DeMarcus Cousins injury decreases Lakers’ margin for error

Photo by Stacy Revere/BIG3 via Getty Images
Photo by Stacy Revere/BIG3 via Getty Images /

A torn ACL is always bad news, and for the Los Angeles Lakers, the DeMarcus Cousins injury significantly decreases their margin for error.

For the third time in the last 19 months, DeMarcus Cousins has suffered a debilitating injury to his left leg.

As first reported Thursday by The Vertical’s Shams Charania and later confirmed by ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, Cousins tore the ACL in his left knee while working out in Las Vegas on Monday. This devastating news comes just a few months after rushing back from a quadriceps tear in April, as well as a left Achilles tear in January 2018.

First things first: This is terribly sad news for Boogie, who was heading for a massive payday with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018 before his Achilles injury, and then again was on the comeback trail with the Golden State Warriors before his quad injury.

Cousins had to settle for a one-year, $3.5 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, just one summer after his stunning decision to accept a $5.3 million deal from the Dubs. Aside from the obvious loss in earnings, Boogie will likely miss the entire 2019-20 campaign. That kind of setback would weigh heavily on anyone’s mind.

Even if he returns for the playoffs, we saw in the Finals how hit-or-miss his impact could be. Add another serious leg injury in the mix and it’s likely this 29-year-old, 270-pound behemoth who was posting historic numbers before his first major injury may never be the same.

This is awful news for Cousins, the Lakers and NBA fans at large, and everyone should be pulling for a full recovery for him — unlikely as it may seem.

Moving past the obvious well wishes for Boogie’s recovery, this loss is a low-key significant blow to the Lakers’ title prospects in 2019-20, for a myriad of reasons. For a franchise with the best player in the world, the “next” best player in the world, and a championship within reach, it’s disconcerting to see the ceiling already lowered on sky high expectations.

In a league full of dynamic duos but lacking a healthy, bona fide Big 3, the 2020 Larry O’Brien Trophy is more up for grabs than it’s been in the last decade. With a healthy, 75-percent-of-his-former-self Boogie (like the one who still managed 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists in only 25.7 minutes per game last year despite being rusty), the Lakers were one of the heavy title favorites.

Without him and the frontcourt depth he would’ve provided, their margin for error is that much slimmer.

It takes a bit of luck to win an NBA title in any given year, but that feels particularly relevant this year with both conference titles up for grabs. Health is going to play a major factor, and it was already worrisome how shaky L.A.’s dynamic duo was in this regard before Cousins went down.

LeBron James has mostly been an indestructible cyborg during his Hall of Fame career, but last season, the King finally showed signs of mortality as he missed a career-high 27 games due to a groin injury. Approaching his 35th birthday in December, and with 16 seasons and 46,000 minutes under his belt, James must be preserved for when he’s needed most in the postseason. Kawhi Leonard’s “load management” system offers the most advisable sort of path to doing so.

Anthony Davis should be less prone to these concerns at 26 years old, but it feels like he heads to the locker room to check on some kind of injury about once every two weeks. He’s only topped 70 games in two of his seven NBA seasons, and though he should be well rested after the awkward second half of his season in New Orleans, he still played a career-low 56 games. “Injury-prone” feels pretty apt here.

The addition of DeMarcus Cousins was never meant to give the Lakers’ a true Big 3. Even in the best-case scenario where he stayed healthy, rust was likely to somewhat limit his game. Still, Boogie represented a security blanket on the nights where one or both of Los Angeles’ brightest stars rested, and a potential game-changer if he ever approached his former peak.

He could’ve started at the 5 alongside AD, ideally veering closer toward the 35.4 percent shooting on 6.1 3-point attempts per game he posted in 2017-18 than the 27.4 percent he posted last year on 3.2 attempts a night. That kind of floor-spacing would’ve been invaluable as long as Davis continues to insist he’s a 4.

Cousins also could’ve come off the bench as a force for the second unit, bullying opposing bigs on the block, spreading the floor no matter what lineup Frank Vogel surrounded him with and providing some much-needed scoring off the pine.

Losing Cousins’ perpetually underrated playmaking is another blow in its own right, especially taking a look at the Lakers’ current slate of guards. LeBron will take over the majority of the facilitation as their de facto point guard, but Rajon Rondo is maligned among the fanbase for a reason. Alex Caruso had a strong finish to 2018-19, but his numbers mostly came in the season’s garbage time. Avery Bradley and Quinn Cook aren’t facilitators. This team sorely needed as many secondary playmakers as possible.

With Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram gone, and Kyle Kuzma increasingly looking like a one-dimensional scorer, Cousins’ zest for risky, clever passes from all over the court would’ve been a welcome addition (3.2 assists per game for his career, including a career-high 5.4 per game in his last healthy season). Instead, the brunt of the playmaking will fall on two ball-dominant players, which could easily restrict L.A.’s ball movement and hinder the spacing in the half-court offense.

Moving Davis to the 5 somewhat alleviates those concerns about floor-spacing, but the Brow (33.1 percent on a career-high 2.6 attempts per game last year) is nowhere near consistent enough from downtown yet. LeBron’s 3-point efficiency dipped to 33.9 percent last year on nearly six attempts per game. Kyle Kuzma plummeted to 30.3 percent, and despite improvements in this area in recent seasons, Rondo is a notorious non-threat from deep.

Role players like Danny Green, Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels should help in this respect, but other than Green, none of those names is expected to log big minutes with the starters. Putting the Brow at center will help open up the court, but according to NBA TV‘s Jared Greenberg, the Lakers aren’t planning on feeding him heavy minutes at his most effective position.

Sparing an injury-prone superstar from regular season wear and tear is wise, but playing JaVale McGee at the 5 alongside Davis cramps the spacing even further, even if LeBron and Kuzma take steps back toward “respectable” from 3-point range. It also leads to major disadvantages on defense, unless Kuzma is brought off the bench as a super sixth man to spare him from guarding 2s and 3s.

Boogie had become a defensive sieve after injuries sapped him of yet another step, but as much as McGee helps with the rim protection, the domino effect of AD moving up to the 4, Kuzma at the 3, Green trying to stop opponents’ best guard and LeBron taking whoever’s left feels like a recipe for disaster.

McGee is an improvement over Cousins on the defensive end as long as the Lakers plan to trot out a traditional 5 alongside Davis in the frontcourt, but that upgrade doesn’t balance out the spacing Boogie theoretically provided on the other end.

In the interim, the Lakers must now turn their attention to potential replacements that could shore up the edge of the rotation. Joakim Noah and Kenneth Faried seem to be the most popular names (with Dwight Howard definitely being the least popular), but even if they snag a well-respected and grizzly veteran or an athletic, small-ball 5, those spacing concerns will remain.

Applying for a disabled player exception to free up a roster spot for Noah or Faried, and then landing a secondary playmaker like Memphis Grizzlies hostage Andre Iguodala in a buyout feels like the ideal scenario in the wake of Cousins’ injury.

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Unfortunately, as Cousins can probably tell you himself following three devastating injuries to the same leg, the ideal scenario doesn’t always come to fruition. In a wide open 2019-20 campaign, one team will walk into such a situation with perfect health, despite a plethora of dynamic duos all vying for the crown among the many legitimate contenders. That team could very well wind up being the Lakers, but removing an additional luxury like DeMarcus Cousins means a lot more will have to go right.

Defending a LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll still represents a hellacious task for opponents, but with Boogie out for the foreseeable future, the Lakers’ margin for error — unlike their projected starting lineup — just got a little bit smaller.