DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors: How we got here, and where the league goes next

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Dan Devine
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LeBron James agreeing to terms with the Los Angeles Lakers wound up being the most remarkable story of the NBA offseason for all of 24 hours and 25 minutes. Then, DeMarcus Cousins decided to take $5.3 million to join the Golden State Warriors, leaving fans, media members and players apoplectic over the NBA’s most talent-rich team picking up yet another All-Star, thus opening the possibility of fielding the greatest starting five ever and, seemingly, pulverizing the odds of anyone else even sniffing the 2018-19 NBA championship.

As our new reality settled in — the two-time-defending champs just got a 25-and-12 four-time All-Star for less than Mario Hezonja cost the Knicks and Anthony Tolliver cost the Timberwolves! — maybe you found yourself wondering how in the hell this could be possible. (I know I did.)

DeMarcus Cousins and Stephen Curry: a partnership light years in the making. (Getty)
DeMarcus Cousins and Stephen Curry: a partnership light years in the making. (Getty)

Yes, Cousins stands as one of the sport’s biggest question marks: a monstrous offensive weapon, but one who ruptured his left Achilles tendon in late January. That is perhaps the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer; few players have ever returned from it to approximate their previous level of performance, and the comeback could prove even more daunting for a 6-foot-11, 275-pound mauler like Cousins.

It’s not shocking that prospective suitors might be reluctant to cough up a big-time offer in the early hours of free agency for a player whose expected return date this season, level of productivity once he arrives and long-term outlook all remain major, major questions. Even so: how could it be that, of all teams, the Warriors were the ones with the best offer on the board?

DeMarcus Cousins says he went to the Warriors because he had no place else to go

The answer, according to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated: because there weren’t any other ones.

A “very emotional” Cousins told Spears that “he got zero offers” after free agency opened at 12 a.m. ET on Sunday. The lack of interest — even from the New Orleans Pelicans, the team that had traded two lottery picks for him at 2017’s All-Star Weekend — which left him “confused” and “hurt,” and considering proactive moves rather than waiting for his phone to ring. Like, for example, taking a gargantuan pay cut from last year’s $18.1 million salary to link up with a contender. More from Spears:

“I was f—– up,” Cousins said. “I said to [agent] Jarin [Akana], ‘Let’s make a call.’ He was shocked. It was very insulting to not receive an offer. But I understand. I prepared myself for this.”

So around 8 a.m., Cousins said he called Warriors general manager Bob Myers. This is not a misprint. Myers cannot talk about free agents until they can sign with teams on Friday. But when Myers can speak, boy does he have a story to tell.

Wait a minute: zero offers? Really?

This certainly seems like a situation where different people involved in the process might tell drastically different stories about how things unfolde.

Cousins told Spears not only that he’d received zero offers since the start of free agency, but also that Pelicans general manager Dell Demps told him months after his Achilles tear that “he did not plan to re-sign him.” Pelicans beat reporters Scott Kushner of The Advocate and Will Guillory of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, however, both report that Cousins and the Pelicans had discussions about dollar figures on a new contract after his Achilles rupture, even if they’d yet to hold a formal meeting during which an official offer would’ve been tendered. According to Zach Lowe of ESPN, such a meeting was reportedly expected to take place over the next few days, before everything went insane on Monday night.

Whether the Pelicans did or did not have serious interest in bringing Cousins back — and it’s not unreasonable to have your doubts, especially after seeing how quickly they leapt to give Julius Randle a two-year, $18 million deal after the Lakers renounced his rights on Monday — it seems clear that there wasn’t anybody waiting on his doorstep when the clock struck midnight on Sunday.

DeMarcus Cousins and Pelicans general manager Dell Demps shake hands after an April 2018 game against the Clippers. (Getty)
DeMarcus Cousins and Pelicans general manager Dell Demps shake hands after an April 2018 game against the Clippers. (Getty)

Part of that’s due to significant uncertainty surrounding what kind of player Cousins will be once he returns following the career-changing injury he suffered in late January. Part of it could also be due to what kind of player Cousins has been to this point in the league — namely, one whose on-court explosions and locker-room dramatics were a persistent point of contention throughout his time in Sacramento, to the point where some teams in the league have reportedly decided they want nothing to do with him, despite his unbelievable talent.

