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Why DeMarcus Cousins didn’t get a better offer than the Warriors’ $5.3 million

Cousins’ market barely existed, and there’s a reason why.

NBA All-Star Game 2017 - Practice Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

DeMarcus Cousins is a member of the Golden State Warriors, all for the cheap price of one year and $5.3 million. One hundred and ninety two players made more than $5.3 million last season. None of them averaged 25 points and 13 rebounds per game.

Naturally, this has spurned all sorts of jealousy from anyone who follows the league. What is the point of competing when the Warriors can just sign all-stars like Boogie for that little money? Why do the rich need to get richer? Wasn’t there some way to stop the Warriors from continuing to amass an embarrassment of riches?

Apparently not. The market for Cousins’ services barely existed, and may not have existed at all. Cousins himself said there were no offers, which was disputed by the New Orleans Times Picayune. The Celtics were reportedly the runner-up for Cousins, but they might not have actually made an offer, either. It seems hard to believe on the surface. Nobody wanted DeMarcus Cousins? Really?

But dig into Cousins’ unique situation, and there’s a reason that market didn’t exist.

For starters ... he ruptured his Achilles!

That’s a big deal! The Achilles injury is the worst one you can suffer, and most players are never the same.

Even if Cousins recovers perfectly from that injury, it’ll take him until well into next season to do so. Most teams don’t have the luxury to invest a lot of money into a player and wait that long without any certainty he’ll be the same player.

We simply cannot downplay the injury. If he had injured any other body part, he likely has more of a market.

Even before the injury, how valuable is Cousins?

It’s a worthwhile question to ask. We know Cousins puts up huge numbers, but he’s never made the playoffs in his career and has a crushing number of bad on-court habits that hurt his teams. He’s not always in shape, his defensive effort comes and goes, he turns the ball over a ton, and he’s prone to losing his cool at the worst possible time.

Cousins has played on one above-.500 team in his career: last season. Before Cousins’ injury, the Pelicans were 27-22 and outscored teams by an average of 1.2 points per 100 possessions. After Cousins’ injury, they went 21-13 while outscoring teams by 3.1 points per 100 possessions. Then, they swept Portland in the first round of the playoffs, with Anthony Davis dominating.

There are mitigating factors — most notably, the addition of Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline — but the fact is that New Orleans was better without Cousins than with him in about the same number of games.

That, plus Cousins’ reputation as a difficult player to coach (to put it charitably), blunted his value around the league even before he ruptured his Achilles.

OK, I get all that. But still, nobody offered more than $5.3 million to Boogie Cousins? Surely his talent alone is worth much more than that

In an ordinary market, perhaps. But this summer is no ordinary market. Blame the 2016 cap spike for shrinking the available money for teams to spend.

Let’s walk through this step by step.

Who could have conceivably offered Cousins a maximum contract?

In alphabetical order: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, the Lakers, and Philadelphia. Sacramento and Phoenix had a little less than the max to offer, while Utah, Indiana, and the Clippers (in a very elaborate scenario only) could have found max cap space if they gave up on retaining key players from last season.

None of those teams had much reason to want to spend that space on Cousins.

  • Atlanta and Chicago aren’t interested in competing now.
  • The 76ers don’t need Cousins with Joel Embiid.
  • Phoenix just drafted DeAndre Ayton.
  • Dallas chose to use that space on DeAndre Jordan instead.
  • Indiana and Utah understandably kept the band together.
  • The Clippers had to jump through too many hoops to put themselves in the mix.
  • Sacramento ... LOL.
  • We’ll come back to the Lakers.

Once Dallas went after Jordan, that max offer wasn’t ever coming from someone else.

What about the Pelicans? Can’t they exceed the cap to keep Cousins?

They could have, yes. Before free agency began, my colleague Kristian Winfield argued for them to bite the bullet and max out Cousins despite all these concerns.

But consider the massive risk they’d have taken on if they had done so. Such a move would have put the small-market Pelicans up against the luxury tax, making any subsequent move difficult. If the contract was for multiple years, it’d vaporize any salary-cap flexibility to improve the roster as they enter a critical period in Davis’ career.

