What do you do now?
The New Orleans Pelicans' decision-makers must first accept the reality that All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins did indeed suffer a season-ending Achilles injury during Friday night's game against the Houston Rockets.
They must get past the final stages of grief. Then they must address a seemingly endless line of questions.
The scenarios touch every level of the organization, and none of the answers is clear, fair or straightforward.
While Anthony Davis and the rest of the Pelicans will spend the next 34 games battling for a playoff spot without their frontcourt tandem intact, starting against the Clippers at 3 p.m. Sunday, clouds are now smothering nearly every other area of the franchise.
And just about each aspect is complicated by the timing and circumstances surrounding the injury.
To start, the Pelicans were in the midst of their best stretch in nearly three years, winning seven of eight games, including victories over the stalwart Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets.
The gamble to pair All-Star big men Cousins and Davis appeared to be paying off in a big way. New Orleans was in the final 10 seconds of a national TV win over the Rockets, in front of a raucous home crowd, ready to take the plunge into relevancy.
Instead, Cousins will now miss somewhere between six to 10 months, meaning he will be an unrestricted free agent before he returns to the court.
That unleashes the first set of questions.
Sources indicate the Pelicans were intent on signing Cousins to a five-year, $175 million maximum contract this offseason, but does this injury alter those plans?
“It’s tough, especially going into free agency,” Davis said. “It’s tough not knowing what’s going to happen, how big your market is going to be, if teams are going to trust you. Are you going to be the same coming back? especially with a major injury like that. But I think he’s done enough in his career to show guys that he’s very solid.”
But with the added uncertainty, should the Pelicans offer a smaller deal? A shorter one? Or should they make a trade to a tanking team before the Feb. 8 deadline in exchange for a contributor who can help save this season?
While sources insist Cousins isn’t on the market, New Orleans is capable of packaging a deal to get allow the Pelicans make a playoff push in the here and now, even if their long-term ceiling is lower.
Big men like Enes Kanter, Brook Lopez or even DeAndre Jordan could be available, depending on what else the Pelicans would give up in exchange. Each could help New Orleans dramatically in the short term.
All of those options and scenarios are less than ideal, and they have the potential to backfire. But they’re on the table in front of general manager Dell Demps over the next few weeks.
“We’re looking at a ton of different scenarios where we might be able to add someone,” coach Alvin Gentry said. "We’ve been doing that anyway. Obviously it intensifies a little bit.
“We’re looking at all areas. There’s not any particular thing that we’re locked in on, but we’re going to try to add somebody that’s going to make our team better.”
But, more importantly, will it be Demps’ decision to make?
Demps is working on the final year of his contract, in his eighth season, and didn’t receive a public vote of confidence from the team’s ownership this summer. There was only a recognition he would maintain his job entering this season, with an understanding it would be a make-or-break campaign.
After a mediocre start, the Pelicans appeared to be on the rise with Davis and Cousins coalescing.
The core, paired by the team’s front office at last year’s trade deadline, proved capable of the high aspirations placed on them. And the surrounding roster complemented the duo — particularly Jrue Holiday, who signed a five-year, $125 million deal this summer.
But will Demps be evaluated on the team’s best stretch of the season, or the result at season’s end? Can the Pelicans brass clear out its front office when an All-Star starter missed half of the season because of an injury?
On the other hand, key injuries have defined the Demps era. Are those injuries reason enough for the Pelicans to keep the front office in place for a ninth year?
The same questions surround Gentry, as well.
After mixing ragged performances alongside splendid ones, the Pelicans finally found their stride and their best lineup combinations over the past three weeks.
Moving Holiday into a point guard role during crunch time significantly boosted the Pelicans’ defensive prowess and allowed E’Twaun Moore to play at his natural position. All of this bolstered the powerful frontcourt, which took on fewer defensive responsibilities, allowing Davis and Cousins to flourish.
After months of suffering debilitating losses in close games, the Pelicans won six of their past seven games in clutch situations and were finishing off close games like a contender.
But, just like Demps, how will Gentry ultimately be judged?
Will the Pelicans look at the body of work as a whole, the best stretch of the season or account for the frustrations of the first few months?
No matter what course of action the Pelicans take, the only certainty is Cousins’ injury added a heaping dose of uncertainty.
If the core were intact and remained in place until the season ended, the answers would lie entirely in the results.
If the Pelicans were a solid playoff team, it would be easily justifiable to bring everyone back. And if they slipped back into mediocrity, it would be easily justifiable to blow it up and start over.
But when Cousins’ Achilles tendon snapped, all of those distinct lines blurred.
Trades. Firings. Extensions. Contracts. Everything is on the table, and the terms for evaluation are unclear.
And now, the members of the Pelicans management group, led by owner Tom Benson, are the only ones who can determine just how clear them up.
It’s anyone’s guess what unfolds and how they proceed.