Say what you want about DeMarcus Cousins’s past misdeeds or on-court attitude or surly reputation, he really doesn’t deserve this.
In just two months he was to embark on a renaissance season with the Los Angeles Lakers, completely recovered from a quadriceps injury and 20-plus pounds lighter. Cousins wanted to regain his title as one of the league’s elite centers. Injuries had robbed him of that.
And unfortunately, injuries returned with a vengeance. Cousins tore his left anterior cruciate ligament — the same leg of his quadriceps injury and torn Achilles’ tendon — during a workout this past week in Las Vegas.
He is expected to miss at least most of the season, and he again must rehabilitate from a major leg injury as he nears 30 years old.
Prior to his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings in 2010-11, Cousins wowed scouts during the Las Vegas summer league. As he beat his opponent with an array of post moves and fancy footwork, a scout said aloud, “Wow, that’s Kevin McHale out there.”
Cousins has always been one of the league’s more skilled centers and spent years in Sacramento languishing with no playoff appearances despite putting up prolific numbers. As each season passed, Cousins became more disgruntled, dissatisfied with Sacramento’s constant rebuilding around him, failed lottery picks, or veteran additions who couldn’t help the Kings even approach a playoff berth.
It was then that Cousins gained his mercurial reputation. He would stop playing defense to yell at officials. He led the league in fouls three times. When general manager Vlade Divac took over his former team, he tried to build the club around Cousins, who was up for a $200-plus million contract extension.
Divac eventually decided to trade Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2017 All-Star Game. But it was before then that Cousins actually began changing his image. He was a model citizen during his Team USA experience, lobbying to make the team and then playing the enforcer/interior defender role well. Coach Mike Krzyzewski lauded him for his efforts and professionalism.
Suddenly, Cousins was seen as more of a victim of an inept organization — one that still hasn’t made the playoffs in his absence — than an organizational cancer. And things were going well in New Orleans before Cousins tore his Achilles’ as the Pelicans were approaching the playoffs.
Since then he has become a sympathetic figure. He turned down a two-year, $40 million extension with the Pelicans, hoping for a richer contract on the open market. But he agreed to a one-year, midlevel contract with the Warriors with the express purpose of winning a championship.
And then he tore his quadriceps during the second-round playoff series with Houston. Cousins eventually came back, the Warriors lost in the Finals, and Cousins looked to reclaim his stature on a one-year, $3.5 million agreement with the Lakers.
And now the knee.
So how do we view Cousins now that we may have seen his best days. He is no longer an NBA villain but someone we wished we could have seen more of on a more competitive team. But the signs of his decline were apparent in the NBA Finals, when the Raptors constantly went at him defensively with pick-and-rolls, forcing the burly Cousins to chase guards on the perimeter.
Would a slimmed-down Cousins have been a better defender? Quite possibly, but we won’t find out whether he could become an All-Star-caliber player again until 2020-21, when he’ll be coming off three major leg injuries and 30 years old. What Cousins’s plight should teach us is that the NBA past 30 is not promised. Some players have their primes cut short by injuries. Not everybody is LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Dwyane Wade, playing at a high level into their mid-30s.
Cousins could have gone down as the best center of this generation — unseating Dwight Howard, who is currently a free agent at age 33 and hasn’t been a dominant player in more than five years. But unfortunately the best of Cousins was during his Sacramento days, when the organization was managed poorly, wasting lottery picks on players such as Nik Stauskas, Thomas Robinson, and Ben McLemore.
An argument can be made that the best player Cousins played with during his Kings years was a young Isaiah Thomas. And the Kings refused to re-sign Thomas and shipped him to Phoenix, which traded him to Boston.
Cousins has an arduous battle ahead. He has to not only get his knee healthy and regain mobility, but also work himself into premium shape for perhaps one more opportunity to show he could be a productive player.
