NBA free agent rumors have flown about stars like Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Oklahoma City forward Paul George and New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins all season, with the Los Angeles Lakers primarily speculated as being interested in the first two, with some whispers about a desire to sign the latter.
Potentially signing Cousins is a bit more complicated, given not only that his transformative value to a team is less clear than George and James, but also because Cousins tore his Achilles tendon midseason and how well he’ll recover, or how quickly, is unknown at this time.
Further complicating matters is how well the Pelicans have played without him, including their sweep of the higher seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. That was the subject of the latest piece from Zach Lowe of ESPN, who reported that interest from the Pelicans and the rest of the league may be more sparse than Cousins and his representatives are probably hoping:
Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say. He doesn’t make sense for rebuilding teams. Even bad teams hungry for a big jump in wins next season — say, the Suns — can’t be confident Cousins will be ready to produce at his usual All-Star level until 2019-20, anyway. (Still: Never underestimate Robert Sarver’s July 1 exuberance in the name of short-term gain.) Some teams are afraid of his baggage.
There may be only two suitors among the cap-room brigade: the Mavericks and the Lakers. And L.A.’s interest is unclear. If the Lakers whiff on LeBron and Paul George, they may want to keep their cap room open for 2019 and beyond — meaning no fat long-term deal for Cousins.
The Lakers’ other incentive beyond cap room could be that with the Pelicans playing so well without Cousins, that they might be better off allowing their young core to grow than hitching their wagon to a star in name who artificially caps the team’s season because of his limitations.
A pre-injury Cousins was far better than any player currently on the Lakers’ roster, but it’s also worth remembering the spotty record players have when returning from Achilles tears. L.A. and general manager Rob Pelinka both had an up-close-and-personal look at that when Kobe Bryant tore his a few years ago and only showed brief flashes of ever being that same player again.
And while Bryant was older than Cousins, he also had an unassailable reputation as one of the league’s hardest workers, something that Cousins (fair or not) doesn’t possess.
Beggars can’t be choosers, so maybe the Lakers can’t turn down the chance at signing a talent of Cousins’ magnitude if the price drops low enough.
But with how well their rebuild is going, the Lakers might not have to be beggars when they’re choosing, either, and might be better off rolling forward their cap space rather than committing to an aging player coming off of one of the worst injuries a professional athlete can sustain.