The Rise and Fall of Demarcus Cousins

A superstar talent that has been relegated to a smaller role amidst career-altering injuries is an archetype we see in the league often.

Demarcus Cousins will sign a non-guaranteed deal to join the defending NBA Champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. If you’ve been following the NBA for long enough, you might be rolling your eyes: “First the Warriors, then the Lakers, and now the Bucks? He’s just ring-chasing.”

This is a testament to his abilities: Cousins was once an eminent basketball player in our talent-struck league. He was a trailblazer at his position, engendering a new advent of skilled, scoring centers.

Cousins averaged 21 points, 10.8 rebounds, and three assists during his six-season Sacramento Kings tenure. However, these teams displayed remarkable ineptitude, and the Kings believed it was time for a rebuild. Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in the middle of the 2016-2017 season.

At first, Cousins took it as a sign of disrespect; typically stars get traded by requesting on their own accord, and when teams initialize the trade, it insinuates that the team wasn’t satisfied with the star’s production.  However, he came to terms with it, understanding that the lone omission on his complete resume was his lack of a playoff berth.

The concluding 17 games of the 2016-2017 season, he tallied a formidable 24.4 PPG. The Pelicans missed the playoffs, but Cousins wasn’t discouraged, understanding that a sample size that small wasn’t enough to build chemistry and showcase basketball ability.

The 2017-2018 season however, the Pelicans started winning. Playing alongside all-star Anthony Davis, the duo consistently engineered performances that can only be characterized with video game numbers. Defending the paint was futile given their shared dominance on the court.

But on Jan. 26, 2018, in a game that pitted the Pelicans against the first-seed Houston Rockets, Cousins suffered the first of many injuries: a rupture of his Achilles. This occurred when he attempted to get his rebound against a missed free-throw. The injury was season ending, preventing him from playing with his team in the playoffs.

With the injury, Cousins knew that his career was approaching a state of criticality. He still hadn’t ever made the playoffs, uncharacteristic of a player of his caliber, and his free-agency decision was impending. Cousins wanted the spotlight, especially playing in smaller markets like Sacramento and New Orleans.

However, teams were wary to pay him substantial money because of his injury history. Cousins made a plan to sign a one-year deal with the Golden State Warriors while rehabbing, the team with the highest probability of winning the championship. It was almost like a middle finger to the league for not paying him the money he deserved.

The fans lamented, claiming that Cousins signing with the warriors made the league less competitive. But Cousins didn’t care- he would do anything to make the playoffs, including besmirching his entire reputation, a precedent set by Kevin Durant.

He returned to the court on Jan. 18 after recovering from the achilles injury to play the Clippers. He even started off the season with a gratuitous dunk on Kyle Kuzma, but there was a sense of foreboding – was he going to re-injure himself?

He managed to stay healthy enough to remain active on the roster come playoff time, fulfilling his wish to play meaningful basketball. The Warriors were matched up against the Clippers in the bracket, the team that Cousins coincidentally made his return on.

Unfortunately, during Game 2, Cousins was chasing after a loose ball and tore his quadriceps muscle. He was forced to rehab in six weeks, sitting out for 14 games till later rejoining the team in the finals.

“I was terrible in the Finals. One-leg bandit on the floor,” he said on Showtime’s “All the Smoke” podcast with former players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. “But I wanted to be a part of it. In the Finals, you play hurt.”

The Warriors lost to the Raptors in the Finals. Cousins was back to the free agency drawing board. He signed a $3.5 million deal to sign with the title favorite Los Angeles Lakers, his injuries precluding any chance of obtaining a more lucrative contract.

His tenure with the Lakers ended before it started: he was diagnosed with a torn ACL after a knee injury from a workout in Las Vegas in preparation for the season.

Demarcus Cousins had to undergo an arduous rehabilitation process, where he made his way to the Rockets for a guaranteed $2.3 million. Many fans were optimistic as Cousins would be reunited with former NCAA teammate John Wall, as well as James Harden.

However, he averaged 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting an abysmal 37.6% from the floor in 25 games with the Rockets. To his defense, there were many moving pieces amidst the James Harden trade, which potentially could’ve skewed his focus away from basketball. It was inevitable that the Rockets would waive him to allocate more minutes for their younger players.

The road to resuscitate his career continued, and it was becoming more and more tortuous. Many fans were become less hopeful that he’d return to his former basketball abilities.

“After his run with the Kings, I feel like the injury decreased his skill which made him washed,” said Senior Dillon Patel.

It was abundantly clear that opportunities were becoming slimmer to remain in the league. To that end, Cousins signed a ten-day contract with the Clippers. The expectation was that he’d be a sinecure- a player far down the depth chart and not delegated to play significant minutes.

However, the Clippers roster was decimated with injuries, and Cousins was forced to keep a “Next Man Up” mindset. Essentially, this means the coach could insert him into the lineup at any given time and situation. He accepted his role with alacrity, and this would pay dividends for him in the playoffs.

He was able to showcase glimpses of his past self. He hit the highest effective field-goal percentage of his career with the Clippers (57.9). He made smart passes out of double teams and was able to score in the post and from the three-point line. He helped the Clippers avoid elimination with his efforts during Game 5 against the Suns, scoring 15 meaningful points.

The Bucks are in a similar situation as the Clippers last year, as center Brook Lopez continues to recover from back soreness. This will inevitably give Cousins another opportunity to showcase his basketball acumen.

From the best big to a journeyman, the rise and fall of Demarcus Cousins is a reminder of just how volatile the average NBA career has become with the onset of injuries. But it also demonstrates how opportunities will present themselves with one possesses willingness to work hard and remain humble.