Simply once you thought aggressive stability within the NBA couldn’t be worse, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors swooped in Monday night time, stole the thunder from LeBron James’s coronation in Los Angeles and signed DeMarcus Cousins (the best big man nonetheless obtainable in free company) for properly under market worth. Now, what already felt like the most important foregone conclusion in sports activities — yet one more Warriors championship — finds itself even less in doubt, in some way.

Doesn’t the NBA have an incredibly complex set of salary-cap rules to stop this type of factor from occurring? In principle, sure. However from Kevin Durant’s discount contract to Klay Thompson’s discuss1 of leaving millions on the table to stay with Golden State (to not point out veteran coups like the one they got with David West), the Warriors have a long history of convincing stars to take much less cash for the sake of the dynasty. Cousins is simply the most recent instance — and perhaps essentially the most stunning, since he signed for less than Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli or Mario Hezonja will make subsequent season.

The Warriors have been capable of signal Cousins as a free agent regardless of being tens of millions of dollars over the cap because of one of many NBA’s many salary-cap loopholes: on this case, the midlevel exception, or MLE. The MLE comes in several different varieties relying on how far past the cap a staff’s payroll sits, however the Warriors used the so-called taxpayer MLE to present Cousins his $5.three million subsequent season. It’s all authorized, at the least in line with the letter of the wage cap guidelines. (As for the spirit? Not a lot.)

The MLE was introduced within the NBA’s 1999 collective bargaining settlement as a manner for capped-out contenders to nonetheless be capable to add high quality position gamers in assist of their stars. Maybe the perfect examples of the MLE working as initially supposed are Shane Battier, who joined the Miami Heat in 2011 and played a vital role on two title squads, and Shaun Livingston, who signed with the Warriors earlier than the primary of their three championship runs over the subsequent 4 years. These are the type of guys who’re supposed to be obtainable by way of the midlevel exception — stable gamers, not stars.

Cousins, nevertheless, is far, a lot better than your typical MLE pickup. Positive, there are questions about how he’ll fit on Golden State’s roster. However he additionally made the All-NBA second team as not too long ago as 2016, and has generated 11.2 factors of value over replacement player (VORP) — price roughly 30 wins — over the earlier three seasons in line with, a tally that ranks 16th in basketball throughout that span.

Utilizing archives of Basketball-Reference’s database of contracts going again to the 2012-13 season, I recognized 175 situations of the MLE (or one in every of its variants, together with the taxpayer/”mini” midlevel and the so-called “room exception”) getting used to signal a participant in recent times, previous to the summer time of 2018. For these, the common MLE signee had generated 1.2 VORP within the three seasons main as much as his contract — which means Cousins was price about 27 extra wins (!) than the everyday midlevel-worthy participant within the years earlier than signing his new contract. No different MLE pickup in our dataset was even remotely near being as beneficial going into his new deal as Cousins was over his previous three years:

It’s in all probability clear by now simply what a steal Cousins is for $5.three million, however right here’s yet one more observe: Our CARMELO projection system, which spits out fair dollar values for each participant’s manufacturing, thinks Cousins must be price about $46.1 million subsequent season. The NBA’s maximum salary rules preclude him from getting fairly a lot, in fact, however he nonetheless figures to be price excess of the midlevel pittance Golden State is doling out for his providers.

From Cousins’ perspective, it does make some sense to chop this explicit deal. He’s coming off a major injury final season, and may not be available to the Warriors till after the 2018-19 season begins. The Pelicans’ unexpected surge without him through the playoffs strengthened outdated questions on Cousins’ potential to win, and the marketplace for bigs was looking sparse anyway this summer time, with the repercussions of 2016’s wild spending spree crashing down on groups’ cap and luxury-tax budgets. According to The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, Cousins didn’t obtain any “vital” contract presents when free company opened up. So as a substitute, Cousins is playing that he can slot in with the Warriors’ legendarily unselfish group for a yr, produce stable numbers, ease again into well being, win a hoop — and within the course of, ditch his longtime label as a me-first malcontent. If all goes in line with plan, he’ll be due for a a lot larger payday subsequent summer time than he may’ve gotten had he performed the conventional free agent sport this summer time.

However even when issues work out properly for Cousins, it would have meant dealing one other blow to no matter aggressive stability is left within the league. For a short whereas, issues gave the impression to be taking a flip towards elevated pleasure: The Rockets spent a season suggesting the Warriors weren’t as unbeatable as they appear — coming inside a Chris Paul harm and a few historically cold shooting of probably proving it within the playoffs — and James is simply starting to form his personal Western Convention challenger in LA. However then, Golden State strengthened their grip on the NBA with one other deal that turned the wage cap’s guidelines towards their very own underlying goal. It proved as soon as once more that essentially the most thrilling time on the professional basketball calendar happens through the summer time free-agent frenzy — when no video games are performed, however the destiny of the next season is sealed.

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