Torn ACL Further Complicates DeMarcus Cousins' Legacy

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2019

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the Golden State Warriors reacts against the Toronto Raptors in the second half during Game Six of the 2019 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2019 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A hellish 18-plus months for DeMarcus Cousins just took another turn for the worse, throwing the enigmatic All-Star big man's career further into flux.

The newly signed Los Angeles Lakers center suffered a left knee injury during a summer workout in Las Vegas on Monday, which his agent, Jeff Schwartz, later confirmed to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski was a torn ACL. Cousins will miss the entire 2019-20 season—this after a torn Achilles cut short his 2017-18 campaign and short-circuited what was supposed to be a big free-agency payday that summer.

The timing of this news couldn't be worse for Cousins, who signed his second consecutive one-year prove-it deal this offseason, jumping from the Golden State Warriors to the Lakers in another attempt to reestablish himself as a perennial All-Star. Now, the future of those efforts is cloudier than ever.

In light of the latest setback in a seemingly endless string of them, Cousins' nine-year career becomes even more difficult to pin down. He is one of the most divisive players of this era. He's one of the most talented big men of the decade—dominant at his peak. He's displayed a notoriously difficult personality at times, entering the league with a volatile reputation that was in some ways fair and others not, that he's fought to shake for the past 10 years.

His luck was rotten, as he spent the first six-plus seasons of his career with the perennially dysfunctional Sacramento Kings and sat out what would have been his first playoff appearance in 2018 after the Achilles tear.

Now, two devastating injuries in less than two years make him one of his generation's most high-profile what-ifs.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 03:  DeMarcus Cousins walks across the court during week seven of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Allstate Arena on August 03, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/BIG3 via Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

There have been dueling narratives about Cousins since his 2009-10 freshman season at Kentucky, which preceded his 2010 entry into the league when the Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick. He was boundlessly talented, a force of nature on the glass who could score in the paint at will and had uncommon court vision and passing instincts for someone his size.

Later in his career, Cousins added a respectable three-point shot (he hit at least 35 percent of his threes in 2016-17 and 2017-18), making him even more ideally suited to this era of basketball. The questions about his place among the NBA's elite building blocks never centered around his talent or production.

The question teams and fans have asked themselves throughout his career was whether that on-court talent was worth dealing with Cousins on a day-to-day basis. Calling these concerns about his presence "off-court issues" would be unfair—he's never gotten into trouble and became beloved in Sacramento due to extensive charity work in the community, much of which went unpublicized at his own insistence. But on a team level, he hasn't been the easiest person to have in an organization.

It's all on the record. In his rookie year, he was kicked off the team plane following a confrontation with teammate Donte Greene. In his second season, Cousins was suspended for one game, with head coach Paul Westphal telling reporters Cousins had asked to be traded. Westphal was fired shortly after that. 

The following season, Cousins was suspended two games for confronting San Antonio Spurs TV analyst Sean Elliott after a game. That same year, he faced additional suspensions for hitting O.J. Mayo and for a halftime confrontation with head coach Keith Smart.

In January 2015, the Kings fired head coach Michael Malone against Cousins' wishes, resulting in tensions between the All-Star big man and the Sacramento front office. Cousins clashed with Malone's replacement, George Karl, who openly lobbied for him to be traded before the coach was fired following the 2015-16 season.

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Throughout all of this, Cousins was adamant that he didn't want to leave Sacramento, telling Marc Stein, then of ESPN, in December of that year he didn't want to be traded. Weeks later, after Kings president Vlade Divac told Stein that Cousins wouldn't be traded, the team dealt him to New Orleans for an underwhelming package centered around rookie guard Buddy Hield.

The Kings, apparently, were scared off by the possibility of paying Cousins the five-year, $200 million supermax extension he was on the verge of qualifying for.

Cousins appeared to find his footing in his first full season with the Pelicans. He made his fourth straight All-Star team and formed a lethal frontcourt tandem with Anthony Davis. That season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game while shooting 35.4 percent from the three-point line, placing himself firmly in the conversation for the title of league's best center while helping power the Pelicans to unlikely playoff contention.

That all changed on Jan. 26, 2018, when Cousins tore his Achilles during a game against the Houston Rockets, altering his career in more ways than could be imagined. Just when his reputation seemed to be turning a corner, he was back at zero.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the New Orleans Pelicans lies down on the ground after injuring his ankle during the second half of a NBA game against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center on January 26, 2018 in New Orleans
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Cousins made a big bet on himself last summer in the aftermath of that injury, reportedly turning down the Pelicans' two-year, $40 million offer to re-sign, instead taking the $5.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception from the two-time defending champion Warriors.

The reasoning for his gamble made all the sense in the world at the time. The Warriors, with four superstars in their prime, wouldn't need Cousins to return until he was ready. His ability to play right away would be immaterial to their dominance, giving him all the time he needed to get 100 percent healthy.  

He'd likely end the year with his first championship ring, which would come with vindication for all the doubts he'd faced throughout his career about being able to contribute to a winning team. And if he stayed healthy and productive during the playoffs, he'd have a golden opportunity to capitalize and get the kind of long-term deal he would have commanded the previous summer.

The worst-case outcome of Cousins' bet was the one that played out. He made his Golden State debut in mid-January and played 30 games, putting up solid numbers in limited minutes (16.3 points, 8.2 points, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks in 25.7 minutes per game) but struggling to fit seamlessly alongside Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the Warriors offense. 

Cousins finally got his first taste of playoff basketball but suffered a quad injury minutes into Game 2 of Golden State's first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, sidelining him for the rest of that series as well as the next two rounds. He returned to the lineup for the Finals with mixed results, but the Warriors were devastated by injuries to Durant and Thompson and lost to the Toronto Raptors in six games.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13: DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the Golden State Warriors and Marc Gasol #33 of the Toronto Raptors talk after a game during Game Six of the NBA Finals on June 13, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Not only did Cousins not end his make-good year with the championship that seemed predestined, the big offers also didn't come in when free agency hit June 30. He signed with the Lakers for one year and $3.5 million, even less than he took from the Warriors last summer.

His plan in signing with L.A. was the same this time around: join up with superstar teammates (in this case, LeBron James and a reunion with close friend and former Pelicans running mate Davis), hopefully contribute to a deep playoff run and show teams he could stay healthy for a full season—and then get paid in the summer of 2020.

With Thursday's news, Cousins' second attempt at a triumphant comeback is over before it even started, two days after his 29th birthday.

Cousins will be out of commission for another season, his third in a row hampered by serious injuries, right in the middle of what should be his physical prime. There's no telling what his game will look like when he recovers from this latest blow. The money he's lost in potential free-agent deals over the past 18 months is enough to reckon with by itself; even worse is the likely end of his time as a star-level performer, several years before that day should have come.

Even before the injuries, Cousins' career and legacy were difficult to square away. These injuries and what looks to be the premature end of his sky-high peak make everything about Cousins—the good and the bad—even tougher to put in a box.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.