NBA: New Orleans is Sinking

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(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

The New Orleans Pelicans are at a crossroads.

DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins went down with a torn left achilles tendon in the final seconds of the Pelicans 115-113 win over the Houston Rockets two nights ago. The All-Star big man had a triple-double when he went down, totalling 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists. Boogie is a huge loss for the Pelicans, who have won four straight and 8 of their last 10, and the burden will now shift solely onto Anthony Davis’ wide shoulders to keep them afloat.

The Pelicans sit 6th in the Western Conference standings, a game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and a half-game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers. Even without Boogie in the lineup, it is not unrealistic to think that the Pelicans could sneak into the playoffs in the 7 or 8 seed, even if they fall below .500. The Western Conference is no longer as deep as it once was, with the Jazz, Grizzlies, and Mavericks taking another step back this season, and the Clippers treading water without Chris Paul.

The Pelicans have a variety of ways they could approach the rest of this season and the ensuing offseason after losing Cousins for the year.

Go for the 8 Seed and a First Round Loss, and Re-Sign Cousins in the Offseason

Even without Cousins, this Pelicans team may be able to squeak into the playoffs in what has become a more shallow Western Conference. They could then re-sign Cousins, and hope that he comes back from his achilles tear as the same dominant force he was prior.

Even with the injury, Cousins will receive a max contract this summer. Cousins was averaging 25.2 points, and career highs in rebounds and assists with 12.9 and 5.4 respectively. Wesley Matthews, who was averaging 15.9 points, 2.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds when he went down with a similar injury in 2014-2015, got a max deal that summer from Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks. There will always be a team willing to throw money at talent, and Boogie has loads of that.

If the Pelicans re-sign Cousins, it would likely signal a willingness to move into the luxury tax. With Davis and Holiday already on max deals, and Davis potentially garnering a “super max” in a couple of years, the Pelicans would be spending a lot of money for a team that frankly just can’t compete with the likes of the Warriors or Rockets out West.

That leaves the Pelicans with only one option:

Trade Anthony Davis, and Let Boogie Go

With Boogie out for the rest of the season, and the Pelicans usually being a “budget” team, the outlook couldn’t look worse in New Orleans. Is GM Dell Demps really going to shell out $30M+ a year for a 6’11”, 270 pound centre coming off of a torn achilles? A look at some notable players who have torn their achilles – Elgin Baylor, Kobe Bryant, Patrick Ewing, Wesley Matthews, and Dominique Wilkins – does not encourage hope for Cousins’ recovery. None of those guys were the same player after their injuries, and none of them were as big as Cousins.

Shelling out nearly $90M between Cousins, Holiday, and Davis for the foreseeable future is not something the Pelicans should look to do. For all that Davis and Cousins are hyped as, they total 4 playoff games combined (all coming from Davis). Holiday is good, but not an All-Star, and carries an average cap hit of $26M over the next 5 years. To pay those three players so much money would disable the Pelicans from being active in free agency and trades, and limit their team-building opportunities to mid-to-late first and second round picks.

Instead, they could hit the reset button, and finally let go of Davis, who they lucked into when winning the lottery under mysterious circumstances in 2012. Davis is probably the most valuable asset in the league, currently in the second year of a 5 year, $127M deal. He’ll only be 27 when his contract is up, and will be line for another max deal. Instead of wasting his next few years through yet another rebuild, Davis and the Pelicans would be better served to part ways. While Davis will get his chance to shine in a potentially bigger market, and have a better chance to win, the Pelicans will receive a king’s ransom in exchange for the star power forward.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 12.12.25 PM
Screenshot from ESPN NBA Trade Machine

While Alvin Gentry demanded the New England Patriots in exchange for Davis, this would be pretty close. Add in three of the Celtics acquired draft picks (2018 via Lakers, protected if #1 or 6-30, 2019 via Clippers, lottery protected through 2020, and 2019 via Memphis, protected 1-8 in 2019 and 1-6 in 2020, and then unprotected in 2021), and it may be enough for New Orleans to give up on Davis.

The Pelicans would have Tatum – who looks like a stud next to Kyrie Irving – to build around, lots of potentially high, albeit protected, picks in the next few drafts, and salary relief in the long-term with the contracts of Cousins and Davis off the books. With the lack of a top point guard prospect in this year’s draft other than Trae Young, the Pelicans could keep Jrue Holiday as a stopgap until they find a replacement to run the point. Either way, the long-term future looks a little brighter if Davis is gone.

When Anthony Davis was drafted, it signalled the start of a new era in New Orleans, as they moved on from Chris Paul. Soon after he was drafted, they changed the name of the organization to the Pelicans, and the franchise was truly his. Continuously, they tried to surround him with talent, but several misses and overpays resulted in the salary cap mess that now exists. The only way left for Dell Demps to truly rid himself of this mess is to blow it up and try again – a chance he likely will not get.

What do you think the Pelicans should do? Comment your thoughts below, on our Facebook page, or @sportsnak or Twitter!

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