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How the Wizards could make a sign-and-trade for DeMarcus Cousins happen (and why it won’t be easy)

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New Orleans Pelicans v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

John Wall has made it know repeatedly that he wants the Wizards to upgrade their center position. Five seasons playing alongside Marcin Gortat has made Wall muse that the Wizards would be better with a reformed starter at the five, and a popular name thrown around for the Wizards has been DeMarcus Cousins.

The reasons Cousins’ name is popular are binary. One is that he and Wall are terrific friends dating back to their days playing together at Kentucky. The other is that Cousins is really, really good at basketball. A four-time All-Star with 21.5/11/3.2 career averages entering his age 28 season who also happens to be best friends with your star point guard is incredibly appealing.

But like an onion, this has layers. Cousins just ruptured his Achilles in late January and it was announced that he would miss 6-10 months. Six months gets him back in late July, likely after he has already signed with a team. Ten months puts him out through the first two weeks of the season. It is a huge injury. It is also one that seemingly decreases the value of a player on the court. The Ringer researched these injuries and found that 17 of the 18 players who ruptured their Achilles saw decreased minutes going forward in their careers. Only 8 of the 18 came back to play longer than one more season. It is a devastating injury.

Regardless, Cousins is as talented as they come and Grunfeld could try to acquire him this summer. But like most Wizards roster moves, this one comes with roster construction challenges and cap ramifications. Let’s break down how the Wizards can get Boogie, and whether the obstacles they need clear are worth the trouble.

What the Wizards would have to do from a cap perspective to acquire DeMarcus Cousins

The Wizards, at most, have the full mid-level this summer to sign a player, and that’s only if the team makes some cap-cutting moves. That only allows them to sign a player for up to $9 million in his first season. That is not enough for Cousins. Thus, the only way the Wizards can legally acquire DMC is via a sign-and-trade.

Sign-and-trades are a unique thing in the NBA, and many specific things are required. The player being sign-and-traded has to be willing to forfeit his maximum salary, since the receiving team cannot give him the same annual raises he would receive if he stayed with his original team. The receiving team (in this case, the Wizards) cannot have cap room. If they did, they would just outright sign the player.

For Cousins, it is tricky too because he runs the risk of the Wizards getting worse when he arrives, since they would be sending assets away to acquire him. He would also have to potentially forfeit some money due to some CBA rules, which needs to be discussed.

What would a Wizards transaction be without an annoying amount of cap minutiae? The number of stipulations for sign-and-trades are crazy, and the Wizards would need to navigate all of them. The first, and most obvious, one is that only Cousins’ preceding team (in this case, the Pelicans) can perform a sign-and-trade. If he signs outright elsewhere, that’s it. It’s over.

The second stipulation is that the receiving team will be hard capped upon conclusion of the transaction. The hard cap (henceforth referred to as “the apron”) is $6 million above the luxury tax line. The tax barrier next season projects to be $123 million, so the apron would be at $129 million. Upon the conclusion of the trade, the Wizards would need to have their team salary below that $127 million mark.

But that’s not all. The Wizards aren’t just hard capped during the trade, once you receive a player in a sign-and-trade you are hard capped for the entire season. Trading for Cousins means the Wizards can’t spend more than $127 million in team salary at any point during the entire season. They couldn’t even use mid-level exceptions to cross that barrier. And speaking of exceptions…

A team cannot use the taxpayer mid-level exception in a season and then receive a player in a sign-and-trade. Washington would be barred from using that exception if they want to sign-and-trade for Cousins.

The last hurdle-ish thing is the player being signed and traded cannot be signed using the mid-level exception (or any exception that spans at least three seasons) and the sign-and-trade must be completed before the first game of the season. Cousins will garner more money than that, and will be a high demand free agent, so these rules don’t really apply here.

Making the trade work

Alright, woohoo! We made it through all the rules. Now let’s figure out how to get it done. A challenging part of this step is predicting what kind of contract Cousins will be able to obtain this summer. His injury will likely discourage teams from giving him any long-term deal, but we can only speculate that.

Assuming the salary cap is the $101 million, as the league is currently projecting, Cousins max salary in his first season would be $30,300,000. Since Washington can only give him five percent raises instead of the eight percent he’d get with New Orleans, a three-year max deal for Cousins would be $95.5 million. But the number we are really worried about is that first year number. Let’s just pretend it is $30 million so the math can be easier.

If you somehow don’t know, the Wizards are a taxpaying team this year. They will be next season too, which is even more clear after Jason Smith (and presumably Jodie Meeks, too) opt in to their player options. Once those two opt in, the Wiz will have $124,800,997 in guaranteed money next season.

The rules for acquiring a player in a trade if you are a taxpaying team are pretty simple. The most you can acquire is 125% + $100,000 of the money you send out. So, if you pretend that Cousins $30,300,000 is the total money the Wizards would acquire in the trade, the Wiz would need to send out at least $24,160,000 to bring him in.

But not so fast! If the Wiz send out $24.16 million and receive $30.3 million, their team salary will grow by $6.14 million. Remember how they started at $124,800,997? Add over $6 million to that and the Wiz are over $130 million. Which means they are over the apron. Thus, the Wiz need to send out more salary to stay under the apron.

If the apron is $127,000,000, the Wiz need to send out $28,100,997 to acquire Boogie and stay under the apron. No single Wizards player makes that much money. So basically, a sign-and-trade for Boogie at the max requires the Wiz to send out multiple players.

Don’t forget that other thing, though. Even after acquiring Cousins, the Wiz couldn’t cross the apron for the whole season, including any future signings. Essentially, they need to be far enough below the apron post-trade to add more guys on minimum salaries. Add in money for the first round pick, and the Wiz might need to send out nearly $35 million, or more, to bring in Cousins in a sign-and-trade while still being able to construct a full roster.

Got all that? It’s simple really. I asked Pelicans writer Mason Ginsberg of Bourbon Street Shots what he would expect from Washington in a trade for Boogie, and he said the Pels consensus is Otto Porter would have to be part of the deal. Kelly Oubre, Marcin Gortat, and salary filler will not be enough to get the deal done. Oleh Kosel of The Bird Writes said the same thing last summer.

But also, there would need to be more salary. If the Pels take back more salary in the trade, that likely means an additional asset has to be attached to that salary. Is the second round pick or Tomas Satoransky attached to Gortat enough? That’s for the Pelicans to decide.

In theory, there are other ways to make the trade easier on the Wizards’ cap sheet, but most of them involve Boogie taking a smaller cap hit in the first year of his deal. To balance it out, the Wizards would probably need to offer something more lucrative at the end of his deal to help facilitate the sign-and-trade. They would either need to offer a player option or an advantageous partial-guarantee on the final year of his deal to compensate for making less in his first year.

Doing that would allow the Wiz to send out less assets to acquire him, but like we said before, it takes three to tango here. The Pelicans may not be keen on helping Washington facilitate this deal, especially in a way that gives the Wizards more flexibility.

We have peeled the onion and seen all the layers. Clear as mud? The challenges of acquiring Cousins are innumerable, and he has had plenty of character problems throughout his career. Add on this injury and all this cap stuff and ask yourself: is he worth it? The answer is tough to say. But if the answer is yes, it is still going to take some crazy cap gymnastics to make it happen.