Without DeMarcus Cousins, the Lakers will be worse and the NBA less interesting

DeMarcus Cousins, who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in July, suffered his third major leg injury of the past 19 months during an offseason workout in Las Vegas. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Basketball mortality has rushed at DeMarcus Cousins, just as hard and fast as the four-time all-star center once raced down the court leading the break or bolted toward a referee to strenuously make his case.

The latest wave of awful news arrived Thursday, when Cousins suffered a torn ACL in his left knee that could sideline him for the 2019-20 season. Over the past 19 months, Cousins, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in July, has endured a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, a torn quadriceps and now the ACL tear, which was announced by his agency, Excel Management Sports.

At 29, a healthy Cousins would be enjoying an extended run as one of the NBA’s most productive centers. During his last full season, in 2016-17, he averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds — Shaquille O’Neal-like numbers. Instead, he is left to contemplate nauseating shades of gray: Is this latest setback career-altering, career-threatening or, perhaps, even career-ending?

The 2018 Achilles’ injury was career-altering because it cost him a lucrative maximum contract and a long-term partnership with Anthony Davis on the New Orleans Pelicans. Cousins rallied by signing a one-year contract with the Golden State Warriors, working hard to return to the court in January and showing flashes of his old dominance. He never recovered his full mobility, though, and struggled with consistency.

Golden State gave Cousins his first taste of the playoffs in his nine-year career, but it was bitter. In Game 2 of a first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, he fell to the court with a torn quadriceps that sidelined him for more than a month.

Again, he committed himself to his rehabilitation and made a surprise return in the NBA Finals. His gutsy Game 2 performance — 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a win while playing 27 minutes essentially on one leg — stood as a perfect counter to the long-standing stereotype that he was a selfish player with a losing attitude.

“I’m devastated for DeMarcus,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said Thursday from Team USA’s training camp at the Lakers’ El Segundo, Calif., practice facility. “It’s been a couple of years of hell. The two games we won [in the NBA Finals], it wasn’t a coincidence that he played really well. He helped us immeasurably. He gave us a hell of an effort. He gave us everything he had.”

DeMarcus Cousins returned to the court for the Golden State Warriors in January after a lengthy rehabilitation from an Achilles’ injury. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The ACL injury, reportedly suffered during workouts in Las Vegas, should be viewed as career-threatening. Cousins has struggled to attract much attention as a free agent in each of the past two summers, landing on veteran-dominated contenders that could afford to cast him as a role player. Most non-contenders don’t have that luxury and therefore wouldn’t view his potential rewards as worth his injury risks. His narrow prospects have gotten narrower.

“When you’re talking about a player who has now dealt with the two most feared injuries for NBA players — the Achilles’ [tendon] and the ACL — in a -year span, it’s unheard-of,” Kerr said. “What a blow for him and the Lakers. He’s going to have to process it all and start over again. Hopefully he can get back on the bike and start riding.”

For the Lakers, Cousins’s injury represents an ominous start to a pressure-packed season. After waiting days for Kawhi Leonard’s free agency decision, the jilted Lakers rushed to sign a batch of veterans, including Cousins.

While their financial investment was modest by NBA standards, the Lakers were counting on Cousins for real contributions. Their only other true center is the enigmatic JaVale McGee, and General Manager Rob Pelinka spoke at length in July about his preference to avoid using Davis as a center during the regular season.

“He was a big part of what we were going to do,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said from the U.S. camp. “It’s unfortunate for a guy who loves basketball, who has fought back from injuries.”

Aside from the positional concern, there is a depth question, too. LeBron James and Davis are both on max contracts, and acquiring Davis from the Pelicans in a blockbuster trade required parting with numerous young players. The quality of the Lakers’ 10-man rotation, which is now heavily reliant upon low-cost veterans, was iffy with Cousins and clearly will be worse without him.

Yet the impact of Cousins’s injury on the Lakers’ 2020 title prospects is far less important than what happens next for the man himself.

Cousins has shown the ability to get healthy but not the ability to stay healthy. He will be 30 in October 2020, an approximate return date given that an ACL injury typically requires a nine-to-12-month recovery period. By that point, he will have been on and off the NBA’s radar for nearly three years. Considering those circumstances, landing a new NBA contract at that point would be a challenging proposition for any player.

Already, the league has moved on without him. Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns have moved to the front of the line at the center position, and the Warriors opted to re-sign Kevon Looney, a less heralded but more reliable big man, rather than Cousins this summer.