For the second straight year, DeMarcus Cousins will apparently finish the season in street clothes. After a ruptured Achilles prematurely ended an otherwise magical 2017-18 season with the Pelicans, a torn quad muscle has taken Cousins out of the playoffs for the Warriors. Cousins hasn’t officially been ruled out for the entire remainder of the postseason — likely about two months for Golden State — but it’d be rather unwise for all parties to bring him back in the Western Conference finals or NBA Finals.
Cousins, after all, will again be a free agent on July 1. That is part of what makes Cousins’ untimely injury so heartbreaking: twice now he will have hit the open market with a serious leg injury hanging over his candidacy for a max contract. All those years toiling under below-market contracts in Sacramento on atrocious teams in relative health. Now, with a chance to play for winners and to earn huge paydays … and this is what happens?
But don’t give up on him yet.
Cousins played just 30 games this season as he recovered patiently from the Achilles rupture, and he logged limited minutes (25 per game) due to both that patient recovery and the Warriors’ affinity for small lineups. But Cousins’ per-possession stats showed that, provided he recovers from the quad injury and can eventually ramp the workload back up to pre-Achilles levels, he’s about the same player he was during his All-NBA stretch with Sacramento and New Orleans.
He’s still one of the best scorers among big men (23 points per 36 minutes on 48 percent shooting from the floor), a dominant rebounder (11 per 36), a supreme foul-drawer (seven free throw attempts per 36) and a solid defender when engaged (almost two steals and two blocks per 36, still keen on drawing charges). His three-point stroke never got on track this season, and he took fewer, but there’s no major reason that should be affected by the leg injuries if the rest of his game isn’t.
The quad injury could make it all worse, and if he doesn’t recover properly, this could become an ongoing issue. He’ll be 29 this summer, and cumulative wear and tear and torque on such an agile big man could be a longterm problem. But on the surface, he remained an elite-level big man in terms of per-possession production after the Achilles recovery this season. The worst fears about his diminished effectiveness weren’t realized.
So as he hits free agency in July, there should be a market for him. Perhaps it won’t be a max-contract market (though there are many desperate teams with cap space). But there should be a market.
There’s actually some reason to believe Cousins’ injury improves the odds he remains with the Warriors going into 2019-20. Everyone assumes Kevin Durant is leaving. No one is really even pretending otherwise at this point. There are also increasing hints that Golden State could look to trade Draymond Green this summer in advance of what will otherwise be a difficult free agency situation in July 2020. Green, still one of the league’s premier defenders, will want an enormous payday in 2020. The Warriors should be skeptical of offering it given Green and the team’s trajectory into the next decade. Hence, looking to trade Green before that becomes an issue seems like a smart play. The Warriors are light years ahead, after all.
If the Warriors lose Durant, trade Green, and re-sign Klay Thompson, they could really use a balancing force like Cousins if the numbers work out. Cousins has good relationships with the Splash Brothers, owing to their shared USA Basketball histories, and while he has been Green’s buddy, Steve Kerr’s annoyance at Green has been fairly targeted without collateral damage spraying Cousins.
There’s a world in which the Warriors lose the argumentative Durant and the brash Green and decide that, to keep their edge, they should retain a DeMarcus Cousins with something to prove. And there’s a world in which Cousins, still painfully hungry for playoff success and mad about this injury at this moment, decides to come back for a truly challenging title defense (assuming the Warriors still win this season).
This is all theory, all offseason plotting on paper to try to find realities in which Cousins’ story arc gets a deserved climax. Perhaps the desperate Lakers throw bags at Cousins to get LeBron James a star teammate. Perhaps the wild Suns make a money play to fast-track a rise. There are other options out there.
And that’s just the point: don’t give up on Cousins now. The NBA is built on and built for redemption and recovery stories. With faith and hard work — two things Cousins has always produced — he’ll get his.