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NBA Free Agency 2018: New Orleans Pelicans may lose DeMarcus Cousins for nothing

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Decent probability exists for everyone’s least favorite scenario.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans shocked the basketball world in February of 2017, when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins at the conclusion of All-Star weekend. While General Manager Dell Demps strategically avoided the inclusion of a second first round pick, adding Langston Galloway, Tyreke Evans as well as Buddy Hield, the sixth overall pick, and the 2017 first and second round picks, was no small price for the All Star center and Omri Casspi.

But Cousins came as advertised, putting up MVP-type numbers with 25.2 ppg, 13 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.2 STocks (steals/blocks) in 48 games. Following a year that should have netted Cousins his first postseason appearance in seven tries, how can the Pelicans let him walk for nothing?

True, returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon could be career altering, especially for a big man, yet Boogie remains younger than most cases before him at age 27 and his rehab appears on track.

The answer, however, lies within the finances in New Orleans. While the New York Knicks have paid nearly $250 million in taxes since its beginning in 2002, the Pelicans have not spent a single dollar in tax penalties.

With Cousins set to demand a max salaried contract, the Pelicans sit in the unenviable position of choosing between letting him walk or breaking the bank:

“Bringing Cousins back on a max contract would leave New Orleans with a projected $132 million in salary, $9 million over the tax threshold and a tax penalty of $14.5 million. That number will increase to $23.7 million if Rondo signs for the tax midlevel.

Letting Cousins go would keep the Pelicans under the tax but with only the $8.6 million midlevel and $3.4 million bi-annual exceptions to use.

New Orleans has five trade exceptions: $3.9, $2.3, $2.1, $1.4, and $1.4 million.”

-Bobby Marks, ESPN

It’s not as if Demps didn’t try to avoid this scenario. In the trade that netted the Pelicans Nikola Mirotic in exchange for dumping Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen, coupled with their 2018 first round pick, Demps reportedly tried to forego the team option tied to the second year and $12.5 million of Mirotic’s contract.

However, many now understand this was posturing, as the Pelicans used Niko’s ‘no trade clause’ to their advantage, by prying their own second round pick back from the Bulls to solidify the deal (acquired in the Quincy Pondexter dump early in the season).

We know based on Demps’ comments in the season-ending presser that he does not plan on spending any more of Owner Gayle Benson’s money unless he truly believes the team is in contention for a title.

“I think if there’s a situation that puts us in a position to compete for championships, we’re going to go for it. That’s been the mindset. We’re not going to just spend foolishly either, you know, we’re going to try to be efficient and we’re going to try to maximize our financial situation. But if the situation presents itself, we want to go for it.”

However, based on Head Coach Alvin Gentry’s comments, the Pelicans are not quite there yet, ”Let’s climb a couple of steps more before we start thinking about Houston and Golden State.”

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans Scott Clause-USA TODAY Sports

We also know that the Pelicans want to bring back Rajon Rondo. ‘Playoff Rondo’ has been lauded for stellar playoff performances that saw him contribute 11 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds to go along with 1.5 steals and four turnovers per 36. But ‘Regular Season Rondo’ should be appreciated as well, as he put in 11 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, and 1.5 steals to just three turnovers per 36.

After netting $3.3 million of the non-taxpayer Mid-Level Exception last year, he should be in line for a slight pay raise. The Pelicans might be wise to sign him to two years, tying his contract to that of Anthony Davis.

Demps was not shy in his desire to see Rondo back with the Pelicans next year, ”Oh, we definitely want him back.” However, his comments towards Boogie’s return could be telling as to what the Pelicans can conceivably offer, ”You know, in a perfect world we’d love to have him back.”

Not to be misconstrued, the Pelicans’ brass have made clear they want him back, the question is, at what price?

”No, we want DeMarcus back on our team and I think everybody’s said that,” said Gentry shortly after they were eliminated from the playoffs. “Obviously there’s a lot of things in free agency that you have no control over. But if you’re asking me do we want DeMarcus back on our team? Yes, we want them back on our team.”

