LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers suffered a setback last month when they lost recent free-agent signing DeMarcus Cousins to a knee injury that will likely sideline him for the year. While the team quickly pivoted, signing Dwight Howard to a $2.6 million make-good contract, the Lakers are also looking to benefit as best they can from Cousins' absence.
Per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, the team has "applied for a $1.75 [million] disabled player exception from the projected season-ending injury" to Cousins.
That figure is half of the $3.5 million Cousins will earn with the Lakers this season. If granted, which is likely given the typical recovery time for an anterior cruciate ligament tear, Los Angeles will have until March 10 to use the exception.
The challenge will be to find a realistic target; $1.75 million isn't an especially significant NBA salary.
The Lakers can use the disabled player exception to sign a free agent or claim a player off waivers with a salary up to $1.75 million or in trade up to $1.85 million. But it contains a crucial limitation: The player cannot be under contract beyond the 2019-20 season.
For instance, former Laker David Nwaba, who will earn $1.68 million this season and has a non-guaranteed $1.8 million on the books for 2020-21 with the Brooklyn Nets, would be out of reach for Los Angeles because of his second year.
Simply based on the rules, the team will have limited options but also faces a possible roster-space roadblock with a 15-man limit (not including two-way contracts).
The Lakers have 14 guaranteed players in tow, and they value each, given 12 were acquired or re-signed this summer. Howard could earn a valuable rotation spot—even starting center isn't off the table. The team also has Demetrius Jackson, Devontae Cacok and Jordan Caroline on non-guaranteed summer contracts, but the trio is more likely to end up in the G League with the South Bay Lakers as affiliate players.
The answer could be cutting Cousins outright. In addition to his injury, TMZ reported in August the four-time All-Star was allegedly recorded threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. Police in Mobile, Alabama, issued an arrest warrant for Cousins with a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence, per the New York Times. The team and NBA are investigating.
The initial plan was to keep the injured big man under contract for as long as possible, perhaps using his salary in trade later in the year (after December 15), but releasing him was always on the table should the team find the opportunity to replace him with a player who will further L.A.'s title chances. Cousins, if cut, could rehab with the team (with the NBA's permission). Perhaps the domestic allegations will cause the Lakers to seek distance and cut him outright, but that's still unknown.
As long as the disabled player exception is awarded first, the team can still waive Cousins without losing it. If L.A. trades him, or he returns to play, the exception will evaporate immediately. The bigger question is: Who can the Lakers acquire with such a small exception?
They can sign any available free agent to a two-year minimum contract (paying up to $2.6 million in the first season) without using the disabled player exception. Anyone with at least five years experience would earn more than $1.88 million on a minimum deal.
Additionally, the Lakers can claim any minimum players cut in the coming months without using the exception.
The list of actual targets for the exception, be it in a trade or off waivers, is quite small, limited to those who are getting paid a minimum salary but technically aren't on minimum contracts, since they originally signed for deals longer than two years. The total can be counted on two hands: Willy Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon of the Charlotte Hornets, Dillon Brooks and Ivan Rabb of the Memphis Grizzlies, Frank Jackson of the New Orleans Pelicans, Damyean Dotson of the New York Knicks, Wesley Iwundu of the Orlando Magic and Royce O'Neale of the Utah Jazz.
If Brooks or O'Neale became available, the Lakers would make a move, but that's unlikely. A trade or waiver claim may end up a dead end, although it's worth holding on to the exception in case something unexpected occurs.
Patience may be the answer. Minimum contracts decrease throughout the year, depending on the date signed; disabled player exceptions do not. A player who can sign for $2.6 million before the season is eligible for roughly $464,000 if they sign the same contract on March 10.
The Lakers could use the full $1.75 million in March to pick up a veteran, which potentially gives them an advantage over other contenders also looking to add help on the buyout market via minimum contracts.
Still, several teams, such as the Houston Rockets ($5.7 million) and Denver Nuggets ($8.3 million), might outbid the Lakers with their remaining mid-level exceptions, which do prorate downward but start at a much higher figure than a Cousins disabled player exception would.
Ultimately, it's a matter of due diligence. The Lakers are applying for the exception not because they expect to use it or have a specific player in mind. It's a tool they should have simply because they can have it.
It will probably go unused, but even an average NBA season takes multiple twists and turns. Flexibility is vital, and a Cousins exception would give Los Angeles an extra card to play, just in case.
The team would prefer to have the big man on the floor, but maybe a small disabled player exception can somehow make the difference.