The NBA news cycle has been spinning as fast as ever the last few days, and it’s easy to forget one of the biggest stories of the season happened just four days ago. All-Star starter Demarcus Cousins tore his achilles with just eight seconds left in a win over Houston, probably New Orleans’ best win of the season. Players were down, fans somber, and NBA Twitter was abuzz. Even the fun GIF the team uses after wins was just a graveyard when reading the comments.
Achilles ruptures are usually pretty easy to tell, and before Cousins had even left the arena or had an official MRI, the team and reporters were saying the worst had happened. This weekend was just brutal in terms of NBA injury news.
On Saturday, the Memphis Grizzlies announced that star point guard Mike Conley would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a heel injury. On Sunday, Oklahoma City starting shooting guard Andre Roberson suffered a ruptured patellar tendon jumping to finish an alley-oop. His injury will also require season ending surgery. Then in the biggest news of the season, Blake Griffin was traded to the Detroit Pistons on Monday. While the NFL is hosting its first media day in anticipation of Sunday’s Super Bowl, the NBA continues to dominate the storylines, for good and for worse; more reason to believe that the NBA may one day pass the NFL in popularity. As if all that injury news wasn’t enough, on Tuesday it was announced that Washington Wizards star John Wall will miss the next 6-8 weeks following another knee surgery. Trade season in the NBA was supposed to be exciting. Instead it’s becoming a war of attrition.
Back to Demarcus Cousins though. His injury put a huge damper on the NBA season, especially for those of us living in New Orleans, and/or rooting on the Pelicans. Cousins was having a breakout season before the injury. Yes he’d already been an All-Star, but this year he was an All-Star starter, possibly the most unique player in the league, and on his way to playing in the playoffs for the first time in his career. It was easy to envision a scenario where after Mardi Gras concluded the Pelicans would be the talk of the town.
For a player long considered a nutcase or coach-killer this seemed like Cousins’ reckoning. Just this week alone we saw his highs and lows. On Monday, January 22nd, Cousins became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to record a triple double with at least 40 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists. His final statline was 44 points, 23 rebounds, 10 assists, 5 three pointers, 4 steals, and a block. An absolutely historic game, one in which he played 52 minutes. Anthony Davis is still the heart and soul of the city, but Cousins, from nearby Mobile, AL had become someone the city embraced fully. Then like that it was over:
There’s been talk about that massive workload finally taking its toll, but it’s hard to truly say. While Cousins played 52 minutes on Monday, he played only 30 minutes the next two games. There’s really no reason for blame here. The affected parties just need to decide how to best respond.
What This Means For Cousins
This is as brutal as it gets for the 27-year-old center. An achilles tear has become the most devastating injury in basketball. As little as five years ago the ACL tear was the most worrisome, but with modern science and technology players have bounced back from ACL tears to have strong careers and even perform better after returning in some cases. The achilles tear however, is still much less successful for returns. Achilles tears have derailed or slowed the careers of Brandon Jennings, Elton Brand, Wesley Mathews, Dominque Wilkins, and of course Kobe Bryant. Kobe, who suffered his injury at age 34, never returned to his pre-injury levels (though his play was expected to decrease with age as well.) Brand suffered his achilles tear in the summer of 2007 and played in only 8 games that season. After being a 20 point per game scorer for six of his first eight seasons, Brand returned to never be an All-Star level player again. He was quoted discussing the Cousins injury and made some depressing statements on The Hoop Collective podcast:
“That Achilles really changed the trajectory of my career. That whole kinetic chain: once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back. No one’s really recovered from that Achilles injury and come back at the same level. That was really frustrating because I wanted to give Philly more. We made it to the playoffs. I did okay. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy. I still had the atrophy on my left calf — which was my power leg — from that Achilles. And then, quickly, I had a torn labrum right after that. You know, just the injuries, and that happens.” – Former NBA All-Star Elton Brand
Of course, each player is unique, but Brand is really the only big man that can be used for comparison. He was 28 when he tore his achilles, and like Cousins, had his fair share of injuries before the torn achilles.
Rudy Gay tore his achilles last season in Sacramento, and has actually looked like a very similar player this season in San Antonio. That, along with Mathews resurgence should give Cousins hope.
It’s possible that him being a center helps in his recovery, as he’s not someone who does much cutting or quick movements. Then again he’s a huge man, and leg/foot injuries have been the end of many big men before him.
Lastly, everything in life seems to always come back to money. Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, for the first time in his career. He has shown no indications that he wants to leave, but this injury surely complicates things. He was all but guaranteed to receive a five year max offer from the Pelicans, which would pay him reportedly $175 million over a five-year deal. He’s still expected to get a large contract offer from the Pelicans and other teams, but that max number might come down, or the fifth year may not be offered. For a guy that already lost potentially $30-75 million by being traded from Sacramento, it hasn’t been a great year for Boogie.
It’s possible he and the Pelicans can’t agree on a number and he searches the market, but considering the injury likely means he won’t be ready for the beginning of next season, it appears New Orleans has the upper hand on negotiations.
What This Means For The Pelicans and the City of New Orleans
This injury leaves the Pelicans in a weird state. They weren’t going to challenge Golden State or Houston for the chance to go to the NBA Finals, but a healthy team could have made some noise in the playoffs, and potentially won a first round series as the underdog. Now, the team must retool on the fly, to avoid missing the playoffs yet again. New Orleans is foremost a football town, so much so the Saints ownership bought the NBA team when it went on sale a few years ago. Despite having one of the most exciting players under 25 in the entire league, and usually having tickets available on StubHub for only $6, the team struggles to sell out games. When it does, there are plenty of away fans on hand to cheer on the Cavaliers or Warriors. Having just a perennial playoff team would mean a lot for attendance, and the potential of professional basketball in New Orleans.
As depressing as it is, this injury provides a plausible path to Seattle having a basketball team and New Orleans not. Do a little research into NBA team relocation, and the Pelicans usually come up as one of the first teams to move. Anthony Davis is seemingly the only reason the team is so grounded here. And of course right after Cousins injury the first murmurs you here are from fans and reporters wondering where Davis will end up. Although he has reiterated his love for the city and organization, his name always comes up in these speculations. Celtics fans think they’ll get him (as they think about every star.) Now reports are abound about teams already preparing to lure him away in a year or two.
Now Davis is under contract until the summer of 2021, but if he were to ever get frustrated, the team may have little choice than to trade him when the return would seemingly be one of the biggest in NBA history. Before Cousins came to New Orleans, the Pelicans were around the 12-9th best team in the conference, with injuries to Davis and Jrue Holiday causing particular issues. Cousins allowed for the team to almost always have a superstar level player on the court, but that’s gone. All the team can do now is plug up it’s issues on the wing, and hope that the team can stay healthy and make a run at the playoffs, just as it did in 2015. The team is working on acquiring three point shooting power forward Nikola Mirotic from Chicago, and seemingly has a few other deals in its pocket.
While the future seems bleak, fans have to be excited that Cousins has had success and happiness in New Orleans, which could lead to his re-signing, and potentially more help coming in the near future. For now though, the city’s Mardi Gras glow is darkened.