DeMarcus Cousins’ apparent ACL injury put a halt to the Los Angeles Lakers’ plans to re-emerge as the preeminent power in the NBA, a revenge tour of sorts we hadn’t seen since the start of the decade with the Miami Heat.
But it’s a bigger loss for Cousins himself, a man who’s had to remake his image and recalibrate his goals in the last 19 months. Instead of the villainous character he was purported to be — and sometimes played into — in Sacramento, he’s now the unwilling face of resilience.
For those who’ve lost count, It’s the third debilitating injury to Cousins since January 2018. The torn Achilles when he was in New Orleans, four days after a stat line that was one of the NBA’s best that season, a 44-point, 23-rebound triple-double against the Chicago Bulls in the Bayou.
Then there was the torn quadriceps he suffered in the first round of the playoffs with Golden State just four months ago, an injury that took what was left of Charles Barkley’s illustrious career two decades ago.
Through his resilience and downright desperation to get to the championship stage after being an outsider for so long, he returned for the NBA Finals, and the reeling Warriors wouldn’t have stolen Game 2 on the road without his contributions.
Now, there’s this. An injury that’s turned shooting stars into ground-bound geriatrics and players tagged with the dreaded “what-if” label — most notably former MVP Derrick Rose. The hope surrounding former teammate Klay Thompson following his ACL injury doesn’t appear to be in abundance for Cousins, in part because of the road he took to get here and the delicate position his body appears to be in.
This season was supposed to be the first step in being rightfully rewarded by the basketball gods, a salvation from past sins due to reputation or petulance. Playing as a necessary but not overly ridden sidekick to LeBron James and Anthony Davis would’ve provided the perfect forum: With James as the ultimate table-setter and Davis commanding interior attention, Cousins was going to feast, and the Lakers were going to benefit.
Better yet, Cousins was going to flex.
He wasn’t joining a team on the verge of a breakup, one suffering from championship fatigue. The Lakers have their share of issues that will certainly come to light once the white-hot spotlight illuminates them, but staleness isn’t one of them.
Last year was about rehab and Krazy Glue, as Cousins probably saw things from his Cartier-tinted glasses before his gold-and-blue debut that he’d never witnessed or participated in. There were heated moments between championship teammates during the final seconds of games and petty instances that usually only occur on losing outfits, things he probably felt he was leaving behind in another part of California.
This year was going to be full of devastating reminders across the board — of James’ dominance, of Davis’ rightful place in the league’s hierarchy after months of endless drama, and of Cousins’ sheer power and force.
“Big loss,” one member of the Lakers told Yahoo Sports. “But as you know, no one feels sorry for us.”
That’s what was going to make this year so sweet for the Lakers — if not the ending, then the process to get to June — and Cousins would’ve been in the middle of it all, in all his glory. The endless attention the Lakers usually garner would be bolstered by a roster worthy of must-see-TV as opposed to the drama that has occurred behind closed doors for the past few seasons.
As exaggerated as his follies may be, there’s still a large gap between JaVale McGee and Cousins when the four-time All-Star is at his best, or even at 80 percent.
“Where I’m from, bullies get bullied,” resident tough guy Zach Randolph once said about Cousins and to him following a verbal tête-à-tête at the free-throw line, a confrontation no one actually dared to step into.
But it seems the injuries are more than a bugaboo for Cousins, that they’re bullying him right when he’s on the doorstep to gain what’s rightfully his — or at least what his talent demands he should be.
To this point, his talent has outrun the extinction at his position, with the small-ball revolution claiming the careers of peers such as Greg Monroe and Roy Hibbert. Cousins is a generational talent even as the generation moves against what he does best, even as his body and bad luck continue to betray him.
It doesn’t feel like karma considering the mess Cousins walked into and often bathed in while with Sacramento, and by all accounts he wasn’t part of the issues that plagued the Warriors last season. It feels like the Lakers are losing something they didn’t know they needed, a sort of orneriness Cousins naturally brings in a way that won’t have to come from the sidelines when it’s called for on the floor.
The Western Conference will be a monster and even though James or Davis could be headed for an MVP-type season, don’t discount the value of load management — an avenue in which Cousins could have picked up the slack on their off-nights.
Now, the margin for error is gone, and the Lakers will be scrambling to replace something intangible in the meantime.
It wouldn’t be wise to bet against Cousins, considering his recent history. The Achilles injury was supposed to be a killer, especially factoring in his weight and conditioning concerns. The quad injury was supposed to put him out for the entire playoffs.
This one, if it captures what’s left of his greatness, will be more accumulation than a lack of will. He seemed to learn how to work within the limitations of his new reality on the fly, and even though the multi-year contract offers were scarce, suitors were ready and watching how Cousins played and comported himself — no doubt in anticipation of a weak free-agent class in 2020 and a possible major payday.
Now he must wait — well, rehab through the waiting, again — for another opportunity, and hopefully for him, the belief his body won’t cruelly betray him as it has done too often recently.
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