Part of it stems from a league-wide shortage of salary cap space this summer. Only a handful of teams entered July with money to spend, while plenty of other NBA teams are feeling the delayed pain of the exorbitant sums they shelled out in the summer of 2016, when the influx of revenue from a new $24 billion broadcast rights deal sent the cap skyrocketing and spurred teams to sign some extremely bad deals. (If you remember all that fighting between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association over “cap smoothing” back in 2015 … well, this is what they were fighting over.) That hardly anybody had a hole at center — and the one team that did, and had money to spend, got their guy as soon as free agency opened — had to play a role in Cousins’ chilly market, too.

A perfect storm benefits the Warriors … again

OK, so maybe nobody was beating down Cousins’ door with a max or near-max offer in the early hours of the free-agent period. But if all it took was the midlevel exception — which, for taxpayers like the Warriors, pays $5.3 million; for non-taxpaying squads, it’s $8.6 million — then surely other teams could’ve gotten in the mix, right?

Theoretically, yes. But few of the teams with money to spend or an exception to use really line up all that well with a version of Cousins who might not play for half this season and who will be looking to re-enter the unrestricted market next summer.

The rebuilding Hawks and Bulls are trying to use their cap space as dumping grounds for other teams’ bad contracts while charging the tax of future draft picks or young prospects. The 76ers have Joel Embiid. The Kings made their break with Boogie two Februarys ago.

The Pacers have Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, and need help on the wing (especially after losing Lance Stephenson) more than they need a half-season rental at center. The Jazz have Rudy Gobert. The Timberwolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, and are now hard-capped after signing Tolliver. The Miami Heat have Hassan Whiteside, and the attendant headaches.

Cousins makes no sense for rebuilders like Charlotte, Cleveland and Orlando, and they make no sense for him. The Lakers would’ve made sense on a one-year deal that allowed them to retain 2019 financial flexibility for their run at Kawhi Leonard, but they’ve evidently decided to go another way. The Clippers might’ve made sense post-DeAndre Jordan, too … but even if they were interested, how much sense would that have made for Boogie?

If you’re Cousins, weighing midlevel options, are you hitching up with rebuilders, maybe-fringe-playoff teams … or the sport’s most dominant force? Are you signing up to try to figure it out on the fly with flawed and middling rosters, or are you ensuring your first-ever trip to the playoffs and a chance at a ring, then re-entering free agency after proving you’re a healthy, championship-caliber player fresh off a monster postseason?

All of which is to say: maybe there weren’t as many options as you might think. More from Lowe:

A number of teams had a No Cousins policy before he tore his Achilles. That number grew as teams feared committing to what might be a less explosive version of him. Remember: Any contract inked as part of a sign-and-trade must encompass at least three seasons. That might have been too long for teams that would have to send out some meaningful asset for him. […]

By the middle of Monday, Cousins’ people were calling teams and pitching deals: one-year, $15 million in one place, per sources, other numbers in other places. Clearly, there was not much interest. It might be that the richest deal easily and quickly available to him was that full midlevel exception contract starting at around $8.6 million.

Any team offering that — and I’m not sure as of this writing that one did — might have sensed its leverage and tried to coax Cousins into a two-year deal at that price. For many of them, that was the smart play. Cousins would have justifiably resisted. Others are hoarding cap space for the summer of 2019 and so would have restricted their offers to one season. A one-year deal didn’t make much sense for almost any other team beyond Golden State.

Maybe the Houston Rockets — who just took the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals, who brought back Chris Paul to take another run at the champs but lost key contributor Trevor Ariza, and who could also offer the taxpayer midlevel — could’ve been a fit for Cousins. But they’re working on bringing back incumbent center Clint Capela, and it’s tough to see Boogie taking that kind of pay cut to come to a non-title favorite as a backup.

Maybe, as restricted free agency and some more possible trades shook out, more suitors might have appeared with the flexibility to give Boogie a one-year balloon payment. Evidently, though, he wasn’t even cool with waiting two days to find a landing spot, let alone however long it might have taken for those imagined deals to crop up.

So he reached out to Golden State, who just had a spot in their center rotation open up after JaVale McGee hooked up with LeBron, and asked if they were cool with him hopping on. They were.

They were really cool with paying $5.3 million — really about $21.1 million, factoring in luxury tax payments — to add a fifth All-Star to the sport’s most obscene collection of talent. They were very cool with giving Cousins as much time as he needs to rehabilitate his body and his game so that he’ll be as close to full working order as possible come May. They were extremely cool with biding their time and gambling on the possibility of adding a bulldozing counter to any switch-happy, perimeter-focused defense they might face, and on increasing the already overwhelming likelihood that they’ll be taking home their fourth title in five years.

Now, the rest of us have to figure out where we are on the whole thing. “Extremely cool,” I’d wager, isn’t among the most popular responses.

