Sometimes it only takes one play to dash a franchise’s best season in a decade.
DeMarcus Cousins reportedly suffered a season-ending torn left Achilles tendon during the Pelicans’ 115-113 home win over the Rockets on Friday. The 6’11” big man, who was selected as a starter for his sixth consecutive All-Star Game earlier this month, had to be helped off the court following the non-contact injury.
"We’re scared about it,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "I feel horrible for him. Everything that he’s done and what he’s made himself and the improvements in all areas that he’s made, on and off the court, it’s just been great. Our guys feel terrible."
There’s no overstating Cousins’ central role in the Pelicans’ surprisingly strong season and there should be no overstating how dramatically his absence will negatively impact his team’s fortunes. Turned loose by in a wide-open offense, Cousins has posted video game stats all season long, tallying three 40/20 games, three triple-doubles and eye-popping averages of 25.4 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.6 SPG and 1.6 BPG. For context, the last players with such lines were Charles Barkley in 1993 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976. While Cousins might not be the NBA’s most refined superstar, he is absolutely one of its most prodigious producers.
After six-plus seasons toiling for depressing and hopeless lottery-bound teams in Sacramento, Cousins’ individual success was finally translating to team success. Cousins ranked sixth league-wide and first on the Pelicans in Real Plus-Minus, and Gentry counted on Cousins’ ability to handle a high-usage load and heavy minutes to help offset his team’s major depth concerns. While many other stars have seen their playing time recede in recent years, Cousins ranked in the top 10 this season in total minutes played and logged 40+ minutes on 12 occasions, one of only nine players to do so.
Remarkably, Cousins was featured in New Orleans’ nine most-used lineups, and the Pelicans don’t have a single five-man group that has logged more than 45 minutes without Cousins this season. This injury, therefore, represents the clearest possible inflection point for the Pelicans’ season; after leaning very heavily on Cousins for 48 games, they’ll now be forced to wobble along without his support.
With Friday night’s win, the Pelicans improved to 27-21, good for the West’s No. 6 seed and a .563 winning percentage, the franchise’s best since the 2008-09 season. Key to that success has been a No. 6 ranked offense that depends heavily on Cousins and Anthony Davis. When both All-Stars have shared the court, the Pelicans have posted an excellent 114 offensive rating and a strong +5 net rating.
While losing the ability to play Cousins and Davis together is a big problem for Gentry’s playoff hopes, there’s a much bigger problem: New Orleans has been an absolute disaster on both ends any time both Davis and Cousins have both been off the court. Per NBAWowy.com, the Pelicans possess a minus-19.7 net rating when both their stars are on the bench.
- With Cousins and Davis: 114 Off. Rating | 109 Def. Rating
- With Davis, no Cousins: 112.9 Off. Rating | 108.2 Def. Rating
- With Cousins, no Davis: 110.0 Off. Rating | 114.9 Def. Rating
- Without Cousins and Davis: 105.9 Off. Rating | 125.6 Def. Rating
If those trends hold, the Pelicans are likely to spend the rest of the season in a predictable two-stage rhythm: looking competitive and perhaps even fearsome when Davis is on the court and then descending into a tire fire during his 12 or so minutes of rest. Gentry will surely find himself tempted to lean even harder on Davis—who leads the league with 16 games playing 40+ minutes—but that’s a tricky dance given Davis’s own long injury history.
For New Orleans, the possibility of the franchise’s first playoff trip since 2015 is now in serious jeopardy. The Pelicans currently hold a three-game lead over the No. 9 seed Clippers, but LA has generated significant positive momentum in recent weeks following Blake Griffin’s return to the lineup. With a sub-par roster and a dearth of trade assets, the Pelicans are unlikely to find meaningful help in advance of the trade deadline.
The ramifications of this injury could be massive: Gentry and GM Dell Demps entered the season with a playoff mandate and Cousins was seeking his first career trip to the playoffs prior to becoming an unrestricted free agent next year. It’s possible that a crash-and-burn down the stretch could lead ownership to clean house after years of rumors. On the other hand, the injury could theoretically give cover for all involved parties, providing Cousins with motivation to re-sign this summer in search of a second chance and buying time and trust for Gentry and Demps given how well things unfolded over the past three months. Of course, a dramatic Davis-led playoff chase is always possible too.
More immediately, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will need to name an injury replacement for Cousins in next month’s All-Star Game. SI.com’s pick would be Thunder forward Paul George, who emerged as the top snub when the full rosters were announced earlier this week. A 20+ PPG scorer and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is leading the league in steals and blocks, George should win out over the likes of Lou Williams and Nikola Jokic.
The biggest question, though, is whether this injury will impact Cousins’ earning power next summer. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the Pelicans were prepared to offer Cousins a five-year max contract worth $175 million. New Orleans has notoriously lacked leverage in recent negotiations—including its extremely generous five-year, $126 million contract for Jrue Holiday last summer—but a max-money, max-years commitment to a 28-year-old 7-footer in the middle of an Achilles rehab is the toughest of asks. The good news: New Orleans will have five months of information on Cousins’ progress before it needs to take a deep breath and enter the nine-figure negotiations.
A playoff spot. A max deal. A possible regime change. All now hang in the balance in New Orleans.