DeMarcus Cousins was, at least early in his tenure with the Houston Rockets, one of the worst players in the NBA. Through 11 games, he averaged 6.1 points on 26.3 percent shooting. But in late January, glimpses of the former All-Star began to shine through. In his last 14 games, he’s up to 12.4 points on 44.6 percent shooting, and in his final outing as a Rocket, he gave Houston 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Now, the big man is getting released by Houston, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania, allowing the former All-Star to latch on with another team, possibly a contender.
He is still a highly flawed defensive player with extremely limited mobility. His shot-selection is questionable to say the least, and he’s one of the NBA’s greatest injury risks. His superstar upside, in all likelihood, is gone. But in a very specific sort of role with the right teammates, Cousins can still be a moderately productive NBA player, and moderately productive NBA players rarely hit the market in February. Cousins may not have star upside, but his upside relative to the available alternatives is enormous. There is going to be interest in Cousins now that he’s available, and these five teams are the most logical destinations.
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Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers took their turn on the Cousins carousel last season, and by all accounts, it was a fairly positive experience. Though he never played for Los Angeles thanks to the torn ACL that kept him out for the entire season, he was a good soldier on the sidelines, and when he was waived in February to make room for buyout additions, there was reportedly mutual interest in a return. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor is reporting that the Lakers are still interested in such a reunion now.
On a short-term basis, that’s not particularly surprising. The Lakers are short on size with Anthony Davis out, and even when he returns, the two found success together in New Orleans and so enjoyed playing with one another that Davis recruited Cousins to Los Angeles in the first place in 2019.
The pertinent question here is how Frank Vogel would fit Cousins into the rotation. He simply can’t coexist with Marc Gasol defensively. The two are too slow to share the floor. A Montrezl Harrell fit isn’t ideal either. Any team signing Cousins would do so for the offensive upside, but according to Synergy Sports, Harrell is in the 98th percentile in overall offensive efficiency. Cousins can’t improve upon that. Harrell has blossomed as a one-on-one scorer this season, scoring an impressive 1.2 points per possession in isolation. Asking him to give up possessions for Cousins minimizes his value, especially as he is a non-threat from behind the arc. Defenses are perfectly comfortable sagging off of Cousins as well, further inhibiting Harrell in the paint, and Harrell’s own defensive limitations would further weaken the pairing as a whole.
Davis is the only Laker equipped to cover Cousins’ deficiencies, and he’s out for the time being. Even when he returns, there just aren’t that many center minutes to go around, especially when Davis starts playing more center minutes in the postseason. The Lakers could divide the position amongst Cousins, Gasol and Harrell, but how happy any of them would be with that arrangement remains to be seen.
Rob Pelinka could address these concerns on the trade market, though that doesn’t seem overly likely either. Both Gasol and Harrell took pay cuts to play for the Lakers. Harrell is represented by Klutch Sports, who also represents LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He left money on the table because he believed that being a Laker would help improve his value in 2021 free agency. Would incurring Klutch’s wrath over betraying Harrell really be worth it just to add Cousins? Gasol is Laker royalty. His brother, Pau, is a team legend that already left on bad terms. The Buss family would probably prefer not to further alienate him by dealing his brother after he took an extremely team-friendly deal in the offseason.
If Cousins joined them, Vogel would have to juggle another big name in an already crowded rotation. He successfully did so last season, and LeBron James-led teams never shy away high-risk, high-reward additions, but adding Cousins would not be as simple as inserting another big man onto a team hurting for size.
Portland Trail Blazers
Speaking of teams hurting for size, the Blazers are essentially pretending that the backup center position doesn’t exist. Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Harry Giles are all out with injuries, and the Blazers have turned to extreme small-ball just to get by whenever Enes Kanter goes to the bench. It creates some of the most jarring stylistic contrasts in basketball. Kanter cannot defend outside of the paint. Robert Covington provides more rim-protection than a player of his size should, but he’s at his best roaming the perimeter and hunting for steals and deflections. The Blazers are trying to get away from the sort of drop coverage Kanter specializes in. It comes with serious limitations in the playoffs. But injuries have forced their hand, so they might as well embrace it for the time-being.
