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DeMarcus Cousins’s Career Is In Jeopardy

If you’ve logged off the NBA circuit for the summer — understandable given how crazy last month was, and how insane this upcoming season figures to be — you might have missed that DeMarcus Cousins of the Los Angeles Lakers suffered yet another serious injury, tearing his ACL in an offseason workout last week.

Rewinding 20 months, it would have seemed unfathomable for a contender to lose someone of Cousins’s caliber without the injury sending shockwaves through the entire league. But now — with three major leg injuries to Cousins in that window — teams will likely be even more reluctant about trusting Boogie’s body to hold up over a full season. All of which begs the question: What now for the highly skilled center, who just turned 29 last week?

Cousins’s age and position alone would seem to make him an appealing option for any number of clubs, once he recovers and gets back into playing shape. But what “playing shape” looks like for Cousins is a tough question to answer. There are all sorts of concerns that smaller guards face when recovering from an Achilles rupture, and those challenges become even bigger in a 6-foot-11, 270-pound center’s frame. The league has seen few players like him over time, and almost certainly none have had this many serious leg injuries in such a short span of time.

Jeff Stotts, who runs In Street Clothes, a site that closely analyzes the NBA’s injury data from year to year, said he couldn’t find a single instance of a player rupturing both an Achilles and an ACL, as Cousins has.1 “There have been a few players to tear their ACL multiple times,” he said, citing Jabari Parker and former players Josh Howard and Michael Redd. “But nothing of [Cousins’s magnitude].”2

Stotts said he couldn’t even find an example of a player who had torn both an ACL and Achilles tendon in other sports, either. There is a clear distinction between Cousins and players who experience recurring problems like Brook Lopez’s foot issues, Gilbert Arenas’s knee problems or Steph Curry’s ankle ailments, Stotts said. The closest comparison to Cousins that Stotts could offer: Joel Embiid, who missed the 2014 and 2015 seasons due to a right foot fracture before tearing his left meniscus in 2017. (Former MVP Derrick Rose — who in a five-year stretch tore his meniscus in both his right and left knees after tearing the ACL in his left knee — also comes to mind here.)

From a numbers standpoint, FiveThirtyEight’s projection model views the Cousins injury as a real blow for the Lakers, who last week saw their probability of reaching the NBA Finals and winning a title slide from 27 percent and 18 percent, respectively, to just 20 percent and 14 percent currently.

That might seem like a steep dropoff, but Cousins was still highly productive in the minutes he played last season when healthy for Golden State. His field-goal percentage, both overall and near the rim, were among the best he’s ever posted, and he logged a career-best block percentage on defense. There’s no telling how big a dropoff the Lakers might experience at the position yet, because depending on how the organization handles Anthony Davis (who’s already said he doesn’t like playing center), Los Angeles only has one experienced option at center without Cousins, and that’s JaVale McGee.

If there’s a sliver of hope for Cousins, it’s that — unlike other great players who’ve suffered brutal knee injuries — he’s never truly relied on his athleticism to be a star. A few years ago, while I questioned him for a story on why he gets blocked so often, Cousins said it wasn’t necessary to launch a Sherlock Holmes-style case. “It’s because I can’t jump,” he said.

Cousins is a fantastic passer, and has now logged an assist rate of better than 20 percent four of his last five seasons, putting him in pretty elite company for someone who stands as tall as he does.

In the past, he made mincemeat of post defenders, either by shooting over them (he’s been among the NBA’s 25 most efficient scorers in the post three years3 running, per Second Spectrum data), or by forcing double-teams and finding open teammates in the corner.

Yet the fact that Cousins has long thrived on his strength is cause for concern about this latest injury. If and when he can’t be as forceful in the post, will there be as much need for double-teams? And if those doubles don’t come — and if he’s not surrounded by the sort of spacing he had in Golden State last season — does it lessen what all he’ll be able to do as a passer? And none of this even touches on the obvious question of how these injuries might impact his defensive mobility. The league — which has over the past few years gotten shorter and quicker at center — has already become tougher for players like Cousins in recent seasons, and whatever rust develops as he’s rehabbing could amplify those challenges.

And to think: This time last year, Cousins’s choice to sign with the Warriors was seen as laughable by many, because of how much talent it would give Golden State. It’s mind-boggling to compare that scenario to how dry free-agent interest in him might be next summer, as teams raise inevitable questions about his health despite his undeniable talent. Another sign of how quickly things can change in a topsy-turvy NBA.

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Footnotes

  1. Cousins also tore his left quadriceps during the first round of the playoffs this year before returning during the NBA Finals.

  2. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton also researched this subject, and noted that at least two other NBA players have also torn an Achilles and an ACL: Emanual Davis and Jerome Jordan.

  3. Among players who’ve posted up at least 200 times.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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