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NBA Free Agency 2018: the Mavericks are going to chase DeMarcus Cousins, aren’t they?

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Haunted by their past, the Mavericks will once again look to land the ultimate prize this summer.

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

If the Dallas Mavericks are anything, they’re consistent. For the past two decades, under the leadership of Mark Cuban, Dallas has spent its waking moments hunting its elusive prize. So determined, the Mavs would chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames, before giving him up. The chase continues today on the seas of free agency as they stalk their tormenter and constant companion. This summer, Dallas will again play the lead in a tragedy of their own creation, tasked and heaped to strike through the mask and claim their prize. An elite center is their malevolent White Whale and this summer his name is DeMarcus Cousins.

Basics

Come July 1, the seven-year veteran big man becomes an unrestricted free agent. Even coming off surgery to repair his ruptured left Achilles tendon, the 27-year-old Cousins, a four-time All-Star, will garner interest from a number of teams when he hits the market. Although some teams may recoil at the notion of paying top dollar for his services after the injury, Dallas showed a willingness to gamble in the past when they signed Wesley Matthews. The Mavs are also just one of a handful of teams with enough cap space to sign Cousins to a max contract if he chooses to leave New Orleans.

Strengths

There’s no question why the Mavericks will have interest in Cousins. At 6-foot-11, he’s one of the league’s best centers. Every year that Cousins has been in the NBA, he’s improved some facet in his game. In his early seasons, he was primarily a threat around the rim and from midrange. In recent years, however, Cousins worked the long ball into his game. Before his injury, he was taking 6.1 3-point attempts per game—the most of his career—and knocking them down at a rate of 35.4 percent for the Pelicans. For comparison, Harrison Barnes shot 35.7 percent from deep on 4.3 attempts per game.

Further, Cousins set career highs in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage at .530 and .583, respectively. Both are significant leaps over previous seasons. One reason for his increased efficiency is because he is transforming his game to fit the modern NBA. During his time with the Sacramento Kings, most of Cousins’ shots came inside the arc. In fact, the majority were either from within 10 feet or long 2-point attempts beyond 16 feet. Since joining the Pelicans, Cousins has all but abandoned long twos. Only 6.9 percent of his shots occurred from 16 feet out to the 3-point arc this season. Now, Cousins lives in the “Moreyball” zones with 37.5 percent of his shots coming within three feet of the rim and another 34 percent from deep. Cousins is a legitimate threat from almost anywhere on the floor. Just don’t ask him to let loose from the corners. Boogie is an above the break or bust player.

On the other side of the ball, Cousins is regarded as a plus defender. While he isn’t going to block many shots, he did post the second highest average of his career, 1.6, in the 48 games he played this season. He also either improved or remained steady in other defensive metrics as well. His defensive box plus/minus was 3.6, the best of his career. He also posted 3.2 defensive win shares and his defensive rating checked in at 102, better than his 103 career mark. Again, for comparison, on the Mavericks only Salah Mejri, Nerlens Noel, and Antonius Cleveland posted higher defensive box plus/minus numbers and they didn’t play as many minutes as Cousins did combined.

Cousins also excels at rebounding, something the Mavericks desperately need. He averaged 12.9 rebounds this season—another career high—while playing alongside another elite rebounder in Anthony Davis, who averaged 11.1. Not a single Maverick even sniffed double-digit rebounding this season. Barnes led the team, averaging 6.1 per game. It’s no wonder why Dallas ranked 27th in rebounding.

Weaknesses

The major concern with Cousins—although it shouldn’t necessarily be considered a weakness given his prior credentials—is how well he plays after surgery and rehabilitation for his ruptured Achilles. The workout videos he’s posting on Twitter instill hope that Cousins is well on his way to returning to form next season. Of course, that’s the point. They’re essentially propaganda but he does appear to be in good shape.

That said, Cousins isn’t getting any younger and that could play a role in his recovery. When Matthews suffered his Achilles rupture four seasons ago at age 28 in Portland, he was averaging some of the best numbers of his career. Amazingly, he was quick to recover and ready to go opening night after signing with the Mavericks that summer. However, he hasn’t looked the same since. His shooting numbers dropped significantly upon his return and he hasn’t fully returned to the player he was before. Despite being called on as Dallas’ primary defender nightly, it’s apparent that Matthews has lost a step.

Achilles injuries can be devastating to a player’s career. Matthews was lucky but his slow recovery may be foreshadowing what Boogie faces in the coming years. Athletic trainers across the league will be busy assessing Cousins’ health and recovery if he does look beyond the Crescent City this summer. Thankfully, the Mavericks have one of the very best in the business in Casey Smith.

Fit with the Mavericks

Looking at his offense and defense, it’s easy to assume that head coach Rick Carlisle can plug Cousins into the starting lineup and the team will hit the ground running—or in Dirk Nowitzki’s case, slowly hobbling. (It should be noted that if the Mavs land Cousins, he WILL be a starter based on the money he’s making. This won’t be another Noel situation.) However, there will be a learning curve for everyone involved from Cousins, to Carlisle, to the rest of the team. Nonetheless, Boogie’s presence should pay dividends.

Of course, when you talk about the Mavericks’ offense, you have to talk about the pick and roll. It isn’t the alpha and omega of Carlisle’s flow offense but it’s as close as it gets. During the regular season, Dallas ran plays for the roll man 7.2 percent of the time. That’s middle of the pack for the NBA but the Mavs are one of the best at converting those plays into points. They scored 1.15 points per possession connecting with the roll man, good for fifth best in the league.

A big part of why the Mavs are so successful running pick and rolls is because Dwight Powell is an elite roll man. He ranks in the 95th percentile in the league, has an effective field goal percentage of .728, and scores 1.41 points per possession. Powell’s rim rolling collapses defenses, who have to respect his ability to finish at and above the rim.

Boogie isn’t in the same league as Powell when it comes to being a roll man. He only ranks in the 57th percentile. His Pelicans teammate, Anthony Davis, ranks in the 71st percentile. That just shows how otherworldly Powell is. This season, Cousins posted an effective field goal percentage of .575 and scored 1.09 points per possession as the roller. That’s better than any Mavs big not named Powell. In Dallas, Cousins could thrive with the first unit in pick and rolls with Dennis Smith Jr. Another element that he brings to the fold is the ability to pick and pop. Cousins possesses 3-point range that teams have to respect whereas Powell does not.

On the court, Cousins makes complete sense for the Mavericks to pursue. Off the court is where a potential problem may arise. Much like his friend Rajon Rondo, Cousins is a tad mercurial at times. We saw what happened between Rondo and Carlisle. Carlisle isn’t one to put up with much, if any, guff from his players. He expects them to play hard and always be ready. If they aren’t, they’ll sit. It’s completely feasible that Cousins and Carlisle will but heads. If they do, it won’t be the first time Carlisle chides a key signing. However, none of the players who found themselves in his crosshairs were as coveted as Cousins.

It’s this pursuit, this ignorant, unconsciously fearless pursuit that makes the Mavericks a little waggish in the matter of centers. Yes, they’re interested in Cousins alright. Any fool can see that. It goes against their very soul not to be. In their quest, it’s wise to let the Mavs beware of the Mavs and simply wonder at their fiery hunt. Pursing centers is their first, best destiny. Failure haunts their past, yet there is hope. Time and tide flow wide.