DeMarcus Cousins is expected to miss significant time with a major injury to his left leg -- this is the third season in a row in which such a headline has been applicable to the former All-Star. He has now suffered three debilitating injuries to three separate parts of his leg while playing for three different teams.
Now Cousins, an All-NBA player as recently as the 2015-16 season, will likely be confined to short-term deals and minute-restrictions for the rest of this career. He is only 29-years-old, but the best part of his career is likely over. The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, swung for the fences yet somehow managed to strike out before the first pitch.
So it's worth examining how exactly we got this point. Why does this keep happening to Cousins, and where can both he, and the Lakers, go from here?
Why does Cousins keep getting hurt?
Cousins would never have been mistaken for Lou Gehrig, but he was a relatively durable big man before this saga began. He missed more than 20 games in a season only once prior to 2018, and that only happened because he randomly contracted meningitis. He never suffered a debilitating, long-term injury while wearing a Sacramento Kings uniform. He missed time only due to smaller concerns. Early in the 2015-16 season, that included a strained right Achilles tendon.
There is no universal cause for Achilles injuries, but there are usually warning signs. Perhaps that initial injury to his right Achilles should have indicated that there was a problem in the way that he moves. Conditioning is relevant to all injuries, and Cousins has always been among the heaviest players in basketball. But almost all major Achilles injuries can be at least partially traced back to one thing: stress. Kobe Bryant is the most famous example of this phenomenon. In a desperate seven-game push to get the Lakers into the 2012-13 playoffs, Bryant averaged 45.5 minutes per night. He was 34-years-old at the time, and his Achilles snapped in that seventh game.
The 2017-18 season put an inordinate amount of stress on Cousins' body. His New Orleans Pelicans led the NBA in pace. He suited up in his team's first 48 games, dipping below 30 minutes played only six times. He played a career-high 36.2 minutes per game, and from Dec. 29 through Jan. 22, he averaged over 40. As a point of comparison, Bradley Beal led the NBA last season at 36.9 minutes per game, and he is 6-foot-5. The strain of forcing a body as large as Cousins' to play that many minutes is incalculable. The last game of that stretch was a double-overtime win against the Chicago Bulls in which he played over 51 minutes.
Four nights later, on Jan. 26, Cousins ruptured his left Achilles tendon. That injury knocked him out for 357 days, a pittance in the grand scheme of things. Kevin Durant is expected to miss an entire season while recovering from his own torn Achilles tendon. Bryant tried to come back from his own ruptured tendon in around eight months. He lasted six games before fracturing his left knee.
That is what tends to happen when players rush back from such a severe injury. When players take the court at less than 100 percent, their bodies have to compensate for the lost athleticism. In lower-body injuries, that can mean one part of the leg taking on too much stress in an effort to relieve another. While it cannot be stated for certain that this led to Cousins tearing his left quad in the Warriors' opening round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, it would be naive to assume the two injuries were unrelated.
Cousins was able to play in the NBA Finals, though inconsistently, and by the time he landed with the Lakers this offseason, his future appeared optimistic. Pictures showed that he appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight, and while a torn Achilles tendon can end a career, those who make it back tend to play far better in their second seasons upon recovery. But once a leg has been compromised, there is always an added risk of future injury.
So when Cousins bumped knees with another player during a Monday workout, he was far more susceptible to what came next. Test results confirmed that he had torn his left ACL, the third major leg injury he had suffered in less than two years. The typical timeline for a torn ACL is approximately a year. Given Cousins' size and history, relying on the norm would be irresponsible.
What is the rest of Cousins' career going to look like?
Cousins was never a particularly good defender even at full strength. As the injuries mount, he is likely to get significantly worse. That is saying something, because his lack of mobility was on full display in the NBA Finals, when the Toronto Raptors geared their offense towards attacking him in the pick-and-roll when he was on the court. Any team signing him would have to accept the reality that he is at best a rim-protector, not a versatile defender. The Lakers seemed to be on board with that notion. Frank Vogel has traditionally dropped his centers back to the basket in pick-and-roll defense.
