Last season, the trade of DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento to New Orleans realigned the league just in time to lend some shape to the NBA’s annual trade deadline; the feelings of Sacramento Kings fans notwithstanding, that was a vastly happier way for Cousins to find himself functioning as the starting gun for NBA trade activity. Alas.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate what basketball fans are losing with this injury: Cousins, Friday night, before his Achilles tendon snapped, was working on his second triple-double in three game, a tidy 16-13-11 job with three steals, in a victory over the Rockets, only one of the two best teams in the NBA. That other triple-double was this one:
You may not like Cousins very much, and you may have doubts about how well he could fit onto a genuinely excellent NBA team, but only a crazy person would deny he is one of the most physically gifted players in recent NBA history. He is an incredible show, and his absence stinks. It stinks.
The middle of the Western Conference is maybe slightly less thick with playoff hopefuls than it was this time last season, but the Pelicans are, as of now, part of that pack. They’ve hit their stride: they’ve won four in a row, and eight of 10, and twelve of seventeen; they’re up to sixth in the conference, and are just 2.5 games back of fourth; their next especially tough stretches of games don’t arrive until mid-March. Just there, right there, competitively, this injury fucking blows. The Pelicans were primed to strengthen and solidify their position as a playoff team; now that is probably doomed.
But the uncertainty of this situation extends beyond that immediate concern. The Pelicans are a messy, chaotic organization, propped up on the transcendent talent of their two superstar big men: they’ve been a middling team, record-wise, with the revenue of a small-market team and the payroll of a giant; they’ll be in win-now mode for as long as Dell Demps is managing for his job, and Alvin Gentry is coaching for his job; they’ll also be in win-now mode for as long as Anthony Davis is on the team, with unrestricted free-agency anywhere in his future, for at least the next seven or eight years of his career. Their roster is loaded with dead money, in the form of unplayable stiffs like Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. The effect of all this shit is the Pelicans need to be winning, right now, with only the meager handful of useful players they have under contract. An injury that makes them losers doesn’t change that, even if it should.
Cousins’s impending free agency made him a part of this trade deadline, because he is awesome, and has some value around the league, and could potentially return some useful players in a trade. While the Pelicans were underperforming, a Cousins trade seemed possible, or even likely; over this last month, as he and Davis have kicked the asses of the Blazers and Celtics and Rockets and Heat, the possibility of those two guys sticking in New Orleans long term looked more likely. Now, who the hell knows. The Pelicans can’t shift into tank mode, but how the hell do you win now when Jrue Holiday is your second-best active player and your third-best active player is, like, Darius Miller? E’Twaun Moore? Woof. Unless Anthony Davis is hiding some Destroyer Of Worlds mode in reserve, that team is going in the toilet.
Under any other circumstances involving a sudden collapse for the Pelicans, the likelihood of a Cousins trade would rise; after Cousins’s injury, the expected return in a Cousins trade is almost certainly not enough to keep the Pelicans playing the way they were, headed into the fourth quarter Friday night. It’s a rotten, horrible situation for the organization, perhaps even the worst-case scenario.
The best thing would’ve been Cousins and Davis terrorizing the West in the playoffs; the next best thing would’ve been Cousins being traded to another potential playoff team, and returning a package of useful parts for the Pelicans to stay relevant. The worst, shittiest thing is this. Everything is getting worse. This reality sucks.