On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania dropped unexpected and unwelcome news about Los Angeles Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins.
Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins has suffered a possible knee injury and will undergo further testing today in Los Angeles, league sources tell ESPN. Cousins was working out in Las Vegas on Monday when he had to leave the court, sources said. He signed a one-year deal in July.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 15, 2019
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 15, 2019
This is Cousins’ third major lower-body injury since January 2018, and it casts doubt over his NBA career moving forward. According to Wojnarowski, he currently has no timetable for surgery, although the injury puts “his availability for next season in jeopardy.”
With Cousins likely to miss most if not all of the 2019-20 campaign, the Lakers suddenly must reevaluate their frontcourt rotation.
That begins with gauging Anthony Davis’ willingness to start at center.
“I like playing the 4. I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. I like playing the 4,” Davis said during his introductory press conference, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t really like playing the 5.”
Davis then turned to head coach Frank Vogel and said: “If it comes down to it, coach, and you need me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”
Well, about that…
With Cousins sidelined, Javale McGee is the only other possible center on the Lakers’ roster. Even if McGee gets tabbed as a starter—he did start in 62 of his 75 games with the Lakers last season—he hasn’t played more than 25 minutes per night since 2011-12.
With Cousins now unavailable to soak up most of the remaining playing time there—and LeBron James long being resistant to traditional frontcourt work—Davis will need to adjust accordingly.
This past season, Davis logged 65 percent of his minutes at the 4 and the remaining 35 percent at the 5, according to Cleaning the Glass. The New Orleans Pelicans posted a net rating of plus-4.0 with him at power forward compared to a plus-1.4 with him at center (although his half-assed effort after the trade deadline may skew those numbers somewhat).
Then again, a similar split held true in 2017-18, during which he played alongside Cousins for the first half of the year. (This was prior to Boogie’s Achilles injury, which started off the unfortunate series of events.) AD logged 54 percent of his minutes at power forward compared to 46 percent at center, and the Pelicans had a net rating of plus-5.6 and plus-4.0, respectively.
Davis posted better net ratings at center than power forward in three of the four seasons from 2012-13 through 2015-16, so it isn’t as though he’s a fish out of water. He likely just prefers power forward to reduce the wear and tear on his body, as he doesn’t have to bang in the post against behemoths such as Joel Embiid or Steven Adams.
“We want a decade of dominance out of him here, right?” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said during Davis’ introductory press conference, per Ganguli. “So we got to do what’s best for his body, and having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body or for our team and the franchise.”
The Lakers already have 14 guaranteed contracts on their books for this season, which limits their options if they’re hoping to find a replacement for Cousins in free agency.
They’re presumably keeping one roster spot open in case (or when) the Memphis Grizzlies waive Andre Iguodala, but adding another backup center could take them out of the running for the 2014-15 Finals MVP. This may come down to the most pressing need, and adding yet another wing—as valuable as Iguodala would be—is a luxury that a team already featuring Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Quinn Cook and others can’t afford.
Although the free-agent market has largely dried up, the Lakers do have a few options at their potential disposal.
After a dismal two-year stint with the New York Knicks, Joakim Noah signed with the Grizzlies in December and reinvigorated his career. During only 16.5 minutes per game, the 34-year-old averaged 7.1 points on 51.6 percent shooting—both of which were four-year highs—along with 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 0.7 blocks.
Noah routinely butted heads with James in the early 2010s, but that bad blood is likely a thing of the past. The 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year is by no means a modern-day center—in fact, he has yet to hit a single three-pointer across his 12-year career—but he could be a plug-and-play defensive-minded big who helps to reduce the wear-and-tear on Davis’ body.
The Lakers could turn their attention to the likes of Amir Johnson, Zaza Pachulia, Salah Mejri or Marcin Gortat, all of whom are still serviceable veterans in modest minutes. However, none of them would not move the needle for a team with championship aspirations.
Dwight Howard also expressed a willingness to return to L.A. while speaking with Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times last month, although the Grizzlies have yet to waive him. One wonders if the irony of that scenario will be too much for the Lakers to even consider it.
If the Lakers don’t sign a big to replace Cousins, they’ll have to split center minutes between McGee and Davis. If they start the latter at center, Kyle Kuzma may suddenly have the inside track for the starting gig at power forward, provided the Lakers are still sticking with their LeBron-at-PG plan.
Either way, L.A. still has the foundation of a promising rotation in place.
Between a starting five of James, Green, Bradley (or Caldwell-Pope), Kuzma and Davis and reserves such as Rajon Rondo, Jared Dudley, Cook and McGee, L.A. is teeming with battle-tested veterans. A deep playoff run isn’t out of the question.
Not to belabor the point, but it all comes down to how much time Davis is willing to log at center.
If his pledge to Vogel during his introductory press conference wasn’t an empty promise, the Lakers may keep their final roster spot open in case Iguodala or another veteran gets bought out. But if Davis doesn’t want to bang down low during the regular season, L.A. may need to scour the free-agent market over the coming weeks to find a Cousins replacement.
Boogie never quite recaptured his All-Star form during his lone season with the Golden State Warriors, but he did average 16.3 points on 48.0 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals in only 25.7 minutes across 30 games. Pairing him alongside James and Davis would have given the Lakers a three-headed bully-ball hydra that few teams (perhaps outside of the Philadelphia 76ers) would have the size to counter.
Without Cousins, the Lakers may need to zig back toward smaller lineups, which removes one of the potential major advantages from their toolbox before the season even begins.
Fortunately, they have a few more still at their disposal.