Projecting his offense is a bit more difficult. What became apparent during the NBA Finals is that Cousins does not have much lift. That could improve with sustained health, but he isn't getting any younger, so he provides little value as a lob threat in the pick-and-roll. He can still bully mismatches, but he is going to have a lot more trouble scoring in the post against true centers if he is ground-bound from this point on.
Fortunately for Cousins, he has other skills offensively. He grew into a league-average three-point shooter in his three seasons prior to joining the Golden State Warriors, and though he can be a bit turnover-prone, he is an excellent passer. Future teams will likely envision an offensive role for him similar to the way Marc Gasol was used by the Toronto Raptors. He will have his chances to score close to the basket, but his primary function will be facilitating others.
The greater question is how enthusiastic teams will be to even give him the chance to do that. The biggest offer Cousins received after his Achilles injury was a two-year, $40 million pact from the Pelicans, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. He signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Lakers this summer, once the quad injury was added to his ledger, and the only other team to show interest in him, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, was the Miami Heat. The most they could have offered, even if you ignore the hard cap presented by their acquisition of Jimmy Butler via sign-and-trade, would have been a deal starting at around $5.7 million.
In other words, interest in Cousins has been tepid to say the least. Now he has a torn ACL to recover from as well. Assuming he misses this season, he will be 30 years old the next time he steps on the floor. He hasn't always been well-conditioned and he has been a questionable locker room fit, particularly early in his career.
That is a recipe for small contracts. There is so little high-level talent available in the summer of 2020 that Cousins may get more than the minimum, but he will likely never be offered another multi-year deal. Even if he plays all 82 games at an All-Star level during the 2020-21 season, the idea of paying a 31-year-old center with this many injuries long-term money is just untenable. Go ask the New York Knicks how they feel about giving a 31-year-old Joakim Noah a four-year deal. From this point onward, Cousins is probably a mercenary.
How critical a blow is this to the Lakers?
The Lakers were on board with the notion of Cousins as a mercenary from the moment they signed him. They never expected him to be a long-term part of their rotation. Non-Bird Rights only gave them the ability to keep him for either the Mid-Level Exception or 120 percent of his 2019-20 salary next summer, so if the Lakers had their way, he would have played so well that they couldn't afford to bring him back.
Such an outcome would be ambitious to say the least. Aside from the risk inherent in signing a player with so many injuries, the Lakers had a very crowded frontcourt. Cousins and JaVale McGee were theoretically going to split the center minutes evenly, but that would have left the Lakers to find enough minutes at the forward spots to satisfy LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Jared Dudley. Without sliding Davis over to center for stretches, placating that entire group would have been nearly impossible. The Lakers lost a talented player with this injury, but they were operating with a frontcourt surplus.
That redundancy likely explains why Cousins' injury had a relatively minor impact on the Lakers from a gambling perspective. FanDuel revealed shortly after the injury that they would not change their odds on a Lakers championship. It is currently holding steady at +440. SportsLine's projections for the upcoming Lakers' season tell a similar tale. Before Cousins went down, they were projected to win 53 games. Afterward, that number fell only to 52.3. Their championship odds declined only 1.3 percent, from 16 to 14.7.
Not factored in here are the potential benefits to Cousins getting injured at this point. Given his one-year contract, the Lakers now have $3.5 million in very tradable salary that they can use to improve at the deadline. Had he gotten injured later in the year, that might not have been the case.
The Lakers can also apply for a Disabled Player Exception worth half of Cousins' salary. If a league-appointed doctor confirms that this injury would be expected to keep Cousins out until June 15, the Lakers would receive an exception worth $1.75 million. Right now, that is barely more than the minimum. But when buyout season comes in February? That's a meaningful amount of money to be able to offer.
The Lakers signed Cousins for a reason. Even if the fit was questionable, the upside of a potential All-Star making $3.5 million was a very meaningful component of their title hopes. That is no longer the case, but that doesn't mean the Lakers are out of the championship hunt. Their focus right now will be on adjusting their plans around the players that they do have and the ones that they might be able to add.
Who is going to pick up the slack?
