Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, Cousins suffered a torn ACL.
Cousins was a key signing for the Lakers, agreeing to a one-year, $3.5 million contract in July. He was expected to vie for the starting lineup, with incumbent JaVale McGee is now the most likely candidate to start alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis and, presumably, Danny Green and Rajon Rondo.
The Lakers still have one of the best rosters in the Western Conference, but losing Cousins is a significant blow. An ACL injury generally requires a nine-month recovery, if not longer. That would take the 29-year-old out of action until May. Given his recent injury history, rushing Cousins back doesn't sound like a wise plan.
While Cousins might have given the Lakers their third star alongside James and Davis, instead the spotlight may turn to Kyle Kuzma, the third-year forward who could begin the season as the team's sixth man. Coach Frank Vogel may try to convince Davis to start at center, allowing Kuzma to move to the starting group, but that goes against much of what was said in July when the team introduced Davis.
"I like playing the 4. I'm not even going to sugarcoat it," Davis said. "I don't really like playing the 5."
General manager Rob Pelinka agreed with the notion, which is why the team acquired Cousins and re-signed McGee.
"We've got to do what's best for [Davis'] body, and having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what's best for his body, the team or the franchise," Pelinka said.
Davis starting at center might work in the playoffs, but the Lakers need to get through the regular season first. Outside of McGee, the team doesn't have a true center on the roster.
In addition to the team's 14 guaranteed players, the Lakers have four non-guaranteed summer contracts (Devontae Cacok, Aric Holman, Jordan Caroline and Demetrius Jackson). Cacok was a summer-league standout, but he's just 6'7". Holman has more size at 6'10", but he needs to prove he's NBA material.
Instead, the Lakers can use their final roster spot to add a free agent on a minimum contract, perhaps Kenneth Faried or Amir Johnson. Others available include Greg Monroe, Tyler Zeller, Deyonta Davis and Nene. While Joakim Noah is also a free agent, Lakers senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis might not favor the veteran from their shared experience in New York with the Knicks.
The Lakers may be able to apply for a disabled player exception, assuming Cousins is ruled out for the season. If so, they'd get another $1.75 million to spend in free agency, but that's less than a minimum contract for a veteran with five years of experience. A disabled player exception can also be used as a trade exception or to claim a player off waivers. In all three cases, the Lakers would only be able to take on a player in the last year of his contract.
For reference, all names listed above would earn more on minimum contracts than a disabled player exception with the Lakers except Deyonta Davis, who would be able to sign at just $71,146 below the minimum. In other words, a disabled player exception is unlikely to solve the Cousins problem.
But even without Cousins, the Lakers have a formidable roster. While Anthony Davis may not start at center, he may play rotation minutes in the middle when McGee is on the bench. In the short term, the Lakers don't need another center, but what would happen if McGee missed an extended period?
The Lakers would easily fill in for Davis with James and Kuzma, but who would become Davis' backup at center?
Getting a usable reserve should be the priority before the season, though the Lakers' final open roster spot may be tabbed for forward Andre Iguodala, who isn't expected to finish the year (or maybe even start it) with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are hoping to trade Iguodala, but his $17.2 million expiring contract may be difficult to move.
If he's bought out, the Lakers would probably (and should) prioritize the 2015 NBA Finals MVP over a backup center. If available, Iguodala will be hotly pursued by multiple contenders. The Lakers would hope that his connection to Pelinka, who served as Iguodala's agent for many years before joining the team's front office, would pay dividends.
The Cousins news is disappointing to the Lakers, but at least the timing in August gives them some room to react accordingly—instead of late in the season after the trade deadline or at the start of the playoffs when they would otherwise have no recourse.