It's never a good time for a season-ending injury, but the torn left Achilles that DeMarcus Cousins suffered Friday night couldn't have come at a worse moment for him or the New Orleans Pelicans.
Cousins was three weeks away from making his first All-Star start, the culmination of what has been a career year. This was all happening right before free agency this summer, when he was expected to command a contract worth north of $170 million over five years.
Instead, the Pelicans lose Cousins for the rest of the season as they're in the thick of a tight race for a Western Conference playoff spot, which would have been the first postseason appearance of his eight-year career. Without him, New Orleans' playoff hopes take a significant hit.
Beyond this season, Cousins' future greatly impacts that of the Pelicans' other superstar, Anthony Davis, who can hit the open market after the 2019-20 campaign. There's a lot to unpack, and none of it is good for New Orleans.
Pelicans' playoff hopes in danger
As of Friday night, the Pelicans were in sixth place in the Western Conference with a 27-21 record, half a game ahead of the seventh-seeded Portland Trail Blazers and two games ahead of the eighth-place Denver Nuggets. Their record is three games better than the 24-24 Los Angeles Clippers, who are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture and are the only realistic contender to steal one of the last spots.
Making the playoffs without Cousins is still possible, but there isn't a comfortable cushion. Of their 34 remaining games, 17 are against teams in position to make the playoffs, and an additional three are against the Clippers, who they need to hold off.
New Orleans' frontcourt rotation outside of Davis and Cousins is thin. Alexis Ajinca is likely out for the year with a knee injury, and Solomon Hill is still out for the foreseeable future with a hamstring setback. General manager Dell Demps will have to rely on the G League, 10-day contracts or the buyout market to add bodies, and he'll likely be looking at the likes of Andrew Bogut—i.e. capable bodies but not exactly needle-movers.
The Cousins-Davis tandem's dominance allowed the Pelicans to overcome a lack of shooting to put up the No. 6-ranked offense in the league, scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Cousins' absence creates a void that could be too much to fill as New Orleans tries to stay afloat in a tough playoff race.
Cousins' complicated free agency
Various flare-ups over the years and his controversial trade from Sacramento to New Orleans last February have made Cousins one of the most polarizing stars in recent memory, and this injury doesn't make his future any easier to predict.
Even in perfect health, Cousins has given rise to divided opinions around the league. His talent and on-court impact are undeniable, but questions about his demeanor and effect on team culture have followed him throughout his career. The Kings found a chilled market when they shopped him at the last deadline for a reason, and they wound up selling low to New Orleans for Buddy Hield, a protected first-round pick and a second-rounder.
Before the injury, his free agency would have been a fascinating case. The Pelicans would undoubtedly be highly motivated to re-sign him to prove to Davis they're serious about contending (more on that in a minute). The Los Angeles Lakers, eager to make a splash in free agency with LeBron James, Paul George and other stars on the market, may have gotten involved. They've targeted Cousins in trade discussions in years past. For all the headaches Cousins may give an organization, there would have been teams lining up to pay him a lot of money this summer.
Now, who knows?
It's not just that Cousins suffered a season-ending injury (ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reports his timetable for recovery could range from six to 10 months, which could push his return into next season). An Achilles tear is one of the worst injuries an athlete can suffer, and a full-strength return doesn't have much NBA precedent. In recent years, Kobe Bryant, Wesley Matthews and Brandon Jennings have struggled to regain past form after suffering the injury.
Cousins' former Kings teammate Rudy Gay is an outlier in this regard. He suffered a torn Achilles last year on Jan. 18 and not only returned on opening night but is also in the midst of a productive season for the San Antonio Spurs.
However, most of the high-profile players who've come back from the injury have been guards and wings. Cousins, at a massive 6'11", 270 pounds, is a different story. The closest comparable case for a player with this injury, in both size and star status, is that of Elton Brand, who was close to Cousins' age (27) when he suffered a torn Achilles during the 2007 offseason as a 28-year-old member of the Clippers.
Brand returned in April 2008 and played the season's final eight games before signing a five-year, $82 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. Injuries plagued the rest of his career, and he never returned to his All-Star form.
Medical science is more advanced now, however, and Cousins likely has better odds to come back from the injury at something close to his previous level than Brand did a decade ago. Signing him to a big contract is a significant risk, but Cousins is arguably a top-10 talent, which makes it far more likely a team will decide it's a worthy long-term wager.
It makes the most sense for the Pelicans to re-sign him, as a lack of cap flexibility and an urgent need to win while Davis is in his prime tie their hands. It's still a gamble—a long-term max contract could be crippling if he never returns to his old self. But they don't have many other options, and Cousins would be hard-pressed to turn down long-term security after this kind of career-altering injury.
What does it mean for Anthony Davis?
Whether or not the Pelicans re-sign Cousins, the clock is officially ticking for them to prove to Davis he can win in New Orleans. The five-time All-Star can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2020. That means the Pelicans have, at most, one more year to make a run with Davis before he enters a contract season and they are faced with a hard decision about whether to trade him and start a full rebuild or wait out his free agency and risk losing him for nothing.
All indications are that Davis wants to remain in New Orleans, but that could change if they can't prove they can build a contender around him. It's a reality small-market teams face every year when stars begin to wonder if their primes are being wasted. Paul George's desire to contend again led him to ask for a trade from Indiana last summer, and LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland for San Antonio in 2015 feeling like he'd reached his ceiling with the Blazers.
If Cousins leaves in free agency, the Pelicans may have to look into moving on from Davis sooner than they'd like, because they still won't have much money to make big signings. If Cousins re-signs and isn't the same player he was before the injury, that could also leave Davis wondering if there is a better situation as he approaches free agency.
A playoff run this year with a healthy Cousins would have been great for New Orleans' case to Davis that he can win there long term. They may still make the playoffs without Cousins, but his future health and free agency are wild cards that will have wide-ranging consequences. Friday night, an entire franchise's future was thrown into chaos.