Potential Landing Spots for DeMarcus Cousins in 2019 Free Agency
Guess what? After signing DeMarcus Cousins under the assumption that he would leave in free agency next season, the Golden State Warriors expect Cousins to leave in free agency next summer.
"We made no bones about it when we signed him," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters Thursday. "This is a one-year deal, and we're not going to have money to sign him next year, so we'd like to help him win a championship and sign a great contract somewhere else. That's the reality."
Kerr isn't being so final for kicks while secretly hoping Golden State retains Cousins. The Warriors don't have his Bird rights. Nor will they have cap space. They cannot re-sign him for more than 120 percent of his 2018-19 salary, which works out to about $6.4 million.
Cousins didn't roll the dice on a term with Golden State just to run it back. He wants to rehabilitate his value following a ruptured Achilles and cash in on a more lucrative salary-cap climate.
Whether he succeeds depends on his performance upon return, in addition to the league-wide demand for behemoth centers. He should have no trouble securing at least a short-term bag as some team's offseason contingency, but we can't be sure. Let's parse through a few destinations that make sense—and one that does not—according to how his market might shake out.
Sorry, but No: New Orleans Pelicans
Let's start with where Cousins definitely isn't going: the New Orleans Pelicans.
"He will be a free agent next year," Anthony Davis told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears after a loss to Cousins' new team. "Hopefully, down the line we can reconnect."
As far as lukewarm diplomatic endorsements go, this one gets the job done. But it shouldn't be interpreted seriously.
Anthony Davis is a center. The Pelicans know Anthony Davis is a center. Anthony Davis knows Anthony Davis is a center. Investing significant money in someone who mans your best player's best position is something the Phil Jackson-era New York Knicks would (and did) do.
Targeting Cousins makes even less sense for the Pelicans when looking at who they'd have to give up. They won't begin the summer with cap space if Julius Randle picks up his player option (unlikely as of now) and they float Nikola Mirotic's free-agent hold.
Letting both Mirotic and Randle (if he opts out) walk arms New Orleans with more than $20 million in spending power. None of that money should be funneled to Cousins. It can be allocated to role-playing wings and power forward alternatives. The Pelicans can even try to salary-dump Solomon Hill or E'Twaun Moore (please don't, New Orleans) and enter the chase for one of next summer's superstars.
They should not, under any circumstance or cost, look to bring back Cousins.
If His Market Is Once Again Stale...
Golden State Warriors
Something has gone terribly wrong with Cousins' return—or his recovery in general—if he re-ups with the Warriors for a starting salary south of $6.5 million. Worst-case pessimism is never fun to indulge. And yet: Is this really out of the question?
Achilles injuries devastate careers. Cousins' injury is a unique study in that he's built like a freight train but moves like a gazelle. History doesn't have a good comparison for how he will fare following such an acute setback. Elton Brand comes closest, and he never matched Boogie's twinkle-toes burst.
Fail to turn heads over the second half of the season and during Golden State's three-peat bid, and Cousins could be hard up for suitors. The NBA isn't a big man's league anymore, and most teams with cap space either have a starting center or aren't operating within a window that calls for paying a 29-year-old.
Maybe Cousins will see value in taking another discount to stay with the Warriors. A full season with them could help recoup more of his mystique—particularly if Kevin Durant leaves and they're in "need" of another featured offensive weapon. Then, in 2020, Cousins will have the option of leaving or returning for another year and potentially signing a deal with full Bird rights with the Warriors the following summer.
Beyond unlikely? Absolutely. But Cousins wasn't supposed to wind up on Golden State to begin with.
Re-signing both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton (player option) most likely vaults the Bucks into the luxury tax. Cousins isn't signing for the mini mid-level exception to play in Milwaukee. He could make more with the Warriors.
Things get interesting if the Bucks punt on one of their two main free agents. It would probably be Bledsoe. They can re-sign Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) for noticeably cheaper, and both Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo already jump-start the offense.
Steering clear of the luxury tax gives Milwaukee access to the full mid-level exception, worth slightly less than $9.3 million. Cousins will want more. He should get it. But the Bucks are a good match if the market collapses around him and they can offer that money.
It doesn't matter that he's less of a born fit than Brook Lopez (non-Bird free agent). A healthy-ish Cousins nudges Milwaukee's ceiling in ways complementary bigs do not. Head coach Mike Budenholzer would know how to deploy him—perhaps as a version of Al Horford with caffeine and creatine coursing through his veins.
San Antonio Spurs
Honestly, give San Antonio all the sweet-passing big men.
Someone with Cousins' expressive intensity isn't Spurs material. Who cares? We're planning around his nightmare scenario for now. If he ends up accepting the non-taxpayer MLE, their commitment to post touches and funneling the offense through their bigs jibes with Cousins' play style.
San Antonio will be better suited than most to incorporate him if he's not as nimble following his Achilles injury. Head coach Gregg Popovich isn't trying to push the pace. He won't bemoan the absence of Cousins' quick-twitch, sometimes out-of-control face-ups.
This becomes a pipe dream's pipe dream if the free-agent landscape doesn't again squeeze centers silly. The Spurs would need to renounce Rudy Gay (early Bird), waive Pau Gasol ($6.7 million guaranteed) and offload a Davis Bertans or Patty Mills to tender Cousins an eight-figure salary.
Pretty much every team with the room and motivation to sign Cousins won't do so as its first option. The Dallas Mavericks are a possible exception.
