There’s an old saying in sports that goes something like this: It’s when you’re thinking about hurting yourself that it’s most likely to happen.
We can’t be sure whether DeMarcus Cousins was thinking about Paul George when the Sacramento Kings center injured his right knee after falling awkwardly during a Team USA scrimmage Thursday afternoon, per USA Today’s Nancy Armour.
Still, to even have that scare—tests showed Cousins suffered no structural damage—might be reason enough to reevaluate whether playing in next week’s FIBA Basketball World Cup is even worth it.
However, it might be Team USA pulling the plug for him.
For his part, Cousins told the Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin as recently as August 8—just one week after George’s gruesome injury—that he’d be “crushed” if coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t keep him on the 12-man roster.
“Everyone knows how much I want to do this,” Cousins said. “This is my third year here (two with Select Team), and I don’t run from any challenge. I would be crushed, but I’m not a quitter. I would come back and try again.”
With Kevin Durant having withdrawn from the competition, Krzyzewski can use all the offense he can get. And Cousins, with his excellent passing and deft touch around the rim, certainly provides that.
But with a team bursting at the seams with perimeter firepower—Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard being just the team’s point guard crop—it’s possible Krzyzewski will adhere more to a “four out” offensive system bolstered by more traditional paint protectors like Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee.
SI.com's Jeremy Woo underscored precisely this point on Friday:
Coach K has been hinting we might see a lot of three-guard lineups, and without Durant that became a near-certainty with this team now highly backcourt-centric. Expect Team USA to open its games with the high-scoring Rose-Curry-Harden trio to drive much of the offense. Curry’s shooting ability will play well off the ball, Rose continues to display a much-improved perimeter game and Harden is the best pure scorer on the roster. As a group, they’ll cause a lot of problems for opponents.
For all his undeniable offensive talent, Cousins has never been a reliable defensive presence.
Whether that alone will be reason enough for Krzyzewski to give the mercurial big man the proverbial axe—particularly with pivot-laden teams like Brazil and Spain on the horizon—will be an interesting development indeed.
As Cousins himself admitted in the Voisin interview, being cut wouldn’t deter him from trying his hand again two years from now, when Team USA will try and snag its third straight gold medal at the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.
Still, it’s worth wondering whether bringing a player into the international fold this many times only to bid him bitter adieu once again might make for a crisis of confidence.
This is a player, after all, known for pinning heart to sleeve.
Sometimes, the results are positively inspired. When Cousins is at his apex, it’s hard to not see him as the best all-around center in the NBA.
Other times, you wonder how many more tantrums or sideways scowls it'll take before Cousins loses it for good.
His reputation has long preceded him, and this summer’s showcase was no different. However, it didn’t take long for Krzyzewski to notice what many in NBA circles had long taken note of: Cousins is growing up.
"All the coaches were really pleased with DeMarcus and how he played," Krzyzewski said during an August 5 teleconference. "Look, his attitude is tremendous because he wouldn't keep coming back to be a part of Team USA if it didn't mean something to him. We recognize that.”
Laudatory as Coach K’s comments were, one can’t help but read a tinge of guardedness in those last two sentences. No coach conducting a tryout wants to tip his hand, of course—particularly at this level.
All the same, it seems not even a dearth of positional power has made Cousins’ spot safe.
At 24 years old, Cousins still has plenty of time to make hay with Team USA. If he can somehow continue to improve—a scary thought, given the numbers he put up in his fourth NBA season—he might even have a pair of Olympic appearances ahead of him.
Then again, Thursday’s injury, regardless of its extent, could make the whole exercise moot.
With Cousins already confirmed out of Friday’s exhibition showdown with Brazil, calls for him to withdraw are bound to get louder. And not just from Kings fans, either.
That Team USA offers up-and-coming stars a chance to hone their games against the globe’s best is, 22 years after the Dream Team’s marauding march to Barcelona gold, a practical truism. For all the extra wear and tear, the collaboration and competition of international play—like any study-abroad program—is bound to yield a fuller basketball perspective.
That, in turn, is good for the NBA. And so the cycle continues, with more regular competition contributing to better play, better players and, most important of all, a better, more dynamic game.
Can Team USA survive without Cousins? It’s possible. Should it lose, it certainly wouldn’t be for his loss alone.
Still, if/when he’s fully cleared to play, Cousins stands to gain as much as anyone—in knowledge, team-building experience and tricks of the international trade—over the next month.
Even if he remains a mostly bench-bound spectator, the sheer act of osmosis would pay tangible and lasting dividends, both for the Kings and Team USA itself.
For as much as we criticize some stars for skirting FIBA for the sake of quadrennial gold, Cousins gives us an endlessly compelling counterpoint: a player long lambasted for his on-court antics doing everything in his power to prove he belongs, USA emblazoned across his chest, with the game’s best.
Even in injury, Cousins is willing to take a chance. It’s time for Team USA to respond in kind.