The days of Cousins making All-Star teams and dominating the paint are likely gone. Like many 30-plus players, he will be fighting just to stay in the league. It’s a sad decline for a player who was once one of the league’s best. But every NBA story doesn’t have a happy ending — glorious endings are never promised.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Intriguing games are on the agenda
The NBA schedule is not as intriguing as those in the NFL and Major League Baseball because every team plays each other. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t must-watch games.
The Warriors won’t be the same. The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Clippers. The Bucks and 76ers appear to be the class of the Eastern Conference. Teams such as the Pacers, Jazz and even Nuggets are capable of making runs to the Finals.
Here are 10 games that fans should see to fulfill their NBA appetite:
■ Celtics at 76ers (Oct. 23) — These teams have been linked for the past half-decade and the Celtics have usually had the advantage. But this time the 76ers snatched Al Horford away from the Celtics and re-signed Tobias Harris. The Celtics are dramatically different with Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, a rejuvenated Gordon Hayward, and rookie Carsen Edwards, so it will be a feel-out game for both teams. But there’s no doubt that the rivalry has been reignited with Horford defecting to the Celtics’ division rival.
■ Knicks at Nets (Oct. 25) — Don’t think the new-look Nets want to show the Knicks who is really King of New York? This rivalry has taken an interesting turn with the Nets adding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (who likely will miss the season) along with DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple, and Taurean Prince. The Knicks, however, will be hungry with a slew of players looking to prove they aren’t afterthoughts after the Knicks missed out again on signing a major free agent.
■ Clippers at Jazz (Oct. 30) — Of course the Lakers-Clippers matchups will be epic — but what about when the Clippers hit the road and face one of the Western Conference’s most interesting teams in the Jazz, who added Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green, and Ed Davis in the offseason and are now primed to contend for the Finals? Utah may become the toughest road stop in the NBA this season and the Clippers will have to prove they can win tough games on the road with Leonard and Paul George likely not feeling 100 percent.
■ Pelicans at Lakers (Jan. 3) — This will be Zion Williamson’s first game in Los Angeles and he should be prepared and in shape for his Hollywood debut. You just hope there isn’t too much pressure on the rookie, who brings instant credibility and allure to the Pelicans after last year’s miserable ending with Anthony Davis. Williamson should enjoy the spotlight and the attention, hopefully he’ll live up to lofty expectations.
■ Rockets at Thunder (Jan. 9) — It’s Russell Westbrook’s return to Oklahoma City and equally as important, we’ll know much more about each team 2½ months into the season. How is the Westbrook-James Harden pairing working? Will the Rockets already have fired Mike D’Antoni? Is Chris Paul still playing for the Thunder? Oklahoma City is not going to be a bad team with Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, and Danilo Gallinari. There’s a distinct possibility the Thunder could be battling for the eighth spot or higher. Just wait.
■ Lakers at 76ers (Jan. 25.) — Not only is this a difficult road game for LeBron James and the crew, this is the final game of a five-game road trip that includes Houston, Boston, New York, and Brooklyn. And then the Lakers return home to face the Clippers three days later. The Lakers will have to prove they can win tough road games, especially if they plan to win the West. This may be their toughest trip of the season.
■ Bucks at Lakers (March 6) — While folks are tabbing the 76ers as the favorites in the East, it’s the Bucks that have the most coming back from last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. Yet another potential NBA Finals matchup and it will feature the duel between Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Who is the best power forward in the game? Can they guard each other? And who on the Bucks will guard James? There are so many questions.
■ Clippers at Nuggets (March 18) — Another tough road game for the Clippers, who will face a Denver team that has a legitimate chance to win the Western Conference. By this time we’ll know whether Michael Porter Jr. is a major contributor for Denver after he missed last season following back surgery. If Porter is as good as advertised, and the Nuggets carry momentum from last season into this one, this could be a Western Conference finals preview.
■ Spurs at Warriors (March 29) — By this time, the Warriors should know when Klay Thompson will return, if he hasn’t already. So Golden State could be at full strength and trying to lock down a playoff spot in what is considered a transition season. The Spurs could also be one of the league’s more dangerous teams as they’ll be completely healthy with Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker causing havoc on defense. This isn’t your big brother’s Spurs-Warriors rivalry, but it’s still interesting with the new faces.
