All that tampering for nothing. Magic Johnson winked on Jimmy Kimmel Live last April when he was asked about the Lakers’ reported interest in signing Paul George. The franchise was eventually fined $500,000 after the NBA found that Rob Pelinka had “expressed interest” in George to his agent while the All-Star wing was under contract with another team. Cut to the summer of 2018: The Thunder have re-signed George to a four-year, $137 million deal, and the Lakers have turned their attention to DeMarcus Cousins, as I reported late Saturday. Cousins was once considered by league sources to be a top target for the Lakers coming into this summer, but after rupturing his Achilles tendon in January, he’s merely a fallback.
The Lakers are playing a dangerous game, and it’s one they are playing publicly: There’s a lot of scrutiny and they are, to borrow a phrase from Sixers coach Brett Brown, “star-hunting.” The margin of error is thin.
Yes, the Lakers are still favorites—but not total locks—to sign LeBron James, league sources say. For what it’s worth, some executives believe LeBron’s indecision is all theater, and he has already decided on the Lakers as his new team. Other franchises will go through the motions though: The Nuggets are pushing for a meeting with James, Yahoo’s Chris Mannix reported. The Sixers are meeting with LeBron’s camp on Sunday, according ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Perhaps the Lakers really do need to enhance their roster to entice James to sign, or maybe James’s camp is applying pressure, hoping the Lakers make roster moves that give LeBron a ready-made contending roster.
Landing the second star was always going to be the most difficult part of the Lakers offseason. The real free-agent market—the one full of players who might actually switch teams rather than your Chris Pauls and Kevin Durants—was rather limited. That’s why Los Angeles has been mounting this weeks-long campaign acquire Kawhi Leonard.
Signing Boogie Cousins could be a sweetener for LeBron. In January 2017, James called Boogie “the best big man in our game.” LeBron’s praise of Cousins came before the New Orleans big man had suffered a major injury, but sources say he remains interested by the idea of playing with Boogie. The Pelicans’ unrestricted free agent center received a call from the Lakers at the start of free agency and is expected to schedule meetings with the Los Angeles and New Orleans, The Undefeated’s Marc Spears reported Sunday. Boogie’s fit with James is intriguing if Cousins returns to form, or near form. Like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, Cousins can space the floor from 3, and he can also play down low. Skinny Love isn’t the bruiser inside like he once was, but Cousins can still toss bodies. James has never played with a big exactly like Cousins—a superior ball handler in the open court to Bosh and Love. Cousins could alleviate the pressure off James as an initiator of the offense and a pick-and-roll ball handler—provided James is willing to give up the rock—while playing at a slower offensive pace, with a physically brutal style of play.
I’m intrigued by the idea of trying to beat the Warriors through skilled size. LeBron is LeBron. In past season, Cousins has been a worthy challenge for Draymond Green. The Lakers would still retain the assets to make a run at Leonard or the next superstar that becomes available. With George off the table and the Spurs drawing the Kawhi saga out, Boogie is the Lakers’ best option now.
But the Lakers and LeBron, or at least someone in his camp, have to see the red flags. Cousins committed five turnovers a game last season, and he makes risky passes and careless charges. Boogie is a hot head whom referees don’t like, and is given a tight whistle. He’s always in foul trouble. He moves like a slug on defense and doesn’t hustle up the floor, and that was before suffering an injury that has derailed careers.
From Wesley Matthews to Elton Brand, players that suffer Achilles injuries don’t usually return to the same level as a player. “I didn’t have the same explosiveness that I had,” Brand said in 2013. “I had to change my game a little bit where I jumped off two feet and I was a little bit slower.” At 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds, Cousins could face similar challenges. Boogie’s mobility played a pivotal role in his production as an All-Star over four consecutive seasons, averaging 25.9 points per game over the same timeframe. Cousins can play like the Kool-Aid man busting through walls or with the grace of a bull doing ballet. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it works. If his first step declines, his bulldozing drives and finishes become less effective. The concern is clear, but there’s always an exception. Dominique Wilkins returned after an Achilles injury at age 32 and still went on to make two All-Star teams in the five NBA seasons after his recovery.
The nice thing about the new NBA is that every season is temporary. Short contracts are the new normal. James could be sold on the idea of a trial with Cousins, with the possibility of filling the second star seat with a better option in the future. If the Lakers make an offer, league sources expect it to be a shorter-term max contract for either one or two seasons. The Pelicans could also make a two-year offer, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Thursday on SportsCenter. But if the Lakers become a legitimate threat to sign Cousins, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Pelicans are pressured to offer him a longer-term deal.
What choice do they have? New Orleans will struggle to create cap flexibility regardless of the decision, and though the team thrived following Cousins’s injury (and while he was off the floor when he was healthy), they need to pull a Daryl Morey and increase the risk profile in order to keep Anthony Davis happy. Yes, maybe that means letting Cousins—an All-Star-caliber player—walk instead of signing him to a potential nail-in-the-franchise-coffin five-year max contract. But that’s easy for me to say, sitting on the couch writing this article.
Other than the Lakers, the Pelicans might not have much other competition for Cousins. The Mavericks were once interested, but already verbally agreed to sign center DeAndre Jordan. The Wizards are considered a sign-and-trade possibility, though sources have told me that’s a longshot, with Suns center Alex Len a more realistic target. That leaves the Lakers and Pelicans.
If James signs with a team besides the purple and gold, it’d put the Lakers in a tougher spot. If they were able to ink Cousins to a one-year deal, or a two-year deal with a team option, then fantastic. They’d get a look at a former elite scoring big man for a year, then retain flexibility in 2019—the self-imposed deadline for Magic Johnson to “deliver” with a contender. But anything with a 2019-20 guarantee would seem like a rash, short-sighted decision, especially since Los Angeles would need to jump through salary cap hurdles to sign both LeBron and Boogie to max deals—using assets to trade Luol Deng, and renouncing the rights to Julius Randle. Cousins would need to take a slight discount for the Lakers to keep Randle. If I were the Lakers, I would not sign Cousins unless James signed and was on board with the decision.
Playing with LeBron changes the equation because he changes players around him. Maybe Boogie returns to full health and starts trying on defense in the playoffs. Maybe Cousins and James become a battering duo that blends size with skill. And Kawhi Leonard could still be acquired in a trade to make Cousins the third star, not the second. Once the blanks are filled in with veterans, the roster could be gnarly. James should take a long look at other options in Los Angeles or elsewhere. Unlike past decisions, there’s only so much time before his title window is closed.