One of four things can happen in this scenario:

  1. Boogie can take less money
  2. Boogie can walk
  3. Pels can seek a sig-and-trade
  4. Pels can max him — or close to it — and offload salary

Most believe DeMarcus will be unwilling to take any sort of a sizable pay cut. His agent, Jarinn Akana, would be wise not to settle considering not only his injury but also the numbers he put up last season.

The first scenario only applies if the market turns out to be ridiculously tepid for a big man coming off rehabilitation that may limit his effectiveness in the 2018/19 season. It is certainly plausible given the financial landscape that no contending team will be willing to assume the risk. Boogie made clear in his comments to Marc Spears’ of the Undefeated that he desires to play for a contender.

“Somewhere I’d be appreciated and a contender. A team that’s ready to contend.”

The first part is interesting. Based on his comments on returning to New Orleans, it’s clear DeMarcus doesn’t feel “unappreciated,” but they will need to pony up the dough to assure his return:

“Are you open to re-signing with New Orleans if the deal is right?” - Marc Spears

“Oh yeah, for sure. This is my first time in free agency, but I’ve been around this business long enough. I know how things work. I’m not out here trying to hold a grudge or anything like that.”

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Does a team ready to contend have the resources to catch Boogie’s ear? The likeliest party is the Dallas Mavericks, who may not be ready to contend yet, but certainly have the pieces to rebuild on the fly with a team headed by Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and the number five overall pick on June 21st’s draft.

Should the Mavericks approach DeMarcus with a four-year, $130 million dollar offer, would the Pelicans match?

Demps does have the power to offload salary in order to match the Mavericks’ offer, should this take place, but will he want to?

The likeliest candidate is Alexis Ajinca, who can be dropped for next to nothing (cash or second round pick), but as Marks suggested above, Ajinca’s $5.3 million salary will not be nearly enough.

The next target is Solomon Hill. Hill missed 69 games in the 2017/18 season due to a torn hamstring, and it showed in his 22 appearances in the regular season and postseason. Lost was much of his lateral movement and three-point shot making that earned his four-year, $52 million contract after leaving the Pacers in 2016.

But will Demps unload possibly multiple first round picks to offload him? Likely not. Just last year both Alvin Gentry and Demps sang his praises following his 2016/17 performance:

“I knew he had potential to (be a vocal leader),” Gentry said. “I knew that what we signed him for was to be a defensive guy, and I think he proved that he can guard the better players in this league. He did a great job, and that’s what we anticipated him being for us.”

Demps echoed those sentiments on “Dunc and Holder,” praising the way Solomon Hill defended some of the better wing scorers across the league.

Will Demps offload future assets to unload a player they both recruited and praised in the past two years just to avoid the tax? Maybe, but it would be a surprising move.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Things do not get any easier going forward either. In the summer of 2019, the Pelicans have but four players under guaranteed contracts in AD, Jrue, Moore, and Solo. Those four alone account $76 million dollars. Add a Cousins’ $30 million footnote to that list and suddenly at $106 million you’ve run out of room to comfortably re-sign Nikola Mirotic and pad the roster with depth.

“And that’s obviously where he went out and got a (Nikola Mirotić) and I’m not sure—I don’t want to call them a savior, but I mean, I don’t know if we could have been where we are if Dell hadn’t made that trade to go out and get a Nico at the time,” said Gentry in the Pelicans season-ending press conference. “I didn’t realize that defensively, he was as good as what he was. But, he really helped save us season.”

“He’s a complete basketball player and a competitor and we’re thrilled to have him,” echoed Demps. “We were trying to acquire Niko for a while. He’s a competitor and he plays really hard and he competes and you know, he’s not afraid to get in there and mix it up, and he’s also not afraid to make the big play. And so to say that he exceeded expectations, you know, I think we had a high bar for him and I think he came in and one of the first things he did was he earned the respect of his teammates.”

It doesn’t appear the Pelicans have any interest in letting Nikola Mirotic walk next season, so where does that leave the Pelicans and DeMarcus Cousins?

It likely means DeMarcus will need to sign for a discounted rate, or he will find himself suiting up in his third uniform in three seasons.