Would you take on that risk for a big man coming off the worst injury in sports, especially when the team was better last season after his injury? You can understand why they didn’t, especially when the more cost-effective option of acquiring Julius Randle instead fell into their lap.

So with them out and all these max slots out, who could pay Cousins?

There were a few teams that lacked cap space that might have been interested in Cousins sign-and-trade scenarios. Two that immediately spring to mind: the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards. Portland reportedly held exploratory talks, and the Wizards are a logical destination because of Cousins’ relationship with John Wall.

But sign-and-trades have become increasingly difficult since the higher luxury-tax penalties were installed after the 2011 lockout. Teams that exceed the luxury tax by more than $6 million — this is known as “the apron” — are not allowed to add players via sign-and-trade. In effect, the second a team executes a sign-and-trade, they have a hard cap of $129 million and can’t do anything to exceed that.

The Wizards and Trail Blazers are right up against the luxury tax as is, so they run the risk of approaching that hard cap. For a sign-and-trade to remotely have a chance, the Pelicans would need to take back equal (and maybe even more) salary. That’s asking a lot because they, too, are seeking to avoid the luxury tax.

There were technically ways for the Wizards to make a sign-and-trade work financially, but they were incredibly complicated even before deciding whether the value was actually worth it for both sides. Bullets Forever explained this in more detail here.

The same logic applies to Portland, with another unique complication as well.

Bottom line: saying “What about a sign-and-trade?” is like saying “We need to get a third team involved to make this trade happen.” It’s technically possible, but it’s also so difficult that you’re clearly grasping at straws.

OK, fine. But my team surely could have offered Cousins the same thing or more, right?

Not really. Without cap space to spend and without viable sign-and-trade scenarios, most teams really couldn’t offer more than that $5.3 million.

Remember: every team gets access to one type of mid-level exception:

  • Teams that use cap room get the Room Mid-Level Exception, which starts at $4.4 million.
  • Teams that will be over the luxury tax get that $5.3 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception.
  • Teams over the salary cap, but under the luxury tax, get the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception starting at $8.6 million. But just like with sign-and-trades, using this means that your team salary cannot exceed $129 million under any circumstances.

Only a handful of teams could have conceivably used the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception without approaching the luxury tax. That list: Cleveland, the Clippers, Memphis, New York, Orlando, San Antonio, and Utah. It’s hard to see any of those situations appealing to Cousins, though it’d have been hilarious to watch Gregg Popovich coach him.

That left a handful of teams that only had the $5.3 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to offer. Those leftover teams:

  • Boston
  • Charlotte
  • Denver
  • Detroit
  • Houston
  • Miami
  • Milwaukee
  • Minnesota
  • Oklahoma City
  • Portland
  • Toronto
  • Washington
  • And, of course, Golden State

None of those teams are winning a free-agent pitch battle over the Warriors if they have the same money to offer. Considering the circumstances, of course Cousins chose the Warriors over anyone else.

Let’s circle back to the Lakers

This is the one team that might be kicking themselves. They are the only team that a) could have given Cousins a richer offer than the Warriors did and b) had some reason to do so.

In the 24 hours after getting LeBron James, the Lakers used cap space to nab Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for $12 million and Rajon Rondo for $9 million. (They used the Room Mid-Level Exception on Lance Stephenson and a minimum contract on JaVale McGee, which they could have done regardless of other moves). Even after those two signings, they could have renounced Randle’s rights (which they did) and used the Stretch provision on Luol Deng to open up around $18-20 million in cap space for Cousins.

Would Cousins have taken a one-year, $18 million offer to join the Lakers over a deal for a third of that amount to join Golden State? Would it have made more sense to give Cousins the combined $21 million that was spent on Rondo and Caldwell-Pope? These possibilities might have been a reasonable gamble while keeping the cap sheet open for next year.

Alas, we’ll never know if Cousins would have accepted or even if such an offer was considered. Maybe the Lakers’ odd locker room couldn’t afford to take on Cousins as well. Maybe LeBron wanted players who were guaranteed to be ready by opening night.

But I can at least understand Lakers fans who are annoyed about this missed opportunity. Everyone else, though, needs to consider the full context before getting mad that their team let Cousins walk to the two-time defending champs.