With about 12 seconds left in the New Orleans Pelicans’ win over the Houston Rockets Friday night, their entire season changed from hopeful and optimistic to uncertain and devastated.
In that moment, all-star center DeMarcus Cousins tore his left Achilles tendon in an attempt to rebound his own missed free-throw in the midst of a nail-biting contest. It was, in some ways, a poetic effort that summarized the best season of Cousins’ career thus far, destined for his first taste of postseason basketball.
Simply put, injuries suck.
Shortly after the game, with social media swirling to console arguably the league’s best center, Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed the inevitable. Cousins did indeed tear his left Achilles, and the recovery time would be slated anywhere from six to 10 months.
For a multitude of reasons, the injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Pelicans were surging, playing their best basketball all season and in sixth place in the Western Conference. Noted above, Cousins has never played postseason basketball in his career, and after being traded midseason to New Orleans last year looked to be on the cusp of just that. Looking toward the future, Cousins is also set to enter free agency this offseason. On the back of his best professional season yet prior to the injury, he looked poised for a max deal from multiple suitors. While it’s still too early to say exactly what will happen on that front, it’s safe to assume any negotiations with Cousins now will come with a bit of caution.
By showing this season his ability to play alongside another one of the game’s great talents, and because he’s always displayed a competitive fire, Cousins missing the playoffs this season comes as a massive blow. Not just for him, not just for New Orleans, but for fans of basketball as well. We all now must wait another year for Boogie on the big stage.
The Pelicans haven’t been to the postseason since 2015. Back then, Anthony Davis looked to be the NBA’s next big thing, on the verge of taking over the league himself. A myriad of injuries and the lack of a sufficient supporting cast have kept Davis and his team from reaching those limits. With Cousins in the fold, that was beginning to change. Cousins was giving Davis 25 points, nearly 13 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 35 percent shooting from three-point territory a night. He was the perfect complement, and together they were bringing back the era of Twin Tower dominance.
In fact, they were both set to play alongside each other at the All-Star game, manning the front lines for Team LeBron.
New Orleans can’t possibly hope to replace the production of Cousins as they look to continue their march to playoffs. But all hope isn’t completely lost for the team.
When Davis patrols the court for the Pelicans while his all-star teammate is on the bench, the team actually has a plus-6.9 per 100 possessions rating. When Cousins was on the court while Davis sat, the team was actually minus-2.4 in that category. That’s not to take away directly from Cousins’ impact on the team, but just a sliver of hope that the Pelicans can create effective basketball sans their second all-star.
Naturally, when an opposing team has to plan for just Davis as opposed to Davis and Cousins, it will make like a bit more difficult for The Brow. Accordingly, knowing that he doesn’t Cousins to come in and sub him out for moments throughout the game should impact Davis’ performance as well.
But take a look back at the last Davis-led squad to make the playoffs. That team sported a more balanced attack, featuring the likes of Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Though none of the aforementioned players contributed the types of performances we’re used to seeing from them today. Aside from Davis, his supporting cast consisted of more spot-up shooters than not. Typically a strong formula for winning basketball with a dominant big man.
Turn your attention now to the post-Cousins roster. Jrue Holiday is enjoying his best season in years, with a career-high 58 percent true shooting clip. Rajon Rondo and Jameer Nelson have allowed Holiday to slide off the ball a bit more and act as a scorer and secondary playmaker to play second fiddle to the big men. As a result, the Pelicans are second in the NBA in assists.
E’Twaun Moore is also enjoying a career-year, developing into a legitimate threat from beyond the arc, connecting on 43 percent of his attempts.
Three games of space separate the Pelicans from the ninth spot in the conference standings, where the Los Angeles Clippers currently sit at 24-24. With a six game cushion above .500 at the moment, the Pelicans could, in theory, finish out the remainder of their season 14-20 and still be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Of course, anything beyond a berth to the postseason at this point without Cousins would be nothing short of a miracle. But this late in the game, still playing for games after the regular season is still very much a motivator.
So, all hope is not lost for New Orleans in their quest to break their playoff drought. But this season will certainly come and go with something left to be desired.
As Kevin Pelton of ESPN pointed out, players returning from achilles injuries on average see a dip in their production up to eight percent. For a basketball player, few injuries are as devastating as this one.
In the prime of his career, Cousins will almost assuredly be tested to return to his All-Star form. But with that playoff appearance still staring him down, coupled with his history of being one of the NBA’s very best, the road to recovery could produce the Cousins we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing during his stint with the Pelicans.
Nothing, however, is guaranteed. Injuries suck. For the player, the team, the fans and the league. At this point, all parties involved have to hope one the best centers of this generation didn’t just have his prime years taken away from him with the snap of a tendon.
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