As the frenzy of free agency subsidies, the New Orleans Pelicans emerge from the mix a different team than the one that achieved the club’s most successful season in a decade.
To the shock of fans and observers alike, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, two central figures in the squad’s shift from irrelevance to success, took their talents elsewhere, departing to Los Angeles and Oakland, respectively.
Out go Rondo and Cousins; in come native New Orleanian Elfrid Payton and former Kentucky star Julius Randle.
It’s a pivotal summer in franchise history. It's especially important for the front office to make wise decisions and for a little luck to bolster those judgments. The team, operating over the salary cap, but barely under the luxury tax threshold, had limited funds to spend. If Cousins and Rondo found the open market dry as they tested the waters of free agency, the Pels’ chance of retaining the two stars would increase.
As free agency neared, it appeared both Cousins and Rondo had extremely limited options outside of New Orleans. The now infamous cap spike of the summer of 2016 and the subsequent spending spree across the league that inflated contracts for average players clog teams’ payrolls today (yes, the Pels were victims, overpaying Alexis Ajinca, Solomon Hill, and E’Twaun Moore for a combined annual total of $25M). Entering July, only five teams were projected to have cap space: the Pacers, Mavericks, Bulls, Hawks, and Lakers.
Only two of those teams, the Mavericks and Lakers, were rumored to have interest in Cousins. Dallas quickly filled their space on DeAndre Jordan, and L.A. had their sights set higher—on LeBron James and Paul George. No other team had the space for Cousins' salary, nor the willingness to risk a large contract on a 27-year-old center who had recently ruptured his Achilles tendon, one of the most debilitating injuries a basketball player can suffer. Cousins also carries a negative reputation for his clashes with coaches, teammates, referees, and management. Had he not suffered the injury, some teams, dissuaded by his baggage, would still not have signed him. His record of high maintenance, injury, and lack of available suitors seemed to push him back towards New Orleans when free agency opened. After all, the Pelicans could offer him the largest contract.
However, Cousins had other plans. After he offered himself to the Warriors on a one year deal for $5.3M, Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that Cousins had rejected a 2 year, $40M offer from the Pels during the season. With a warped perception of what he could yield from the open market, Cousins immediately lost a guaranteed $35M. Instead, he went to Golden State, where he felt he could contribute to a winning culture and rehab his image before appearing in the free agency pool in 2019, when more contracts from 2016 come off the books and money is more available.
Whether New Orleans's hoops fans like it or not, Cousins spurned the Pelicans and more immediately guaranteed money for a situation he thought would be better for him in the long run. He bet on himself, and time will tell if that wager will pay off.
In New Orleans, when Cousins left, a narrative emerged that his decision will be better for the Pels long-term, claiming that 2018's post-Cousins roster was better built around Anthony Davis and better suited for success. Besides, no one knows when Cousins will return from injury or if he’ll ever be the same once he does.
However, that narrative is not entirely legitimate.
According to dutiful research conducted by Bleacher Report’s Tom Haberstoh, since 1992, ruptured Achilles tendons have taken players from the court for an average of 9.8 months. If Cousins follows a similar path, he will be ready to return on November 17, roughly a month into the season.
This injury, for a player of Cousins’s caliber and size, is unprecedented; the closest comparison to his recovery in NBA history is that of Elton Brand, who was an All-Star forward for the Clippers at the time of his injury. Brand was 28 in 2007, and after 8 months of rehab, returned to the court to average 16.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in 30 games, numbers similar to those he tallied before the injury. However, later that season, as Haberstroh recalls, Brand attempted to play through a torn labrum for a few games after dislocating his shoulder. It was that injury, not the Achilles tear, that expedited his decline. Be wary of this comparison.
Haberstroh also discovered that no correlation exists between a player’s recovery time and size and that, on average, players in their first year back from the injury suffered only an 8 percent drop in production. If Cousins suffered a similar decline, the 25 points and 13 rebounds he averaged last season would only dip to 23 points and 12 boards. Perhaps questions of whether Cousins will ever be the same are overstated.
Furthermore, yes, while the Pelicans posted a better record without Cousins than with him and advanced as far into the playoffs as the team had gone in a decade, they still did not touch the best teams in the league, particularly Golden State and Houston.
The Warriors and Rockets play similar styles of basketball, incarnations of the game’s recent renaissance. Both play with fast paces and switch defensive schemes. Lacking traditional big men, they also deploy smaller lineups who launch heaps of three-pointers.
Where they differ, however, is in ball motion. In opposition to the Warriors’ philosophy of constant ball movement and player movement, the Rockets deployed an isolation-heavy scheme in their Western Conference Finals series against Golden State: They slowed the pace, spread the floor, and let superstar shot-creators Chris Paul and James Harden manufacture their own offense. They bullied the Warriors, switching every pick-and-roll and, thus, baiting Golden State to also play isolation, a far cry from their preferred style. When the Warriors zigged, the Rockets zagged, almost leading to an upset had Paul not been injured in game five.
What the rest of the league learned from that series is that when facing the Warriors, going against the grain is your best shot at upsetting them. The Pelicans needed to retain their twin towers because Cousins is the perfect antidote for Golden State. He is a mismatch against the smaller defenders the Warriors often deploy; he can handle the ball, slow the pace, operate in a half-court offense, set up shop in the post, overpower would-be defenders, pass out of double-teams to open shooters, and shoot from distance. Coupled with a superstar in Anthony Davis and surrounded with shooters, able defenders, and fellow star Jrue Holiday, the #Doitbig Pelicans would have been a tasty matchup against the best teams in the league.
A Cousins-Davis pairing would not by any means have been favorites in a series against the Warriors or Rockets; however, the duo represented the Pels’ best and only chance at an upset.
Cousins' departure sits atop a long list of misfortunes that Pelicans fans have had to endure over the past few seasons. The Pels hired head coach Alvin Gentry in the summer of 2015 to rejuvenate the team’s offense and unlock more of Davis’s immense skill set. Upon arrival, Gentry had to cope with one of the most injured teams in league history; his first season was a lost one.
The team then decided to change course, opting to sign more reliable, defensive-oriented players in Moore and Hill. The first half of that season was mediocre; the trade for Cousins after the All-Star break again launched the team into a new direction. Now Cousins is gone, and the winding path the Pelicans embarked upon three years ago has proven to be a circle: They have returned to the philosophy of pace and space surrounding Davis, back to where they wished to start three years ago.
Sure, Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton fit well next to Davis in Gentry’s system. But can this team legitimately contend like the Davis-Cousins pairing could have? Unlikely.
Cousins' departure leaves the Pelicans with no choice but to muddle for the final two seasons of Davis’s contract. They're back to running on the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.