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New Dance Partner: Boogie and the Bucks

Milwaukee has uncharacteristically filled their open roster spot before the new year. What does it mean?

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NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

DeMarcus Cousins was something, back in the day. Not too long ago, the behemoth known affectionately as “Boogie” was a perennial All Star in the Western Conference and a regular contender for All-NBA honors. He never had any significant playoff moments but, hey, he was on the Kings. Later, when he was paired with a rangy front court mate in Anthony Davis, he looked like more than a walking 20/10 center. He looked like someone who was finding himself in the NBA.

Then the injuries started piling up, and Boogie was never quite the same. Now, at 31, DeMarcus Cousins reportedly is joining the Milwaukee Bucks, and the circumstances around his signing are worth considering. Here are some of the angles.

What does the signing mean...for the Bucks?

Much and more has been made about Milwaukee’s lack of front court depth going into this season, something general manager Jon Horst was asked about during training camp. When asked about carrying only three “true” bigs on the team, Horst told The Athletic:

We did it last year. We managed it last year. We were healthy, but we know that could be different this year; that’s part of managing it. If something happens or presents itself and we need to adjust, we’ll have ways to do that and acquire players or use two-ways, different things like that.

When Brook Lopez sat after the season opener and never got back on the court afterwards, it became clear that Milwaukee’s big rotation needed bolstering. Giannis Antetokounmpo has thrived despite missing Lopez on box outs and walling off the rim, and Bobby Portis returned from a hamstring issue looking like the same Bobby Buckets we’ve come to know and love. But it’s only been 20 games, and with three-quarters of the season left to go before even getting to the playoffs, are Giannis and Portis going to look (and feel) as fresh later on without some support?

In adding Cousins now, the Bucks have gone out and acquired one of the most talented free agents available. Why Cousins was still available at all is for a later section, but let’s review the resources used to make this happen. Milwaukee carried an open roster spot into the season, allowing them the flexibility to make moves on the margins. This has been a standard practice during Jon Horst’s tenure, and most contenders with sky-high salaries usually follow the same pattern.

With December right around the corner and NBA teams required to guarantee salary by January 7, the Bucks have just about five weeks to see what they have in Cousins and decide whether to keep him around or cut him loose. Without reported terms of the deal, we can presume Cousins was signed to a pro-rated veteran minimum contract, which could pay out as much as 75% of the 10+ year rate of $2.6M, or about $1.99M in actual dollars. However, the Bucks wouldn’t be on the hook cap-wise for any more than $1.25M, thanks to the league’s partial reimbursement of veteran minimum deals. If he’s waived before January 7, then obviously Cousins would be due far less than that amount, and the Bucks would move on in search of another addition.

Signing Cousins is a slight risk in that using the roster spot on him prevents it from being used on anyone else, as well as the effort and resources needed to bring him up to speed and maintain his body. Cousins’ talent is well worth the investment, just in case he has something left in the tank. In the event that he does, the Bucks will still have some tough choices to make later, since their best playoff lineups feature Giannis at the 5 and therefore will require a forward capable of switching on defense and spacing the floor on offense. It’s unreasonable to expect Boogie to play the PJ Tucker role for the Bucks, but for now we’ll wait to see if he’s even a serviceable center in the regular season.

What does the signing mean...for Brook Lopez?

The larger looming concern over all of this is the status of Milwaukee’s missing starting center, Brook Lopez. After performing well in the opening victory over Brooklyn, Brook has been out of action. He says he has a date in mind for when he wants to return, but nobody else (publicly) knows when that date is. Bucks fans are worried, and it’s easy to see the signing of Cousins as a signal that Brook won’t be ready anytime soon. It’s possible that there was some sort of unreported setback that pushed Brook’s return further out, just like it’s possible that Lopez’s existing return date is later than any of us was expecting and the Bucks were simply opportunistic in adding a talented veteran for very little cost. We will have to wait and see, as usual.

What does the signing mean...for the team’s other bigs?

In short, signing Cousins is a sign that Milwaukee knows what it has in some of the supporting cast, and that the solution to repeat an appearance in the NBA Finals was not likely on the roster before yesterday. Lopez, Portis, and Giannis will make up the bulk of the front court minutes in the postseason, but a fourth player who can swing between positions is likely needed. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jordan Nwora, Rodney Hood, and Semi Ojeleye are all not likely to be that player, and Sandro Mamukelashvili is even further away from being that player than they are.

Cousins also represents a player archetype that the Bucks simply didn’t have outside of Brook Lopez. At 6’10” and 270 lbs, Cousins provides a different level of size than Bobby Portis offers, and depending on how that size is used it could allow the Bucks to unlock lineups that dwarf the competition without sacrificing as much spacing or speed.

What does the signing mean...for DeMarcus Cousins?

Cousins has 10 years of NBA experience and has gotten accolades for his play in years past. However, he missed the entire 2019-20 NBA season with a torn ACL suffered in training camp, and that was after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. He has played in 119 games over the last four seasons, and at each stop he has looked less and less capable of contributing on an NBA court. The talent is still there, but the athleticism is not.

Cousins has also clearly telegraphed that he wants to win a ring, given that he has signed deals with the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, and Houston Rockets (before it all went bad with James Harden), so his interest in Milwaukee is not surprising. Considering his relatively productive stint with the Clippers last year, he may have expected to be on an NBA roster by now. But he wasn’t present anywhere but rumors and message boards; Cousins did not join any team’s training camp and has not appeared on an NBA roster yet this season. This may be his last chance, and he may know it. Taking a non-guaranteed contract in November is virtually unheard of for a player with Cousins’ resume, but if his story is to be of the “comeback” variety, what better way to start off in Milwaukee than with all the odds stacked against his success?