What happened to DeMarcus Cousins on Friday could have been written only by Shakespeare.
Really? After everything? The former Kings center was finally figuring things out with the New Orleans Pelicans, maturing as a teammate, maximizing his prodigious talents, closing in on his first NBA playoff appearance, only to tear his left Achilles tendon in the final seconds of a thrilling victory over the Houston Rockets.
This. Just. Stinks. There are no mixed emotions here. That torn tendon feels like a kick to the gut for so many reasons, not the least of which is that in his seventh season, he proved he could change, he could lead, he could win.
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You don’t have to love Cousins to appreciate what he was gaining, and now all that he is losing. It was clicking, it was happening. It never would have happened in Sacramento, by the way. When he was traded to New Orleans last February after six turbulent seasons of front-office turmoil, an ownership change, a coaching carousel, his own outbursts against coaches and referees, suspension after suspension, with some mesmerizing performances sandwiched in between, he joined a low-maintenance franchise that already had an established superstar (Anthony Davis) on the roster.
For the first time in Boogie’s career, he was not the most important player, was no longer indulged and enabled, no longer had a loud voice regarding hirings and firings. He had to play ball and, after a shaky introduction, when two Kentucky big men appeared to be one too many, that’s what he did.
The Cousins-Davis pairing morphed into must-see TV, a big-man power play spectacle that was a fascinating contrast to the NBA’s ball small trend. With the Pelicans surging into sixth place in the Western Conference standings, potential postseason matchups against Golden State, Houston or Oklahoma City loomed as absolute thrillers, with Davis doing what he does – finish at the basket, rebound and run, protect the rim – and Cousins complementing with his bruising interior presence, marvelous hands and instincts, improved 3-point shooting and passing.
Before crumpling to the court Friday, Cousins, 27, was on pace to average at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, a feat accomplished only by Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Russell Westbrook. All were later named league MVP, and Boogie was right on their heels.
“I feel horrible for him, everything that he’s done and what he’s tried to do this year for us,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose club plays the Kings on Tuesday night at Smoothie King Center. “And what he’s made himself, and the improvements in all areas, on and off the court. I don’t want that to happen to a guy that is trying to better himself.”
Who knows when we will see Cousins again? If we ever see this Cousins again?
The medical history on Achilles ruptures is ominous, particularly for larger, thicker players. In the widely-cited study published in the June 2013 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine, of 18 NBA players who ruptured their Achilles between 1988-2011, virtually everyone except Dominique Wilkins experienced a significant decrease in production and career longevity.
Even Rudy Gay’s promising return from the left Achilles tear he sustained last January while with the Kings comes with an asterisk. The veteran small forward was sidelined in late December with bursitis in his right heel and expected back within two weeks. Instead, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich announced last weekend that Gay will be out at least until after the All-Star Game.
One of the main concerns post-surgery, of course, is that players compensate for one injury and place undue strain on other parts of their body.
“That whole kinetic chain,” two-time All-Star Elton Brand explained to ESPN after suffering an Achilles tear in 2008. “Once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy.”
Brand, who was a powerfully built 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward, and who like the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins, relied more on skill and strength than explosiveness and leaping ability, fared better than some. Mehmet Okur and Christian Laettner, two center/power forwards of Brand’s generation, retired shortly into comeback attempts.
Cousins’ history of foot issues – and his struggles to control his weight – also should set off some alarms. He missed four games with a right Achilles strain in 2015-16 and sat out six games last season with soreness in his right foot.
Then there is this: Besides coping with a grueling post-surgery rehabilitation and all the inherent uncertainty about the extent of his recovery, the injury horribly complicates Cousins’ contract situation. He becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time in July and would have heard from several suitors, among them the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and most notably the Pelicans.
Boogie is a nester, remember, and he never wanted to leave Sacramento. With the Pelicans rising, his first playoff appearance approaching and ownership intent on retaining him with a five-year, $175 million max offer, according to the New York Times, there is every reason to believe he was staying home.
Now, who knows?
The results of that Achilles study surely will give all 30 teams pause. Do the Pelicans gamble and offer the max deal, praying their center can remain a dominant presence? Do they proceed cautiously, become risk averse because of their wretched injury history and take a chance on losing Cousins to another organization? And what happens if they drop completely out of the playoff race – a strong possibility?
Sadly, this just stinks.