By all measures, this season was DeMarcus Cousins’s best. The New Orleans Pelicans big man was just named an All-Star for the fourth consecutive season, and more importantly, he was on the verge of reaching the NBA playoffs for the first time in his career. Anthony Davis was the best player that Boogie ever played with, and vice versa, and the duo was beginning to thrive. The Pelicans, at 27-21 overall, are sixth in the West and were seeking reinforcements to bolster their postseason push.
But one of the biggest victories of the season for New Orleans ended with its biggest loss. Cousins landed awkwardly on his left leg as he attempted to grab his own missed free throw with 15 seconds left in Friday’s 115-113 win over the Rockets. The result was a ruptured Achilles tendon, according to multiple reports. Cousins will undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season.
After winning seven of their past eight games, the Pelicans are suddenly reeling because of an injury yet again. The road ahead figures to be murky, for both the franchise and its fallen star.
Players who rupture their Achilles don’t have a strong history of returning to full strength. A 2013 research paper published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that of 18 NBA players who ruptured their Achilles over 23 seasons, only eight returned to play for longer than one season. A player of Cousins’s caliber is naturally likely to return to the court, but those that do make it back onto the court have mixed results. Players like Elton Brand and Wes Matthews were never the same after returning. Isiah Thomas suffered a ruptured Achilles at age 32, then retired. Dominique Wilkins also had the same injury at age 32, then played until he was 39 and was named to two more All-NBA teams.
Interestingly, the study found that 29 years old was the average age a player ruptured their Achilles. Cousins is 27. Nonetheless, the study found that 17 of the 18 players saw their minutes decrease after returning. While the sample size for football is small, NFL players have seen a similar decline in both opportunity and production.
Every player has his own story, but history proves worrisome.
Cousins’s Next Contract
Had Cousins not been traded by the Kings days before the 2017 trade deadline, he would’ve been eligible for the designated veteran player contract extension, often called the “super max,” worth five years and roughly $205 million. Cousins’s agent, Jarinn Akana, tried to dissuade teams from trading for his client by threatening he wouldn’t re-sign the following summer, largely because of their desire to sign for the super max, which could only be given to him by Sacramento. Cousins became ineligible for the extra money on a max deal as soon as he was traded to New Orleans.
Now, the Pelicans, and any team interested in Cousins, may balk at the chance to sign a big man fresh off such a significant injury at his maximum amount. Two NBA executives expressed skepticism to me on Friday night that Cousins would receive a full maximum contract this summer. The 27-year-old’s game relies heavily on agility, aggression, and force, so naturally teams would prefer to see him replicate his success before committing such a high percentage of their cap.
Other players might also be less inclined to commit to Boogie. Cousins was one of the players LeBron James had interest in teaming up with this summer, as previously reported here and by other outlets. But with Cousins sidelined, it’s conceivable that he’s no longer an option that can help draw James from the Cavaliers to a team that can create cap space for two max contract players, like the Lakers. If that’s the case, then the odds Cousins remains in New Orleans could actually be higher after the injury.
The Pelicans wouldn’t make that exchange, though. Multiple executives and agents I’ve spoken with over recent weeks believe Cousins has grown fond of playing in New Orleans, and expected him to re-sign anyway. But a new variable has been introduced with the injury. Love or hate Boogie, he could be counted on to take the floor, produce elite offense, and rebound the ball like a man possessed. The equation has changed.
A Thorny Road to the Playoffs
Cousins’s playmaking skills made life easier on Davis. We won’t get to see any more of their dynamic alley-oops for the rest of the season.
Now the heavy burden will fall back on Davis. With Cousins off the floor, Davis’s effective field goal is 7.9 percentage points lower. Davis is already playing a career-high 36.3 minutes per game despite continuing to suffer minor injuries that knock him out early and cause missed games, and he could be asked to play even more minutes with a higher usage. More fatigue could cause a dip in production, while leading to a greater risk for injury and for the team to promptly slide out of the playoff race. New Orleans is currently two and a half games back of third in the West, but also just two games ahead of the eighth-place Nuggets and three games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers. Both teams are more incentivized to push for the playoffs now that the Pelicans are vulnerable.
The Pelicans outscore teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions with Brow in the game without Boogie, per Cleaning The Glass, so they’ll be fine as long as Davis is in the game. The problem is there’s no one backing him up; New Orleans gets outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with both Boogie and Brow out of the game. The Pelicans have played only 7.4 percent of their total possessions this season with both of them off the floor, per NBA Wowy. After rotating between Davis and Cousins, coach Alvin Gentry will now be forced to extend more minutes to Omer Asik or Cheick Diallo, which would be like replacing Win Butler with Steve Harwell.
Brow Back in the Dark Ages
Despite the loss of their second-best player, there’s nothing stopping Pelicans general manager Dell Demps from pursuing deals that help the team now, just as he originally planned. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier this month that Demps has been “active” in the trade market, despite the expected return of starting small forward Solomon Hill. And Wojnarowski reported late Friday that the team expects to continue to be in acquisition mode ahead of the February 8 trade deadline.
Additions must be made. Cousins, Davis, and Jrue Holiday carry an unsustainable load—all three ranking in the top 10 for minutes played—at a fast pace. With Cousins out, Davis and Holiday can’t do it by themselves. While both the front office and coaching staff are under pressure from ownership to make the playoffs this season—Gentry, for instance, has a team option in his contract for next season—the Pelicans could keep pursuing deals that help them as much for the 2018-19 season and beyond.
The bigger issue is the summer of 2020. If the Pels lose Cousins this summer, or if he returns and isn’t the same player, then Davis naturally becomes more of a flight risk when he’s able to opt out of his contract. The whole point in trading for Cousins was to finally pair Davis with another player of his caliber. And despite some growing pains after the trade was made before last year’s deadline, the duo seemed to have made the most of their “Do it big” approach. But without Cousins, the team is at risk of missing the postseason for a third straight season, and the fifth time in Davis’s six NBA seasons.