After the in-season acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins didn’t pay immediate dividends for the Pelicans down the stretch in 2016/17, head coach Alvin Gentry and GM Dell Demps weren’t a lock to stick with the team last summer. New Orleans retained both, however, and the club was rewarded for its patience with its best regular-season record since 2009 and its deepest playoff run since 2008.
With Anthony Davis having become a perennial MVP candidate and Jrue Holiday establishing himself as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, the Pelicans have a pair of building blocks under contract for multiple years. Now, the team will have to figure out how to retain enough pieces around those two stars to remain in contention going forward, particularly with two major contributors – Cousins and Rajon Rondo – up for new deals.
Here are five key questions facing the franchise this summer:
1. Will the Pelicans re-sign Cousins?
In 48 games before he tore his Achilles tendon, Cousins put up some truly incredible numbers, racking up 25.2 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.6 BPG, and 1.6 SPG. For good measure, he also led the team with 2.2 three-pointers per contest.
That production made Cousins an obvious candidate for a long-term, maximum-salary contract, but his ongoing recovery from Achilles surgery complicates matters significantly. While Achilles tears aren’t necessarily career-ending injuries, they’re often career-altering ailments, with players never quite looking the same as they did prior to the injury.
There’s no guarantee that will be the case with Cousins. It’s possible he’ll return to the court next season and look just as good as ever. However, that’s virtually impossible to predict, and teams willing to gamble on that sort of prognosis will have to pony up the max – or something close to it – months before Cousins is ready to return to action to find out if they’re right.
After giving up a slew of assets for Cousins just 16 months ago, the Pelicans probably can’t afford to just let him walk for nothing, especially since doing so wouldn’t get the team below the cap. That leaves two probable scenarios — either New Orleans brings back the ex-King, or the club negotiates a sign-and-trade deal to send him elsewhere.
Given the overlap between Davis’ and Cousins’ skill sets, the idea of signing-and-trading Cousins for a wing who might fit better alongside Davis and Holiday is intriguing. But sign-and-trades require two teams and the player to all be on the same page, and roadblocks can often get in the way of finalizing a deal. So that scenario might be a last resort for the Pelicans, whose preference will be to bring back Cousins on a shorter-term or less expensive deal that would mitigate the risk in case his Achilles continue to be an issue going forward. It remains to be seen whether the star center will be on board for that sort of contract or whether he’ll receive better offers.
2. Will the Pelicans re-sign Rondo?
While Rondo isn’t the sort of marquee free agent that Cousins is, the Pelicans won’t overlook him this offseason. Not every stop in Rondo’s NBA career has been a huge success, but teams that like him really like him, and that appeared to be the case in New Orleans, where he was credited for helping set the culture for a team that won 48 games and a playoff series.
Rondo is coming off a one-year, $3.3MM pact, and will be in line for a raise this summer. If the Pelicans bring back Cousins or sign-and-trade him for another highly-paid veteran, the club will have to be cautious about how much it offers Rondo.
New Orleans already has nearly $93MM in guaranteed money on its books for 2018/19, and re-signing Cousins could add another $25MM+ to that figure. If Rondo commands a salary in the $8-10MM range, the Pelicans would be into luxury-tax territory unless they can cut costs elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean that Rondo won’t return — it simply means that the franchise will have to think long and hard about where its priorities lie and how it wants to spends its money. I imagine the Pelicans will do all they can to make sure the veteran point guard is back on the roster next season.