When the Los Angeles Lakers waived DeMarcus Cousins to clear a roster spot for Markieff Morris, it was somewhat of a surprise. Lakers coach Frank Vogel has repeatedly said Cousins could return to the court this season, telling reporters as recently as All-Star weekend that the big man is “on track to get healthy by the playoffs.” He tore his left ACL in August and had surgery to repair it.
Typically, if a team releases or trades a player, that move is not followed by news that they could reunite in the near future. This, however, is not a typical situation. After finding out that he would be waived, Cousins stuck L.A., and it’s still reportedly possible that he will eventually play for the Lakers.
News broke Friday that the Lakers planned to waive Cousins and add Morris (once he cleared waivers Sunday), yet, Cousins has remained around the team. He was at Staples Friday night, and on Saturday was on the Lakers’ practice court, rehabbing his torn ACL. The Athletic’s Shams Charania is reporting Cousins, who is out for the year anyway, plans to remain in Los Angeles and continue his rehab.
Per league rules, he can continue his rehab with the Lakers, at their practice facility, but he can’t fly on the team plane or sit on the bench once he’s waived. But the Lakers could re-sign him this summer, something both sides have expressed interest in pursuing, sources said.
The Lakers signed Cousins to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in July, a bargain for a four-time All-Star but a risk in light of his injury history: Cousins tore his left Achilles as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans in January of 2018 and tore his left quad last April as a member of the Golden State Warriors. After he suffered a third serious injury while working out in Las Vegas last summer, the Lakers pivoted to Dwight Howard, another former All-Star.
Howard, 34, has embraced the defense-and-dirty work role he should have been playing for years, and the results have been beyond even the most optimistic Lakers fans’ expectations: He is averaging a career-low 7.8 points, but he is shooting 73.4 percent, playing just 19.6 minutes a game without complaint and almost never posting up. JaVale McGee, Los Angeles’ starting center, has thrived in a limited offensive role, too. Had Cousins remained on the roster, he wouldn’t have necessarily had a place in the playoff rotation, even if he were medically cleared to play.
The idea of Cousins signing another deal with the Lakers cannot be separated from what happens in May and June and how Howard and McGee approach the summer. McGee has a $4.2 million player option, and Howard will be a free agent. It is difficult to imagine all three of them being on the team if they’re healthy. And if the Lakers don’t have some kind of postseason meltdown, it’s reasonable to predict they will be happy to continue deploying centers who do role-player stuff: screening, catching lobs, rebounding, blocking shots.
The best case for Cousins coming back to Los Angeles is that the team could use another source of offense when LeBron James isn’t running the show. The Lakers have been more James-dependent than they would like this season — they’ve scored an awful 103.6 points per 100 possessions with Anthony Davis on the court and James on the bench, per NBA.com — and, leading up to the trade deadline, they were widely expected to add a playmaker in the backcourt. (They didn’t, and Darren Collison decided to stay retired instead of signing with them.) Cousins is decidedly not a pick-and-roll guard, but at his best he could create from just about anywhere.
The case against bringing him back is that Cousins and the Lakers likely won’t be a good match, despite all the glowing quotes about how he has been a big part of the team without playing a single minute. (Reserve Alex Caruso raved about Cousins’ attitude and energy in that same story from The Athletic.) Cousins will be 30 years old at the beginning of next season, and he will need to find a team that can give him minutes. To rebuild his value, he has to prove to the league that he can stay on the court and contribute to winning while he works toward becoming the kind of player he was before all these nasty injuries. Los Angeles could theoretically give him a chance to do that, but would it? The front office will have alternatives with less downside.
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