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DeMarcus Cousins Is Becoming the NBA’s Latest “What If?”

The center tore his left ACL on Monday during a workout in Las Vegas, adding another item to a long list of injuries. Will he ever again be the player he once was?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One time, a couple of years ago, I was trying to describe the way watching DeMarcus Cousins made me feel. Grasping for an image that connected, as many nerds do—and as everybody else does, too, apparently—I found myself thinking about comic book characters. I landed on this: “DeMarcus Cousins’ face-up drives [make] you wonder how the Hulk also got to be Spider-Man.”

It didn’t win me a Pulitzer or anything, but it felt about right. I mean, just watch him:

A long, long two years later, though, Cousins evokes thoughts of a different bit of the Marvel universe.

What if the four-time All-Star hadn’t gone quite so hard for New Orleans in the middle of the 2017-18 season? Cousins averaged 39 minutes per game during a 14-game stretch from late December through late January, including 51 minutes in a double-overtime win over the Bulls before the game in which he’d eventually tear his left Achilles tendon, mere months before hitting unrestricted free agency. What if he had taken the two-year, $40 million contract extension that the Pelicans reportedly offered him after the injury but before he reached the market, rather than opting for a one-year, $5 million deal with the Warriors—one that put the onus on Cousins to prove right away to prospective suitors that he was worth a long-term bet in the summer of 2019? What if he hadn’t sold out for that loose ball in the first round against the Clippers, tearing his left quadriceps, a serious and debilitating injury that put him squarely back in recovery mode?

And now, after Thursday’s news of another injury to the just-turned-29-year-old’s embattled left leg: What if we’re watching DeMarcus Cousins become a “what if” right before our eyes?

Word came first from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who reported that Cousins—who signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers after his up-and-down season in Golden State—“had suffered a possible knee injury” while working out in Las Vegas on Monday, and “had to leave the court” after reportedly bumping knees with another player. Now Shams Charania of The Athletic reports that “final tests” are expected to confirm that Cousins has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury that will likely cost him a significant chunk of a third straight NBA season—if not all of the 2019-20 campaign.

We won’t have a clearer picture of how long Cousins will be sidelined until the extent of his injury is revealed and, if the ligament is torn, he undergoes surgery to repair it. The recent history of NBA players who’ve suffered a torn ACL, though, suggests he’s in line for another long layoff. According to a 2017 review of players who had ruptured an ACL in the previous five years, the quickest return since 2012 was made by J.J. Hickson, who sustained the injury in March 2014 and was back on the court in early November. On the other end of the spectrum: Danilo Gallinari, who initially attempted to treat his torn left ACL without going under the knife, but wound up needing reconstructive surgery that kept him away from the court for a total of 20 months.

Most players in that five-year sample who had surgery right away wound up missing somewhere between nine and 14 months. The story’s been the same for those who have come since, like Zach LaVine (11 months) and Jabari Parker (nearly 12). Kristaps Porzingis still hasn’t suited up since his tear in February 2018. (Though the Knicks being bad, him not wanting to play for them, him getting traded to Dallas, and the Mavericks not wanting to rush him unnecessarily might have played a role in that.)

Porzingis said last September that he’d taken a conservative approach with his recovery because “there is no protocol for … my type of body, my size and all that.” Well, Cousins might not be 7-foot-3, but I’m not sure the league’s got a ton of experience predicting what life will look like for a 6-foot-11 270-pounder who has torn his Achilles, his quad, and his ACL in a span of 19 months.

After a chilly free-agent market prompted Cousins to take a second straight one-year deal to link up with a championship hopeful, he said he planned to use this season to show he could produce more than mere flashes of his old fire. He wanted to play all 82 games, something he’d never done in his nine-year career—“I want a full season of health”—and he wanted to savor the feeling of being 100 percent again.

“Everything I’ve gone through in the past three years, it just helped me realize how fast this thing can be taken away from you,” he told reporters last month after signing with the Lakers. “I love it that much more. I’m grateful for every opportunity. I learned the hard way.”

That there’s more hard learning on the way for Cousins is brutal, given the heights he’d reached during his brief partnership with Anthony Davis in New Orleans—seriously, go watch this dude work—and how he’s been laid low ever since. There could still be a role for him as a floor-spacing, playmaking complementary piece alongside other top scorers who can go to work against second units—basically, the intended aim for his tenure in Golden State—but it’s getting harder and harder to envision Cousins ever again resembling the kind of player who could get 25 and 12 night after night. Even landing that more circumscribed role will require him getting and staying healthy for the first time in three years, with a lengthening list of left leg ailments, on the wrong side of 30.

It’s a tall mountain to climb. The Hulk could leap it in a single bound. Spider-Man could sling a web and scale it in a heartbeat. But DeMarcus Cousins isn’t that guy anymore. It’ll be a while before we figure out what he still can be. We’ll have plenty of “what ifs” to sift through in the meantime.