DeMarcus Cousins Tears A.C.L. in a Blow to the Lakers, and His Career

There was a time when DeMarcus Cousins was one of the most feared players in the league. He was a bulldog in the paint, frequently bouncing defenders off him as if he were a human trampoline. Sometimes, his defense was suspect. But no one doubted his elite talent.

And now, no one can dispute his bad luck.

Cousins has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Jeff Schwartz, his agent, announced Thursday. A surgery timeline has not been decided. Schwartz did not announce when or how Cousins sustained the injury.

This is the third major injury in less than two years for Cousins, who had hoped to make a healthy debut in the coming months with the Los Angeles Lakers, a team headlined by LeBron James and Cousins’s former teammate Anthony Davis. The Lakers, badly needing depth to surround James and Davis, took a flier on Cousins in free agency this summer, giving him a one-year contract worth $3.5 million. That is a fraction of what the four-time All-Star was projected to be earning at this point in his career, but injuries have come between him and an expected payday.

First, there was the torn Achilles’ tendon in early 2018, derailing a promising New Orleans Pelicans season, and setting the wheels in motion for Davis to push for a trade. Cousins, who was in the last year of his deal, lost out on a big free-agent contract as a result and opted instead to sign with the Golden State Warriors for one year to chase a championship.

He worked his way back from the Achilles’ rupture, but in the first round of the postseason — in just the second playoff game of his career — Cousins came up limping after tearing his quad. He was initially expected to miss the rest of the playoffs.

Again, Cousins worked his way back and returned for the finals. But his fluidity had been compromised and he had slowed to a 6-foot-11 cement tower and occasional liability on the floor. After the Warriors lost the finals to the Toronto Raptors, Cousins entered the off-season with his stock at the lowest it had been in his nine-season career.

He turned 29 years old on Tuesday.

At his peak, Cousins was one of the highest producing players in the league, averaging 27 points and 11 rebounds a game in the 2016-17 season, which he split between the Sacramento Kings and the Pelicans. As the game shifted more to the perimeter, Cousins showed a willingness to adapt, adding the 3-point shot to his repertoire. After he returned from his Achilles’ injury with the Warriors, Cousins lacked consistency but averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a game with above-average efficiency in 30 games.

Cousins has, thus far, shown remarkable resiliency in coming back from injuries, but what value he can offer to his new team is suddenly in question. For the Lakers, Cousins was expected to be a crucial extra body, a deft passer and a playmaker who could stretch the floor and grab rebounds. His absence puts more pressure on Davis and James to carry the Lakers, with one of them likely having to be on the floor at all times.

If Cousins had been able to show flashes of his elite pre-injury talent, it would have been reasonable to envision scenarios in which he would run bench lineups with Kyle Kuzma, while the dynamic duo of James and Davis rested together. Instead, the Lakers will likely turn to JaVale McGee to try to continue his rim-running effectiveness and plug that hole. Given how McGee looked in his first season in Los Angeles, he may even be the better fit at this point.

Cousins, in a sense, had seemed to fit perfectly with the Lakers roster: a group of talented players whose value has plummeted in recent years. The team is filled with veteran fliers like Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Jared Dudley. At their best, they can be exceptional role players with a deep well of experience playing tough defense. The upside is high, but the reality is much closer to them being aging veterans who have to pick their spots for quality minutes.