DeMarcus Cousins has important free agency decisions coming up. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images North America)

At the beginning of the 2017-18 NBA season, any basketball aficionado would have balked at the idea of New Orleans Pelicans star DeMarcus Cousins struggling to find a max contract this summer.

Despite his occasional behavioral issues, Boogie has blossomed into one of the best centers in the league. Heading into his first full season in “The Big Easy”, the 27-year-old held impressive career averages of 21.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.2 blocks per game. However, injuries are a cruel beast, and, because of them, DeMarcus Cousins’ Pelicans and financial future now seems bleaker than it previously did.

With just over eight seconds left in a January win over the rampaging Houston Rockets, the fiery big man ruptured his Achilles while chasing down an offensive rebound, ending his eighth professional season after just 48 games. Now his contract is up in New Orleans and he has some big decisions to make regarding the next one.

New Orleans finished the regular season winning 21 of a possible 34 games, following that up by sweeping the third seed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. With Cousins gone Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and trade deadline addition Nikola Mirotic led a streamlined Pelicans attack that used their newfound speed as a high-powered weapon.

With Mirotic replacing Cousins, Davis and company led the league in pace. They also improved tremendously on the defensive end, which isn’t surprising to those who have become accustomed to Boogie’s less than desirable defensive traits. New Orleans’ defensive rating plummeted from 106.7 (21st overall) to 103.7 (7th overall). This kind of success without Cousins has thrown a spanner in the works for Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps, who has undoubtedly considered life without Boogie.

Following on from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Pels are weighing up all options:

“The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.”

That “tepid” market includes very little teams that would be able to offer the four-time All-Star a max deal, let alone want to offer it. Rebuilding teams like Phoenix and Atlanta will have the cap room to shell out for Cousins, but they’re unlikely to give a recovering big man a boat-load of money. At least not before they gauge whether or not he is still capable of stardom after the debilitating injury.

Other playoff chasers like Philadelphia and the Lakers could also offer big deals, but they too will be hesitant, most likely spending their time pursuing other superstars like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. One team who has reportedly expressed interest is the Dallas Mavericks, especially now that they have opted out of the big man draft stakes and taded up for Slovenian guard Luka Doncic.

When franchise legend Dirk Nowitzki was asked about the chances of his Mavs luring the big man to Texas, he sounded diplomatically confident. Following on from Sports Day Dallas’ Eddie Sefko:

“He’s an unbelievable player. Probably the best center we have in this league, or one of them. He’s a load down there. He added a 3-point shot last year. He’s one of the toughest players to guard and he can pass, too, out of the double teams. He’s a pretty complete player.” he said. “And as far as a potential Maverick, you never know. Free agency is tough to predict. We’ll see what happens.”

With his desired max contract presumably evaporated, DeMarcus Cousins has a few options left on the table. He could sign the short-term deal at less than the max, which would basically be an admission that he won’t get back to the All-NBA level he was at pre-injury. Big men coming back from leg injuries are far from valuable commodities in the NBA, and if the outside noise has worked its way into Boogie’s head, maybe he has started to believe that he is no longer a max player.

In the case that he does decide to sign a two or three-year discounted contract, plenty of teams will be clamouring for his services. Cousins has long been one of the most dominant players in the modern era, and if he believes he can get back to that level next season, penning a deal for lower than the max on just a single year might make more sense.

In doing this, the 6-foot-11 bull could use next season to return and resume his regularly scheduled domination, whether it be with the Pelicans or another squad. Then in the summer of 2019, Cousins can join the likes of Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson as the cream of the crop free agents that garner max money.

This offseason is crucial not only for DeMarcus Cousins, but for the New Orleans Pelicans too. Superstars like Boogie don’t just wander into small market franchises, so letting one walk away is awfully courageous — even if they did put together a decent stretch without him.

This isn’t the first we have heard about Cousins’ free agency. He controversially unfollowed a Pelicans Instagram page and liked a comment stating that New Orleans should ‘give him the max’, adding more fuel to an already fanned flame.

This story promises to get more and more juicy with every development. Keep a keen eye on this one, folks.

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