DeMarcus Cousins tearing his ACL in August changed the entire fabric of the Lakers' season. The injury forced Los Angeles to bring Dwight Howard back as their backup center, a role that he has thrived in to such a degree that he was invited to participate in Saturday's Slam Dunk Contest for the first time in over a decade.
Mere hours before taking the court in Chicago to do just that, however, his coach made a surprising announcement about the player he replaced. Frank Vogel explained during his media availability Saturday that Cousins could come back and play for the Lakers before the end of the season.
"He's on track to get healthy by the playoffs" and we'll have to see where he's at with rhythm, and conditioning, and timing and all that stuff," Vogel said. "But there is a possibility he returns this season, yes."
Typically, it takes a player 10-12 months to return from a torn ACL. The aggressive end of that timeline would have Cousins back on the floor by June, in time for the NBA Finals, but there are obviously a number of other factors to consider in his recovery compared to a normal player's. In the past two years, Cousins has also suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon and a torn quad. His fitness following the injury would be another major concern, and the NBA Finals is hardly the time or place for someone to play their way back into game shape.
Even if Cousins were fully healthy and ready to play, there is also the question of whether or not he would actually help the Lakers. Howard and JaVale McGee have both had excellent years, and deep in the playoffs, the Lakers are likely to go smaller and play Anthony Davis significant minutes at center. Introducing Cousins into the equation threatens to disrupt what is currently a delicate balance. The center rotation is already going to be volatile in the postseason.
But this roster's greatest flaw is its inability to score without LeBron James on the floor. When he goes to the bench, their offense gets 9.6 points per 100 possessions worse. Their 104.9 offensive rating without their best player is the equivalent of the No. 29 ranked New York Knicks over the full season. He has plenty of other weaknesses, but Cousins can certainly score.
While far from dominant, lineups featuring Davis and Cousins on the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans scored a respectable 109.4 points per 100 possessions, and did so with less shooting surrounding them than this Lakers team would offer.
The Lakers don't need to win the minutes James sits. Historically speaking, they just have to weather the storm long enough for him to return. After all, the 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers played the Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest team of all time, to a virtual draw in LeBron's minutes. In the 212 minutes that James played in the NBA Finals, Cleveland was outscored by only seven points. In the 28 minutes he sat, however, the Cavs were outscored by 26 points. The Lakers can't afford to bleed a point every minute that a 35-year-old James needs to sit.
So far, they've been unable to solve the bench scoring dilemma. No internal option has presented itself, they were unable to find a difference-maker at the trade deadline, and former Pacers point guard Darren Collison, a free-agent target of both Los Angeles teams, decided to remain retired rather than join the Lakers.
There is no telling when Cousins will be available to return. Vogel's timeline appears ambitious on paper, and his defensive flaws raise plenty of other problems even if he can play. But if there is any chance that Cousins could be a real solution to the Lakers' bench scoring problem, then the team has to explore it. They just don't have many other options at this point.