In the first quarter of the Golden State Warriors' Game 2 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, DeMarcus Cousins innocently chased after a loose ball. Before he got there, he planted his left foot and buckled in pain, grabbing his left thigh.
Cousins was done for the game and most likely for the playoffs. When it comes to the four-time All-Star's impending date with free agency, it's complicated, to say the least.
The fact that Cousins suffered another significant left leg injury only 15 months after tearing his Achilles tendon on the same side is certainly cause for concern. And it definitely sabotaged the Warriors' plan after they signed Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million deal last summer, when he was still months away from returning.
Golden State knew from the beginning that the best-case scenario was that Cousins would come close to being his dominant, pre-injury self, help them win another championship and then go on his merry way with a max deal in the free-agent market. Now, all of it would seem to be in serious jeopardy.
"It's going to be an enormous loss for him," a Western Conference executive told Bleacher Report. "He might end up in a situation where these injuries cost him $150 million. It'll have a profound impact."
Cousins' latest injury is a tear in the quadriceps muscle, which is not as ominous or career-threatening as a tear of the quad tendon, said Dr. Kingsley Yew, a physical therapist and founder of Evolve To Perform Physiotherapy in Farmingdale, New York. The Warriors' initial diagnosis is that the injury will not require surgery, according to a person familiar with Cousins' interactions with the team, and they're holding out hope—however slim—that Cousins could return this season if they advance to their fifth straight NBA Finals.
But these kind of injuries are typically seen in athletes much older than Cousins, who is only 28. Yew said Achilles tears occur predominantly in athletes who are 30-49; quad tears are seen mostly in athletes who are 40 and older.
Without having examined Cousins or knowing anything about his rehab, work habits or training regimen, Yew said his suspicion is that the injuries are related.
"Achilles to quad, that's definitely to me a synergistic pattern of wear," Yew said. "If you're lacking the strength, mobility and elasticity of the Achilles, you're going to chronically send stress upstream to that other group of musculature. He's going to make any general manager nervous...'Can we count on this guy?'"
Another Western Conference executive told B/R that Cousins' body of work this season wouldn't have justified more than another one-year deal in the marketplace this summer, anyway. If that's the case, Cousins' latest setback won't change much.
But even if Cousins commands only a one-year deal, it remains all but certain that it will not be with the Warriors. Golden State does not have his Bird rights and can only offer him a salary of $6.4 million—a 20 percent raise.
With so many teams flush with salary-cap space and chasing a limited number of top-shelf free agents, all it will take to blow the Warriors out of the water is one team that strikes out in its pursuit of "one of the big fish," an Eastern Conference exec said.
"If you're chasing Kevin Durant and you don't get him, what's the next option?" the executive said. "Do you settle for Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris? A lot of teams are going to be left at the altar and are going to have to pay the max to someone who doesn't deserve it."
Thus, even if he's unable to secure a multiyear deal, Cousins could still stand to get a one-year payday between $10 million and $15 million from a team itching to spend.
The only alternative for Cousins would be to accept another massive pay cut to stay with the Warriors, whose medical and training staffs he developed a connection with during his rehab.
"He's moved around so much [recently] that he needs to have some real relationships with somebody, and I don't think he's really had that before," the Western Conference exec added. "It's a tough situation, but it's easier when you're already with a good group and you know the humans."
The baggage that Cousins carried with him before his latest injury still remains. He can be stubborn and emotional, and the 10-year veteran has been every bit as good at collecting technical fouls (seven in 30 games this season) as he has been at stuffing stats in the box score.
But according to the person familiar with Cousins' interactions with his teammates and coaches, he was on his best behavior. For the first three months of the season when he was rehabbing his Achilles, Cousins was often one of the first players to arrive at the practice facility and one of the last to leave.
"He worked his ass off and actually was playing really, really well," the person said.
Yew, who specializes in performance-based physical therapy, noted that Cousins' workload in the days leading up to the Achilles tear was substantial. In the month leading up to last season's injury while with the New Orleans Pelicans in late January, Cousins had logged more than 40 minutes seven times in 13 games. This included a 51-minute stint in a double-overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls four days before he got hurt.
The Warriors, for good reason, were extremely cautious with Cousins' return-to-play program. Known as one of the most innovative teams in the league when it comes to sports performance, recovery and nutrition, they didn't need Cousins in November, December or January. They needed him in May and June, and the team structured his rehab accordingly.
"I'm sure they did their due diligence, and I would expect them to be super innovative," Yew said. "But in the grand scheme of things, it's athletics. You can't prevent all the catastrophics."
According to an ESPN story last week chronicling Cousins' season, the rehab program designed by the team's director of sports medicine and performance, Dr. Rick Celebrini, was meticulous. No link in the kinetic chain was overlooked; no recovery tool went unused, from strengthening to soft tissue work to nutrition.
On three occasions, Celebrini went so far as to have Cousins fill out a questionnaire designed to measure his physical and psychological readiness to return.
"There was no hurry to rush him back," said the person familiar with Cousins' interactions with the team.
There won't be this time, either. Chances are, Cousins has played his last game with the Warriors, a team he "never in a million years" thought he'd have a chance to join, according to ESPN.
"Who knew I was blowing out my Achilles?" Cousins said.
And who knew that barely a year later, he'd be on the comeback trail once again. This time, the market may be more forgiving than expected, but there are still serious questions—not to mention a crucial decision—looming for DeMarcus Cousins.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.
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