■ Cavaliers at Hawks (April 15) — Why is this game on the list? It could be the final game for the great Vince Carter, who has said his 22nd season will be his last. Carter will be playing his last game barring the Hawks making the playoffs. He wanted a farewell tour and will certainly be celebrated around the league, especially for the Hawks’ stop in Toronto.
Adjustments were part of the plan
According to the NBA, the schedule released on Aug. 12 has several changes and adjustments. The league is emphasizing earlier start times on nationally televised games. Among the changes:
■ There were times in past years where the second game of a TV doubleheader didn’t begin until 10:45 Eastern, meaning a 1 a.m. ending. Those who wanted to catch TNT’s “Inside the NBA” would have to stay up until 2.
■ There is a reduced overall number of 10:30 starts on national TV from 57 to 33.
■ The Warriors will now begin 11 of their 41 home games at 7:30 p.m. They played 18 at 7:30 last season.
■ The Lakers’ number of 7:30 p.m. starts were reduced from 19 to 10.
■ There will be no more ESPN Wednesday doubleheaders that begin at 8 p.m. There were 18 of those last season. There will be 15 that begin at 7:30/10 p.m. and six that start at 7/9:30 p.m.
■ TNT will have only two 8/10:30 p.m. doubleheaders on Tuesday as opposed to nine last season. Nine will begin at 7:30/10 p.m. and one will begin at 7/9:30 p.m.
■ Consecutive games are at an all-time low for a fifth consecutive year. The Celtics have 12 back-to-backs this season, the same number as 2018-19. Teams will have an average of 12.4 back-to-backs this season, a 36 percent decrease from the 2014-15 season, when teams averaged 19.3 back-to-backs. And the NBA has eliminated the vaunted four-games-in-five-nights sets, the biggest point of contention from the players.
Teams will also play an average of less than one set of five games in seven nights this season. Teams played an average of three per season just three years ago. And for the second consecutive season, no team will play eight games in 12 days.
The season begins a week later than last year and will end at approximately the same time — mid-April — meaning teams won’t have as many stretches of two or three days off but will avoid games on consecutive nights.
■ From Nov. 5 to Dec. 2, the Celtics play every other day or on a back-to-back. It’s the same from Jan. 3 to Feb. 14, the beginning of the All-Star break.
Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury star, was suspended three games by the WNBA for an unfortunate incident with Dallas center Kristine Anigwe, an altercation that reached the point in which Griner chased Anigwe after taking a slap to the head. Griner had to be restrained by an official and several teammates in the Aug. 10 game. Anigwe was suspended for two games. Griner, once considered one of the league’s cornerstone players, is threatening to leave the WNBA if she isn’t treated better in terms of officiating. The 6-foot-9-inch center has been fined several times in her career and feels victimized because of her size. She also has been vocal about what she perceives as mistreatment of WNBA players in terms of travel and perks in comparison to NBA players. Griner is a six-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year but has never won league MVP and hasn’t perhaps made the Shaquille O’Neal-type impact expected when she was drafted first overall out of Baylor in 2013 . . . It’s late August and the free agent market remains filled with plenty of players who have seen better days but could potentially help NBA teams. Players such as Nene, Joakim Noah, Jonas Jerebko, and Jamal Crawford remain unsigned, and it’s likely most of them are going to have to wait until just before training camp to sign deals. The Pistons agreed to a one-year deal with former No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley, who is going to have to serve a five-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The Hawks are the lone team in the league with remaining salary cap space ($2.4 million), and they are likely to save that space for the best of the remaining players looking for a minimum deal. What the new salary cap increase did is squeeze out many capable players or force them to take below-market deals because the upper class earns so much . . . UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma will be the featured clinician at the Harvard Basketball Coaches Clinic on Oct. 26 at Lavietes Pavilion.
Harvard annually hosts former NBA and college coaches to speak to a group of local high school and college coaches prior to the season.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.