Terry Stotts has successfully hidden Kanter’s defensive flaws in the regular season, so in theory, he could do the same for Cousins. Portland was interested in Cousins in 2018 before he signed with the Warriors, and as we saw with Carmelo Anthony, the Blazers are perfectly willing to scoop up a former target well after the rest of the league has lost interest. Anthony’s redemption tour has largely been a success. Perhaps the Blazers could have the same effect on Cousins.
Only one big man on Toronto’s roster has a positive net rating this season. When Chris Boucher is on the floor, the Raptors play well. When Aron Baynes or Alex Len is on the floor, they don’t. Toronto is already scoping out the center market for an upgrade with Andre Drummond reportedly in their sights. Cousins would be a decidedly cheaper option, and one that would bring the offensive versatility they tend to prefer in their big men.
The question here would be defense. Toronto is not exactly known for the conservative schemes that a player as physically limited as Cousins relies upon for survival. They switch. They blitz. They play aggressive zones that are only as effective as their slowest rotation. That would almost certainly be Cousins. Nick Nurse is as adaptable as any coach in basketball. If any coach could devise a defense capable of covering for his weaknesses without compromising the strengths of the rest of Toronto’s roster, it’s him.
But Toronto’s entire identity over the past several seasons has been based on every member of their rotation both defending and shooting. They’ve had to compromise a bit out of necessity this season, but Cousins would take that to a new level. Desperate times might’ve called for desperate measures a few weeks ago, but with the Raptors 8-3 in their past 11 games, they can afford to be a bit choosier than they would’ve been earlier in the season.
Golden State Warriors
In pure basketball terms, a return to the Warriors probably makes more sense for Cousins than rejoining the Lakers. Golden State’s offense falls off of a cliff every time Stephen Curry goes to the bench. With him, they score 113 points per 100 possessions. Without him? Only 100.6. They’ve made up for that with stellar bench defense, but much of that is based on unsustainable shooting luck. Opponents are hitting 38 percent of their 3’s with Curry on the floor and 34.7 percent without him. If any part of you thinks that might be Curry’s fault, remember that his minutes are largely tethered to Draymond Green’s.
Eventually, opponents are going to regress to the mean against Golden State’s bench, and when that time comes, they could probably use a bit more of a punch offensively. Cousins could provide it. He knows the system, and his passing could encourage off-ball movement that has been sorely lacking without Curry and Draymond.
But if Golden State really wanted to keep Cousins in 2019, it probably could have. There were hard-cap concerns after the D’Angelo Russell sign-and-trade, but Cousins could have fit had they let Kevon Looney go. They didn’t, though, and when Looney returns from injury, there is no reason to believe Steve Kerr will take him out of the rotation. The same is true of James Wiseman. His development is too important to the organization’s long-term outlook to be sacrificed for Cousins minutes. Toss in the occasional dash of small-ball, which has generally worked well for Golden State this season, and the Warriors might not have enough minutes to satisfy Cousins now.
New York Knicks
There’s going to be some speculation about Brooklyn as a destination for Cousins given his relationship with Kevin Durant and their lack of size, but in pure basketball terms, it doesn’t make sense. Small-ball lineups with Jeff Green as the nominal center are working. Brooklyn has more than enough firepower as it is. Can they really afford another defensive liability? Especially one that doesn’t exactly get along with James Harden? Probably not. If Cousins is headed to the big apple, the Knicks are the likelier landing spot.
They are, after all, without starting center Mitchell Robinson, and their No. 24-ranked offense needed a jolt even before his injury. Cousins has a relatively similar skill-set to Julius Randle, New York’s primary shot-creator, and could allow for some systemic consistency when he goes to the bench. There aren’t many centers capable of handling the ball, passing it and shooting it as well as Randle does, but if his last handful of games are any indication, Cousins might be able to come close in limited minutes. While Tom Thibodeau has granted his more athletic centers license to defend the perimeter, the Knicks aren’t a particularly switchy defense. Cousins could handcuff himself to the rim and survive in New York.
There’s also the Kentucky connection to consider as well. The Knicks have four former Wildcats on the roster as well as assistant coach Kenny Payne. This would likely have to be a short-term addition. When Robinson returns, there aren’t going to be minutes for him, Noel and Cousins. But in the interim? Cousins makes some sense as a Knick.