To any fantasy players out there: JaVale McGee just became a very enticing option at center. With Cousins out, the Lakers will rely on McGee as their starting center. That plan seemed foolhardy a year ago, but McGee was a solid starter for most of the 2017-18 season. A bout of pneumonia was the only thing that kept him from playing 82 games. He set a new career-high in points, had the second-most rebounds and third-most blocks of his career, and most importantly, he was a solid rim-protector defensively on a team with an inconsistent identity and limited resources on that side of the ball.
But McGee has his limits. He played 22.3 minutes per game last season, and even that felt high at times. McGee is conditioned for high-energy bursts. He is never going to be a 40-minute player, and with no other backup center on the roster, the Lakers are going to have to do something they had originally planned not to. Anthony Davis, who has long professed a preference for power forward, is going to need to play some center.
If he is willing to do so, this may turn out to be a blessing for the Lakers. Davis' best basketball has always come at center, and in a downsizing league, anybody who can play center loses value when he isn't. The Lakers will need to be cautious if Davis plays extended minutes at center, but if he manages to stay healthy, that alignment should terrify the rest of the NBA.
That shuffle also shifts Kyle Kuzma back up to power forward, where he belongs. No player's role was hampered more by Cousins' presence than Kuzma's. Had the Lakers used him as a starter alongside Davis at power forward and McGee at center, they simply would not have had enough shooting on the floor. Had he come off of the bench alongside Cousins, however, the Lakers would have been roasted defensively.
Now the Lakers can comfortably rely on Kuzma to anchor their bench units offensively. If they can put enough defense around him, they might even be able to get by well enough to avoid staggering Davis and James, which would be ideal given the strength of their fit. If Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can shoot well enough, Kuzma might even be able to survive defensively in closing lineups. There is no questioning this anymore: Kuzma is the third scorer for the Lakers, and as much as they'd like him to improve defensively, they can now build lineups that allow him to focus on that element of his game.
What moves can the Lakers make to replace him?
The Lakers have a full, 20-player roster set to participate in training camp, but they have only 14 players with guaranteed salaries. Functionally speaking, that means that they have an empty roster spot, and with Cousins gone, there is going to be additional pressure to use it now rather than to hold it in the hopes that Andre Iguodala becomes available later.
The Lakers are going to fill that roster slot eventually -- it's just a matter of when, and how. There are three realistic means and time frames in which that can happen: right now, through the pool of currently available free agents, in December, when they can trade the free agents they signed last month, and after the trade deadline, when they can sign veterans who have been bought out of their contract. I covered all three options, with the idea that the Lakers would seek out another big man to help limit Davis' minutes at center, but that is by no means a given.
The Lakers went into last season with only one center in their rotation. That was McGee. They signed Cousins because of his upside, yes, but also to satisfy the players on their roster who were pushing for it, including Davis. Now, they can go to Davis and explain that while they tried to build a roster that would prevent him from playing too many minutes at center, circumstances outside of their control now dictate that he must.
Given the direction the NBA is trending in right now, that might be for the best. In a perfect world, Vogel would be able to dedicate as many minutes as possible to lineups featuring James, Davis and three-and-D players. The Lakers could use their final roster spot on a perimeter player like Iman Shumpert now, and then make a trade in December if it becomes necessary. Even if they don't sign a perimeter player now, they can let the trade and buyout market take shape and see where the season takes them. The Lakers don't need to commit to a direction at this moment, and with that in mind, they will probably be patient.
If they choose not to sign anyone right now, they can use their two-way players as spare depth to buy time until December 15, when they can start trading. Two-way players are allowed to spend 45 total days with their parent clubs, so don't be surprised to see plenty of Zach Norvell and Kostas Antetokounmpo early in the season if the Lakers only have 13 healthy players.
Also assume that some player of note is going to be on this team when the playoffs begin in April. The Lakers were going to be aggressive in improving their roster regardless, but with a major player lost, newfound trade flexibility and an extra slot in their rotation to account for, the Lakers will almost certainly make an addition of some kind this season. If they get that move right, they should be able to overcome the loss of their former All-Star.