The Return of Cousins: Expectations Versus Reality
Can DeMarcus Cousins get back to his All-NBA level when he returns? That is the question on every NBA fan's mind as he inches closer to a comeback. A torn Achilles and torn left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) within 18 months aren't usually great indicators of a successful return for most professional athletes. Before we delve into it, I think it’s important to look back at the high level he was playing at before his injury.
48 games into the 2017-18 NBA season the New Orleans Pelicans had a record of 27-21 and sat sixth in a stacked Western Conference. Cousins had just paired up with Anthony Davis at the beginning of that season and they were just starting to gel alongside Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo.
Personally, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, five and a half assists and almost two blocks a game. Oh, and he was shooting 47 percent from the field while hitting two threes a game. Those are some ridiculous numbers - Giannis-esque stats, to be sure - for a guy who is 6-foot-10 and 270 lbs. He was primed for his first All-Star game start and was likely due a max-deal worth $170 million over five years at the end of that season.
But in a split second, chasing an offensive rebound off his missed free-throw with 15-seconds left in a game against Houston, Cousins' worst nightmare came true and he tore his left Achilles.
It’s hard not to think of what could have been, especially now, after he subsequently suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in August 2019. Think back to that 2017-18 season: the Pelicans finished 48-34 and in sixth spot and were only one game behind Portland in third. They ended up sweeping the Blazers in the first round anyway and lost to Golden State 4-1 in the second round. Does having a red-hot Cousins mean New Orleans beats the Warriors? Probably not, but you know he’s going to make it a more competitive series and maybe, just maybe, he helps them steal another game or two.
He was 27 at the time of the Achilles injury, and is turning 30 in August, so does his trajectory still seem hopeful? Of course. He perfectly embodied what a valuable big man does in the league today; shoot threes, defend the rim and grab rebounds. He was entering his prime, adding parts to his game every season like his extended range, playmaking and defense, which weren’t pillars of his game coming into the league. It showed in his improved stats each year as well. The Pelicans' future looked bright with a young Davis beside him. It means AD probably doesn’t seek a trade as aggressively because he’s already got a running mate in a winning situation, and New Orleans becomes a fringe title contender for years on end.
Has the nostalgia set in yet? It has for me, because like any superstar who gets injured, it’s hard to think back to what they were before the injury and what could have been.
The thing Cousins has in his favour is his age. Physically and mentally, he’s still in his prime as a 29-year-old, so he can theoretically recover well from most injuries. Dominique Wilkins was 21 when he tore his Achilles, and he eventually recovered to become an all-time great. Rudy Gay injured his when he was 30 and returned to play at a very similar level to pre-injury. Guys on the right side of 30, like Cousins, stand a greater chance of keeping most of their athleticism and power.
Secondly, stars are stars for a reason. They’re really good at what they do, and you never lose that, despite injuries. We’ve seen guys like Tim Duncan lose a little athleticism and power, and it forces them to change their game slightly, but they ultimately adapt and still find ways to be productive. Duncan was 36 when the Spurs returned to the Finals in 2013, reaching the NBA's mountaintop for the first time since 2007. He was 37 when they won the title the next year. He wasn’t the same player as he was in 2003 but he was still a superstar, so he adapted, changed his game, and continued to be productive in a different way. What Cousins may lose in his legs can be covered by his basketball IQ and the changes he makes in his game. With how Cousins was playing before his injuries and even his form with the Warriors last season as a fifth option, there’s no reason he can’t return and keeping putting up 20 and 10 as a nightly double-double threat.
What stands in his way, though, is the possibility of re-injuring both his Achilles and ACL. But injuries are a possibility for any athlete. The fact that he’s a big man that weighs 270 lbs doesn’t help his case, as this weight puts a lot more pressure and load on his legs. Rudy Gay (230 lbs) and Dominique Wilkins (215 lbs) were helped by their lighter frames and play-styles that involved less bumping and bruising in the paint.
The largest obstacle preventing Cousins from returning to top form, though, is teams not giving him the chance. With an injury history like his, teams are hesitant to hand you their franchise and let you lead it. He was never going to be that guy for the Lakers, and it’s hard to see a team signing him as their main guy again. Miami has been discussed as a landing spot for him for this season’s playoffs, but he’ll be the third star (at best) there behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
Maybe he doesn’t want to be the franchise guy anymore. Maybe being the starting centre on a championship team is his goal for when he gets back - who knows? But despite the gloomy outlook on his career at the moment, I think there’s more positives than negatives. His stubborn personality will be perfect for fighting back against the haters and pessimistic sports scientists, because he won’t accept anything below what he knows he is capable of. Maybe we’ve seen the last of the Cousins we knew before his injuries, but we may yet see the new revived player he will become, much like Dwight Howard has been able to re-shape himself in Los Angeles this season.