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DeMarcus Cousins' Injury Comes at Worst Possible Time for Embattled Center

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2019

Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins reacts after falling to the floor during the first half of Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers in Oakland, Calif., Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

On a night when the Golden State Warriors ceded home-court advantage to the Los Angeles Clippers, they were also dealt another sobering blow.

Midway through the first quarter of Monday's 135-131 loss, DeMarcus Cousins crumpled to the floor, unbidden, while chasing a loose ball. He left the game with a lower left leg injury and did not return:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Boogie heads to the locker room after an apparent leg injury. Hope the big fella is okay. https://t.co/tW2Yd4vdaR

Cousins underwent an MRI on Tuesday, confirming the Warriors' worst fears: a torn left quad that will likely keep him out until at least the Finals, according to The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania

"The guy's been waiting for this moment his entire life, his entire career, and he's finally here," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told Kristen Ledlow before the start of the fourth quarter of Monday night's loss. "So we're all just devastated to see the injury."

Fortunately for the Warriors, they are built to navigate the nightmare scenario. Blowing a 31-point lead Monday night didn't change that.

Kevon Looney continues to defend his butt off and shoot the lights out. Golden State is a plus-31 with him on the floor for the series, and his switchability in space at the less glamorous end has always suggested he can carry a larger role.

After him, the Warriors have Andrew Bogut, the option of dusting off Jordan Bell and, as always, Draymond Green-at-the-5 lineups. 

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The more pressing concern is what's next for Cousins, who suffered a torn left Achilles tendon last January while playing for the New Orleans Pelicans and didn't return to the court for almost an entire year. That setback is why he's on the Warriors at all, playing for the $5.3 million taxpayer's mid-level exception despite initially being considered a max-contract formality.

Cousins is slated for free agency again this summer, and this setback will hover over his market.

Predicting what awaits Cousins this summer is virtually impossible, though. His curb appeal has long been complicated—not just by last year's injury, but also by a dearth of obvious fits.

More than one-third of the league will have access to serious cap space. That bodes well for quality free agents. This summer's list of available players is top-heavy. Certain teams will be left scrambling for consolation prizes after getting spurned by the top 10 or so names.

Cousins may be among the beneficiaries of a market that's wanting for second-tier star power. Then again, few squads need a starting center and have substantial cash to burn.

Atlanta (John Collins), Brooklyn (Jarrett Allen), Chicago (Wendell Carter Jr./Lauri Markkanen), Dallas (Kristaps Porzingis), Indiana (Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis), Sacramento (Marvin Bagley III/Harry Giles III/just, no) and Utah (Rudy Gobert) are off the table, barring surprise. The New York Knicks can be looped in here as well, because Mitchell Robinson is that good.

A reunion with the Pelicans never made sense, and they're staring down an extensive rebuild once newly installed vice president of basketball operations David Griffin completes an Anthony Davis trade. The Orlando Magic can drum up space if they renounce all their own free agents, but keeping Nikola Vucevic is by far the safer investment.

The Phoenix Suns can get creative if they part ways with Kelly Oubre Jr. and are always on the hunt for splashy additions, but they have no use for another primary big with Deandre Ayton in tow. The Clippers need a Plan B if Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant doesn't sign with them, but they already have Montrezl Harrell, and Ivica Zubac has played well.

Among franchises with meaningful cap space, that leaves...the Los Angeles Lakers. And Cousins will not be their first choice. They will cross their fingers for Durant, Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, etc. before they consider allocating a chunk of their max room to Cousins.

The Lakers may reach that point. Many "league insiders" believe they'll whiff on the top free agents, according to Bill Oram of The Athletic. They can't afford to leave free agency empty-handed with LeBron James entering his age-35 season.

And yet, even then, Cousins is assured of nothing. The Lakers won't shell out long-term money for a contingency plan—at least not without knowing whether the Pelicans have sent Davis elsewhere.

Contract terms profile as a problem regardless of which team shows interest in Cousins. Some suitors might dangle a multiyear pact, but none of them, in all likelihood, will be using actual cap space to do so.

Potential admirers best positioned to hand out a long-term agreement are contenders or capped-out teams peddling the mid-level exception. Think along the lines of the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat or Portland Trail Blazers (considering Jusuf Nurkic's leg injury).

And if that's the type of lukewarm reception Cousins gets, the Warriors will remain in play. They can only offer him 120 percent of this year's salary ($6.4 million) unless they figure out how to duck the tax and access the full mid-level exception ($9.3 million), but he's at least familiar with the organization and knows it'll be playing deep into the postseason. The Warriors will also have more touches for him if Durant, as expected, abandons ship.

Cousins' free-agency market has never been an open-and-shut case.
Cousins' free-agency market has never been an open-and-shut case.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

This all says nothing of Cousins' performance since his Jan. 18 return. He has the counting stats of an impact player. He averaged 22.8 points per 36 minutes during the regular season—no small feat after recovering from an Achilles injury, joining a new team and assuming a smaller role.

But his efficiency has not inspired much confidence. He entered the postseason shooting 27.4 percent on threes and under 40 percent on drives. His 0.94 points per post-up possession ranked in the 55th percentile.

With the exception of the home stretch, the Warriors have not looked great defensively when Cousins plays. Rival offenses are getting out in transition more often with him on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, and his pick-and-roll defense is an issue against more mobile combinations. (He improved in the latter department toward the end of the regular season.)

Put in the bluntest way: Cousins' latest injury doesn't change much about his future. It was always draped in uncertainty. He was always up against an ambiguous market. 

The question of what's next isn't any more uncomfortable than before. 

It's just never been more unanswerable.

                    

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Andrew Bailey.

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