Despite landing DeAndre Jordan over the summer, this time for real, the Mavs haven't necessarily ended their perpetual big-man search. Jordan hits free agency again in July, when he will turn 31, and is showing signs of age. As Vice Sports' Michael Pina explained:
"Jordan no longer rolls hard through the paint after every screen. He lacks the second-hop ability that once let him play taps on the offensive glass. So far, he's only made 67 percent of his shots at the rim (two years ago he made 74 percent; three years ago he was at 75). And even though he can't be blamed for all of Dallas' defensive woes, Jordan isn't the trustworthy safety net he once was: He's noticeably slower helping from the weak side or laterally sliding with ball-handlers who get downhill off a high screen, and the days of him having any chance switched out on smaller players near the three-point line are all but in the rearview mirror.
"Opponents are only shooting 44.7 percent at the rim when Jordan defends it, which is awesome and the second-lowest figure among all players who contest at least five of those shots per game. But too often he simply doesn't get there in time."
Jordan isn't bad. He still sets good screens, even if he can't explode off or slip them as quickly. He's on pace to set a career high in defensive rebounding rate for the sixth consecutive season, and a team with more capable stoppers on the wings wouldn't have to worry about his scrambling rim protection.
Still, anything in the eight-figure range is a risk if he's signing for more than one season. And this year's free-agency class won't be teeming with talented big men. (Myles Turner's extension looms large here.)
Dallas has a clear path to $50 million in space even if its top-five-protected pick doesn't convey to Atlanta. That number swells past $55 million if it does and if the Mavericks renounce all their free agents. Dual maxes will be in play should Harrison Barnes or Dwight Powell opt out and not return.
Wings remain Dallas' biggest need. And it will be cheaper to push forward with Jordan and Maxi Kleber (restricted). But Cousins, in all likelihood, isn't netting superstar money no matter how much he shows out with Golden State. If he's healthy, the Mavericks will have the cash to pay him and another marquee name. That, plus Doncic and whatever else they have, gets them back in the West's playoff conversation.
Los Angeles Clippers
Cousins is someone the Los Angeles Clippers might look to acquire in tandem with another heavy hitter. He would not be the centerpiece of their offseason. Chasing him is a way of bringing in two stars without actually dredging up a pair of max slots.
Los Angeles will cakewalk past the $50 million marker by renouncing all its free agents and waiving Avery Bradley ($2 million guaranteed until July 3). That flexibility will reach $55 million if this year's lottery-protected selection conveys to the Boston Celtics.
That still falls short of double maxes. The Clippers need $65.4 million in room to sign two stars with fewer than 10 years' experience. They can hit that number if they choose. More teams around the league will have cap space, and it shouldn't take a sweetener for less aggressive suitors to absorb Lou Williams' $8 million salary, with a $1.5 million guarantee in 2020-21, or Montrezl Harrell's expiring $6 million pact.
Again: The Clippers shouldn't need that much to sign Cousins and another star. No team is giving him a multiyear max with an Achilles injury in the rearview—not mere months after his return, at least. But exhausting their cap-space avenues does make it easier to re-sign Tobias Harris while adding Cousins and yet another household talent.
Harris turned down an extension from the Clippers over the offseason, per David Aldridge of The Athletic. They want to keep him. His cap hold will sit at $22.2 million this summer. Keep him on their books and trade Harrell and Williams for cap space, and the Clippers could max out a Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson while also offering Cousins in the low eight figures per year.
Giving him a base salary of $13 million probably doesn't cut it. But they can get past $16 million, a more reasonable range, if they don't have their own first-round pick or are parting ways with prospects not named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Finding a taker for the final year and $22.6 million on Danilo Gallinari's deal would go even further toward cleaning their books.
It sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through, because it is. But the Clippers need to navigate the cap gymnastics to eke out two maxes anyway. If their summer doesn't include signing two All-NBA players in their primes, recalibrating their scope to try for Harris, Cousins and a star to be determined is hardly a crummy consolation prize.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers will not enter the summer with DeMarcus Cousins as their Plan A, B, or C.
They're set to enjoy the max money necessary to sign any star free agent. They'll need to tweak their books depending on where their draft pick lands if Kevin Durant is the apple of their eye. Otherwise, they'll turn their attention to Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson before anyone else.
Cousins may not even make the Lakers' second-tier list if they whiff on their primaries. Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker and even Al Horford (player option) could all make their preferred list before him. (Don't forget about Kyrie Irving!)
Get spurned by the biggest names, though, and the Lakers could easily pivot to Cousins. They may not have a choice. They'll want to preserve their cap sheet for 2020 free agency, but they cannot throw away another year of LeBron James' prime.
Cousins is one of the few stars who might, possibly, potentially be open to signing a one-year deal. If his market is once again less than robust and the Lakers are faced with coming up empty-handed or touting a Bledsoe or Walker as their top acquisition, then a placeholder deal worth close to the max works out for both sides.
Lakers elitists will argue their team doesn't need a center because they're bound to trade for Anthony Davis. Maybe don't put all your hopes in the notion that this fairy tale will become reality. The Lakers are short on bigs now while extracting every iota of value from JaVale McGee, and it isn't getting any better.
Permanently shifting to small-ball arrangements is out of the question. Kyle Kuzma-at-center arrangements are bleeding points, according to Cleaning the Glass. LeBron won't ever function as a full-time big man.
There will be cheaper alternatives to Cousins. Ed Davis, Dewayne Dedmon and Nikola Vucevic will be among them. DeAndre Jordan might be, too. But Cousins is the only free-agent big who figures to bring star power without a full boat's worth of years.