Column: Free agency unkind to New Orleans Pelican fans

Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins.

Pelicans basketball: It’s a roller coaster of emotion.

The news last week that both DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo had bolted in free agency for one year deals with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively, rattled me to my Pels fan core on a number of levels.

Both players opted to leave for deep discounts – one year for Rondo is a bargain, even at $9 million, and Cousins signing for a little over $5 million with the league’s resident dynasty is the kind of joke even the league’s other players were fretting over on Twitter.

It’s also a case of the big market teams swooping in, yet again, and breaking down the small market up and comer.

But most of all, a few weeks ago the hot debate amongst Pelicans fans revolved around the following choice. Should the team commit a massive contract on the risky prospect of Cousins returning to All-NBA form from his injury, building around two stellar, athletic bigs to counter the league’s small-ball trend in a way nobody else could? Or should the franchise go all in on the success they found late in the year, spreading the court around Davis, pushing the tempo and perhaps playing at the highest level it has since moving to New Orleans?

Instead, we’ve been seemingly backed into choice C: neither.

Cousins was always going to present a huge decision for the team once he was injured. An Achilles injury is no joke and a return to form hardly guaranteed. He certainly wouldn’t be himself until late in the season and probably won’t be ready to play at all early in the season. For a small market team as New Orleans is, the luxury tax price tag he’d yield is prohibitive, and while I’m convinced the team would have paid it had the injury not happened, instead it did and the team absorbed the worst case scenario from a trade that it had almost certainly won in lopsided fashion. Such is NBA life in New Orleans, historically.

Rondo’s loss rankles me more, because I feel his contributions were vital and extremely hard to replace for what New Orleans was able to do down the stretch and in the postseason. Yes, he was signed virtually off the scrap heap before last season. He also blossomed in what was a unique and perfect situational fit for his talents. You can replace or exceed Rondo’s athleticism and maybe even replicate most of his individual numbers with new signee Elfrid Payton, if things break right. You won’t replace Rondo’s brain, veteran instincts and ability to get Anthony Davis the ball in just the right spot, trip after trip down the floor.

I will say that in a vacuum, I like the signings of Payton and power forward Julius Randle, both of whom lottery picks with upside who came on affordable contracts. These are the types of signings teams can make a huge profit on if they hit, and I applaud the front office for identifying these guys at a value. Randle is a bruiser who can score and should be allow Davis the flexibility to not burn himself out guarding centers all the time. This should also be the most talented team Payton’s been on, and for all the criticism Alvin Gentry has received over the past few seasons (mine included), he’s done a fantastic job getting the most out of his guards.

But neither version of last year’s Pelicans will return. This group will have to prove itself all over again, and the stakes are higher than ever — a return to the postseason could be the difference between Anthony Davis staying in town or leaving, the latter a prospect far worse than anything the team has endured thus far.

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