DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL on Monday. Confirmations of the injury came on Thursday afternoon. I spent most of the rest of that day thinking about Cousins the person and, really, simply feeling sick for him. There are few things more sad in professional sports than to have an elite athlete’s body betray them. Cousins, multiple time all-star and All-NBA level player, has now suffered his third major left leg injury in the span of 20 months.
There is a physical toll and a mental toll to all of this. I hope he makes it through to the other side stronger than ever. I hope he’s able to not only recover, but to thrive again. I also readily admit the odds this happens are not in his favor. I am just so sad for him. And any analysis about this injury must start and, honestly, linger (for a while) there.
The world does not stop spinning, however and the Lakers, of course, are severely impacted by Cousins’ injury.
It is said in life you can never really miss what you never had. But basketball is not real life. Cousins was going to be an important part of how this team would play this season. With a team devoid of playmaking guards, the Lakers were going to depend on their big men to perform these tasks. Cousins, with all his ball handling, driving ability, shot creation skill, and passing acumen would have been a key variable in this equation. Now he will not be.
The Lakers will never be able to really know what they lost, but that does not mean they won’t hurt from not having it in the first place.
When sports injuries happen, the phrase next man up is thrown around by nearly everyone. Coaches, players, fans…everyone just says it as the obvious response to how to deal with a new reality. For the Lakers, however, I wonder if there actually is a next man up. Cousins may not be LeBron James or Anthony Davis — his role and import does not reach their levels — but he was uniquely positioned to serve as the conduit for this team becoming the best version it could be.
Cousins, even a diminished version operating at 75-80% of his pre-achilles injury self, offers a unique set of traits in a single player: he’s a massive man who can post up, shoot threes, and facilitate offense either through individual shot creation or as a gifted passer in half-court or transition situations. Combine these skills with his presence as a space eater in the paint defensively and on the backboards and there’s just so much he brings to the table. 1How well Cousins would have done all these things for the Lakers would have been an open question and the reason he was on the market at all for the price he was. But the package of skills he possesses is a known quantity.
Replacing that, then, isn’t so straight forward. Especially when you consider the Lakers roster construction. Let’s take some of the things I mentioned above one by one:
- Size: Cousins was either likely to start at Center next to Anthony Davis or be the primary backup. The only other non-Davis big man who can viably play C on this roster is JaVale McGee.
- Shooting from the big man spot: McGee cannot shoot from distance well enough to be considered a threat. Besides Davis and LeBron, Kuzma is the only player with decent size (and, in Kuz’s case, it’s height and not bulk) on the roster who can stretch the floor.
- Post Scoring: LeBron and Davis are the only players on the roster you can reliably ask to get you a basket from the post.
- Offensive Initiation from the big man spot: LeBron is obvious. Davis can do this, but it’s not the strongest part of his game. Ditto for Kuzma. You cannot rely on McGee to play this role at all. If moving away from just the big men, the list then goes to Rajon Rondo and then Alex Caruso. Rondo can run your sets, play some P&R, and is a creative passer in the halfcourt and transition. Caruso can do these things too. Neither, however, are the scoring threats Cousins is, which limits their utility as true shot creators for teammates.
I understand it’s not a genius piece of analysis to say there’s no single player on the Lakers roster who replicates Cousins. What’s more pressing for the Lakers, however, is that they may not even have the right combination of players on their roster able to cobble together his specific set of skills at a consistent enough level.
Kuzma and Rondo, specifically, will surely see their roles expand and their responsibility to perform nightly grow.
Kuzma is primed to make a 3rd year leap, so we can be (somewhat) optimistic about his ability to carry a heavier burden. I think his time with Team USA this summer will help in this regard. Optimism is not actuality, though. He’ll need to prove he is up to the task and rather than being given a chance to show it, he’ll be relied on to do it. This difference is not semantics. Wins and losses will be impacted by how well he performs now.
As for Rondo, we’re past the point of being able to rely on him where any of us can rest easy. He is our lumpy mattress of offensive initiators. Some nights we’ll settle in just fine to find a comfort zone. Most other nights, though, we’ll toss and turn until another bleary eyed sunrise. A once great player has his moments and on muscle memory alone he’ll make plays. The respect he has from teammates matters here too. But he is at the stage of his career where dependable, night to night impact is asking too much. We’re all better off understanding this going in rather than being disappointed in the moment.
This is the roster the Lakers have built. It has its holes and while Boogie should not have been expected to or relied upon to plug them all, he offered enough diversity — and unique diversity at that — to paper over them in ways that allowed others to play more to their strengths and be properly slotted.
To be clear, no one should bury the Lakers because an X-factor player like Cousins is no longer available. This team has several role players I like a great deal and two of the 5-7 best players in the league. They have ingredients to compete at a high level and be a nightmare matchup for a majority of the league on the strength of their roster as it is today.
But losing Cousins hurts. And while we can look for the next man up to fill the void vacated, the Lakers current construction might better translate to altering their course and style of play rather than asking guys who cannot replicate Cousins to step in for him.