Not everybody’s too keen on sketching out another Warriors parade route before we even hit July 4. (Getty)
Not everybody’s too keen on sketching out another Warriors parade route before we even hit July 4. (Getty)

Is this wrong, or is this just the way it is?

The Warriors haven’t done anything wrong. They drafted well, landing Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They made wise moves, dumping salary to Utah to create the cap space to land Andre Iguodala when he wanted to come over from Denver. They hired Myers to run the shop and Steve Kerr to coach the team, building a culture that other stars want to be a part of. They took advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime cap spike to carve out enough room to add Kevin Durant, and they sold him on a culture of shared responsibility, playing with joy and winning at the highest level of the sport.

Yes, they have gotten lucky: that Curry’s ankle woes depressed the value of his rookie extension, allowing the balance-sheet flexibility that laid the groundwork for the dynasty; that hoped-for moves to add DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard never came through; that Klay never got shipped to Minnesota for Kevin Love; etc. But they’ve also done so many things right that they’ve put themselves in position to take advantage of situations like this. Pro sports teams try to win championships, using every available resource at their disposal. Money’s part of that. Other stuff is, too. The Warriors use it all, and they’re using it better than basically anybody else on the planet right now.

Cousins hasn’t done anything wrong. Free agency means just that: players are free to make decisions based on whatever criteria they choose. If they want to prioritize making the absolute top dollar they’re allowed under the rules that govern the game, more power to them. If they want to prioritize a situation that aligns most closely with their off-court and family interests, more power to them.

And if they want to take less than what others perceive to be their full market value to be part of a championship-caliber team in a place they’d like to live — and, in this player’s specific case, exercise some control over a situation where he’d lost it due to catastrophic injury and a crunched market, circumstances outside his control — rather than waiting to find out if some tanking club would pay them $10 million in two weeks … well, we might not all like the precedent of making it more OK for money-printing billionaires to pay their workforce less, but that’s the “agency” part of it, isn’t it? So: more power to them. (It’s also worth remembering that, for Cousins, taking this short-term, short-money deal is intended in part to set himself up for a much longer, much richer payout as soon as possible; he’s acting in what he perceives to be his best financial interest, too.)

How does the NBA stop stuff like this from happening? Does it even want to?

This happened because it could, under the system as it’s evolved over the last four years and the rules everybody’s playing by, and because it’s what the player wanted it. The league can’t, as presently constituted, legislate against it. I’m not sure it would if it could.

Should the NBA not have tried to get as much cash as possible for its broadcast rights, setting up the explosion of basketball-related income? Should the players association, the advocates for the league’s labor force, have just taken management’s word for it when the commissioner’s office said, “We know we’re supposed to be putting all this extra money into the system next year, but instead, let’s not put it all in at once, because there might be unforeseen consequences?” (NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery earlier this year that nothing that’s happened since has led her to reconsider the anti-smoothing stance. We’ll see if that remains true among her membership.)

Should every player insist on the absolute maximum allowable salary, in hopes of creating the most lucrative earning environment for the next man up in the union? (The next men, by the way, also get paid; players are guaranteed by the CBA to receive a set percentage of league revenues, so money not spent on a Player X will eventually have to be spent on some Player Y.) Should that insistence be baked into the collective bargaining agreement — an adjusted minimum-salary mechanism that would ensure a player of Cousins’ status couldn’t take a fourth of his healthy full-market value, even if he’s not healthy? How would we square that with the persistent criticisms players have long gotten for valuing money over winning?

Should players always, in all situations, be forced to prioritize earning power over any other incentive, especially when their reputations tend to be tarnished and their legacies tend to be docked if they end their careers having not won at the highest level? If we want fewer super-teams and more widely dispersed marquee talent, are we really willing to support the ultimate in artificial earning restriction: a hard salary cap, something NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken multiple times about being interested in during collective bargaining negotiations, and something Roberts and the NBPA will throw their bodies in front of every single time it’s raised?

Your answers to those questions may vary in kind and degree. It’s possible, though, given the nature of the system in place and the fluctuating interests of the actors at work, that maybe nobody has done anything wrong here … which, weirdly, in and of itself seems wrong.

This whole situation might not feel right, but, well, here we are. The basketball world has turned — spinning through broadcast rights negotiations, collective bargaining, the metastasizing of RINGZZZZZ culture, the rise of player agency and everything else — and left us with DeMarcus Cousins: Warrior. It’d be completely unbelievable if things like this hadn’t become so completely believable.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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