven of eight, including wins over Boston, Portland and Houston — the last in Cousins’ final game, which looked as if it would be a seminal, season-turning win until he fell in agony. After Dec. 1, New Orleans actually outscored opponents when Cousins played without Davis. The Pelicans’ defense in those minutes improved.

When Cousins is engaged, he can be a plus defender — smart and intimidating, with quick hands. He snares lots of steals, pops up near the top of the league’s deflections and charges drawn leaderboards every season, and jostles with behemoth centers so Davis doesn’t have to. If Davis wants Cousins back, the Pelicans will be in a tricky spot.

Davis and Holiday have durability issues in the rearview mirror. Davis has played 75 games in each of the past two seasons, but he leads the league in injury scares. Holiday appears to be over his leg problems. But the Pelicans barely made the playoffs, and the West will be loaded again next season. Without Cousins, they have very little margin to absorb even a 20-game absence of Holiday or Davis. Another guy capable of carrying an offense is a hedge against those durability issues popping up again.

And there is this: Even without Cousins, the Pelicans likely wouldn’t have meaningful cap space until Hill’s deal comes off the ledger in the summer of 2020. That does not mean parting with Cousins would amount to losing him for literally nothing. It would give New Orleans room to re-sign Mirotic and Rajon Rondo, and lure midlevel veterans without fear of cracking the tax threshold. It would inoculate them from the worst-case purgatory Chicago lived through with Derrick Rose.

But it would amount to losing Cousins — and Buddy Hield, and last year’s first-round pick — for not very much. That hurts. The midlevel is more likely to land a bench guy who doesn’t move the needle than an impactful starter.

The Pelicans’ past decisions would make filling the roster hard if they let Cousins bolt. They have no cap space. There are zero wings on rookie-scale contracts ready to enter their primes. The Pelicans have traded damn near all their recent picks, including this year’s, or the players they selected with them (Hield). There is no one on the wing to rise with Davis, or to succeed Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Miller and Rondo.

They might find those players another way: Re-sign Cousins to a movable contract, and trade him — either right away, via sign-and-trade, or down the line as the Nuggets famously did with Nene Hilario — for a wing player and a pick (or some package like that). That is the best possible endgame. It would allow New Orleans to play the style it does now, only with a deeper and more flexible roster designed to play it — one heavier on wings that can shoot 3s, and switch on defense.

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say. He doesn’t make sense for rebuilding teams. Even bad teams hungry for a big jump in wins next season — say, the Suns — can’t be confident Cousins will be ready to produce at his usual All-Star level until 2019-20, anyway. (Still: Never underestimate Robert Sarver’s July 1 exuberance in the name of short-term gain.) Some teams are afraid of his baggage.

There may be only two suitors among the cap-room brigade: the Mavericks and the Lakers. And L.A.’s interest is unclear. If the Lakers whiff on LeBron and Paul George, they may want to keep their cap room open for 2019 and beyond — meaning no fat long-term deal for Cousins.

The Mavs hold a lot of the cards for free agency this summer. They’ve seen up close with Wesley Matthews how hard it is for someone with a maniacal work ethic to come back from an Achilles tear. They may draft a big man. If they decide to go all-in on another target on July 1 — Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, someone else — Cousins may find himself without options among teams with cap space.

The Pelicans and Cousins’ camp could then work together to find sign-and-trade options around the rest of the league, but that’s not easy, either. The Wizards are the most tempting if they bow out in the first round; Cousins and John Wall are friends, and the Wizards could build an offer around some combination of Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr., Marcin Gortat and a draft pick. But Washington’s payroll is so bloated, it may not be allowed under league rules to obtain any player in a sign-and-trade. And given Wall’s on-again, off-again knee issues, the Wizards may feel queasy committing a ton of money to Wall and Cousins.

The Trail Blazers aren’t trading C.J. McCollum for Cousins coming off an Achilles tear. The Clippers and Raptors are somewhat interesting possibilities in theory — LA pending DeAndre Jordan‘s status, Toronto if they flame out now — but remote ones in reality. A new coach and a blockbuster trade feels like too much change at once for the Bucks. Hassan Whiteside‘s trade value has fallen so low, the Pelicans may not be interested in any sort of swap. (Whether Miami would be, even with Cousins’ injury, is a fascinating question.) There is always — always — some unexpected scenario out there.

But the dream trade might not exist in July. For it to emerge later, Cousins may have to return and play well. And if Cousins returns and plays well, the Pelicans may be less inclined to trade him.

If the Pelicans have to choose between breaking the bank for Cousins over many years and letting him go, they would be right to let him go. They have been that good without him. The alternate path is workable enough.

But they may not face that choice. The third year could become the inflection point in a bidding war between New Orleans and Dallas, or some unknown team. Is anyone willing to fully guarantee it? If not, is one team willing to guarantee more than the other? Does one team insist on the third year being a team option?

A two-year deal is over before you know it. It might be better than a one-year deal, since players coming off severe injuries are often more productive two years out. It would set things up so that deals for both Davis and Cousins expire at the same time — making it easier to transition into tank mode if things somehow go haywire.

That third year would make most teams think harder. But it’s possible circumstances have aligned for the Pelicans to retain Cousins on a shorter deal they could trade if they want to reshape their roster around Davis.

It takes only one suitor to drive the bidding higher, and foist uncomfortable decisions on New Orleans. Such a team might venture into four- or five-year territory on a sub-max salary in the range of $20-25 million per season, and perhaps even build in injury-related protections similar to those in Joel Embiid‘s new extension. Even retaining Cousins at that price takes New Orleans right up against the projected tax. They might have to sacrifice yet another draft pick to dump money and slip under it.

These are hard choices. No one can know with any certainty how Cousins will perform two, three and four seasons from now. But the closer the bidding gets to max money and max years, the more comfortable the Pelicans should be walking away. There is a line in the sand somewhere — maybe even before any fully guaranteed four-year deal in a realistic salary range. The Pelicans have to hope the bidding doesn’t get so frothy, and that they can thread a vary narrow needle.

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