MIAMI — It looks like there will be a few disgruntled stars and a handful of teams that will try to make big changes this offseason. In other words, the NBA trade market could be wild.
But considering the combination of the Heat’s lack of financial flexibility, draft picks and top-end trade assets on the current roster, there are teams that have more to offer. That means the top names who have already been mentioned in trade rumors — players like Kawhi Leonard and Karl-Anthony Towns — will probably be out of Miami’s reach.
Then there’s New Orleans big man DeMarcus Cousins, a 27-year-old star who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and could be available at a cheaper price than previously expected. That’s because Cousins suffered an Achilles tendon tear on Jan. 26, which is perhaps the most devastating injury that can happen to a basketball player.
With the Heat capped out and very close to crossing the luxury tax line, they don’t have the financial flexibility to sign Cousins in free agency (unless they shed A LOT of money). But Miami can acquire the four-time All-Star through a sign-and-trade.
Why would Cousins and New Orleans work together on this type of deal?
First, it will create more options for Cousins because there aren’t many teams that have the cap room to sign him as a free agent this summer. Some teams that are expected to have max-level money to make a run at Cousins in free agency are the Hawks, Bulls, Mavericks, Lakers and Sixers. Of those teams, the Mavericks and Lakers look like the most realistic landing spots.
Working out a sign-and-trade allows Cousins to have more potential destinations to choose from because it gives teams, which don’t have the cap room to sign him in free agency, the ability to acquire him through a trade.
Second, it will allow the Pelicans, which made an impressive playoff run without Cousins, to get something back for him instead of just losing him for nothing in free agency.
Cousins is eligible for a maximum contract worth an estimated $130 million over four years with another team, or up to more than $175 million over five years if he re-signs in New Orleans. While he very likely would have received this type of deal if he had avoided injury — he averaged a stellar stat line of 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 48 games this past season — his Achilles tendon tear could deter teams from making a max investment in him.
The Pelicans are not expected to offer Cousins a five-year, max contract when he hits free agency this offseason, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported last month. Instead, a two- or three-year deal at less than the max amount is reportedly more likely.
But the relationship between New Orleans and Cousins is in question right now. He recently unfollowed the team’s Instagram account and when asked why he did that, Cousins responded on the social media platform: “Cause I’m grown.”
It’s important to note the track record for NBA players recovering from an Achiles injury isn’t great. The list of big men who have suffered a torn Achilles tendon includes Anderson Varejao, Mehmet Okur and Elton Brand.
Brand’s story is the most intriguing to look at because he experienced the injury at 28, around the same age as Cousins. Brand averaged 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in 606 regular-season games before he hurt his Achilles tendion, and averaged 10.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in 452 regular-season games after the setback.
“That Achilles really changed the trajectory of my career,” Brand said on The Hoop Collective podcast. “That whole kinetic chain: once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back. No one’s really recovered from that Achilles injury and come back at the same level. That was really frustrating because I wanted to give Philly more. We made it to the playoffs. I did okay. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy. I still had the atrophy on my left calf — which was my power leg — from that Achilles. And then, quickly, I had a torn labrum right after that. You know, just the injuries, and that happens.”
That raises the question, what would the Heat be willing to give up in a sign-and-trade deal for Cousins? A lot of that depends on the contract he signs this offseason, as Miami will have to match most of Cousins’ salary in a trade.
A possibility includes a sign-and-trade involving Hassan Whiteside and an additional player (like Justise Winslow) for Cousins.
While there’s no guarantee that Cousins will ever return to All-Star form after his Achilles injury, this type of deal could be the Heat’s most realistic opportunity to add a top-end player to their roster this offseason.