Guard Isaiah Thomas and center DeMarcus Cousins will be two of the most fascinating cases in NBA free agency this summer. Both are All-NBA-caliber talents when healthy but are coming off serious injuries at a time when not many teams have cap space.
Still, Thomas would seemingly welcome a reunion with Cousins, his former teammate in Sacramento.
Cousins suffered a torn left Achilles in January, which ended his season just as he was set to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. Before the injury, he would have been certain to command a long-term max contract. Now, it's hard to pin down his value after he suffered one of the worst injuries possible.
Coming off a season in Boston in which he got fringe MVP buzz, Thomas had a disappointing year split between the Lakers and Cavaliers. He was dealt to Cleveland in August as part of the Kyrie Irving trade despite concerns over a hip injury that had previously plagued him in the postseason.
He didn't play until January and was largely disappointing in his time in Cleveland. The Cavs traded him to the Lakers at February's deadline as part of the deal that brought back Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson. Thomas' season was cut short with the Lakers in late March when he finally underwent surgery to address his hip injury.
All of this makes his free agency uncertain. He won't get anything close to a max deal he seemed in line for after his 2016-17 run with the Celtics, and he may not be guaranteed a starting spot wherever he goes.
There aren't many teams with the combination of cap space and on-court fit for both players. Nevertheless, here are a few options that could work:
Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks
The biggest object to adding both Cousins and Thomas is money, which not many teams will have this summer. These are two franchises that can make it work financially without too many maneuvers.
The Bulls have the cap space (likely upward of $30 million), and Thomas could work as a bench scorer. He also has winning experience from his stint with the Boston Celtics, which can only be a plus in a locker room full of youngsters.
So why only list Chicago as an honorable mention? The Bulls just completed the first year of what looks to be a multiyear rebuild, with another high pick coming up (No. 7 overall) and the promise of more cap space next summer.
Signing veterans such as Cousins and Thomas to potentially expensive long-term contracts wouldn't seem to be in line with their stated plan to rebuild judiciously. Then again, no one saw 2016's Dwyane Wade signing coming, either, so this wouldn't be unprecedented.
The Hawks are another team with mountains of cap space (between $25 and $35 million) and could have an opening at center with the increasing possibility Dewayne Dedmon opts out and tests free agency.
A lot will hinge on what they do with the No. 3 overall pick. If they take a power forward such as Duke's Marvin Bagley III, as opposed to a center such as Mo Bamba or Jaren Jackson Jr., they could have a place for Cousins.
Dennis Schroder's status could also play a role here. If he's traded, a spot opens up for Thomas in the starting lineup assuming they pass on Luka Doncic in the draft—a real possibility, per ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony. Thomas isn't going to help the Hawks' problematic defense, but his spark-plug scoring abilities should be welcomed on a squad that was as anemic offensively as almost any team in the league this season.
Like the Bulls, Atlanta is near the beginning of a rebuild. Cousins is in his prime age-wise at 27, but he's also coming off a serious injury. Thomas, who is even older (29), also remains a health risk.
These signings would have appeal, but they'd also struggle to earn home run status considering the current states of each organization.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are expected to make a strong push to re-sign Cousins, who is popular among teammates and has been rehabbing his Achilles injury with the team's trainers.
However, between big-money deals for Cousins, Anthony Davis (due $25.4 million next year), Jrue Holiday ($25.4 million), Nikola Mirotic ($12.5 million) and Solomon Hill ($12.3 million), the Pelicans are well over the luxury tax.
The most they'll be able to offer Thomas is the taxpayer mid-level exception, which will be just over $5 million. Thomas may be looking for more money than that, although it's unclear if he'll get it. Something like this could be his one-year "prove it" deal.
He'd also have to accept a bench role, assuming New Orleans brings back Rajon Rondo after a successful playoff run. If healthy, he could be an ideal fit as a sixth man playing behind Rondo and Holiday.
Thomas' value has never been lower. A short-term, small-money deal like this would be a way for him to rebuild that value and test the market again in the summer of 2019 when more teams have cap space. It would be similar to what Tyreke Evans did this past season in Memphis.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban always tries to make a splash in free agency, and after Nerlens Noel didn't pan out, Dallas is left looking for a center. The Mavs may take Texas' Mo Bamba with the No. 5 overall pick, at which point Cousins would be less of a priority. But if they take a wing such as Michael Porter Jr., that could open the door for Cousins.
Cuban has shown interest in Cousins in the past, and there's a chance he will again this summer. The Mavs were reportedly "near the front of the line" for Boogie ahead of last year's trade deadline, per Brad Townsend of DallasNews.com.
If Cousins can get back on the court, that would be a way for the Mavericks to make sure they're competitive in what's sure to be Dirk Nowitzki's farewell season.
With Dennis Smith Jr. locked in as their point guard of the future and Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes entrenched on the wing, it would be another bench role for Thomas, but he'd work nicely as a spark.
By renouncing a handful of non-guaranteed contracts, the Mavs could get close to a max for Cousins, but all they'd be able to offer Thomas after that is the room mid-level (just over $4 million).
Like New Orleans, this isn't an ideal situation for Thomas in terms of money or role, but it would be a similar bet-on-himself scenario. If he stays healthy and plays well, he could position himself for a bigger contract next summer when some of the deals signed in the summer of 2016 come off the books and more teams have cap space.
Los Angeles Lakers
As the Lakers look to get back to relevance, they're going to be chasing big names in free agency.
They're expected to make hard pushes for LeBron James and Paul George, but if they strike out and need some star power to avoid coming home empty-handed, they could turn to Cousins. He's a center, meaning he wouldn't take playing time from young guns Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma or Brandon Ingram.
Thomas, who grew up a Lakers fan, would be easier to re-sign at any number, as the Lakers own his Bird rights (they're allowed to go over the cap to re-sign him). Per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, "The Lakers represent the possibility of a bridge season to show his ability to return to health and a high level of performance."
Thomas would come off the bench here as the Lakers build around Ball as their lead guard. But as Woj explained, that may be enough for Thomas to show what he still has in the tank ahead of his next dive into free agency.