It would be a gigantic gamble Magic Johnson and the Lakers don’t need to and probably won’t make but could also be a savvy outside-the-box move that could transform the Lakers’ future in a way no other move could.
Before tearing his Achilles in late January, 27-year old DeMarcus Cousins was the best center in the league on his way to his best season as a professional, averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.6 blocks in 36.2 minutes per game in the final year of his contract. One time a sure fire candidate for max contract offers from multiple teams, Boogie unfortunately now finds himself heading into an uncertain free agency due to the injury.
Achilles injuries are among the toughest for pro athletes to come back from. The recovery is brutal and rehab can take a year or more before a player can compete and there’s no guarantee the player will have the same athleticism or explosiveness as before. Some superstar players like Kobe Bryant were never able to return to the player they were before the injury. Experience tells us now only 20% of pro athletes who suffer Achilles injuries recover 100%.
Player size, age, and style of play are also key factors in predicting how well a player will recover from an Achilles injury. Cousins does have a good chance of coming back strong because he’s only 27 and, as a player, isn’t a high flyer who depends totally on athleticism. In fact, most players suffering an Achilles injury today can usually count on losing only 8 to 10% of their explosiveness. You could argue that Boogie at 90% would still be the best center in the NBA.
There’s no doubt before the injury that the Pelicans were willing to pay the luxury tax to re-sign DeMarcus Cousins to a max contract. But a funny thing happened after the injury. The Pelicans without Boogie started to play better than they had with Boogie, raising the question of whether the Pelicans are better without Cousins. I don’t think anybody seriously believes that but the Pelicans might blink and try to re-sign Cousins short term or at a discount.
So why would the Lakers take such a huge gamble to sign DeMarcus Cousins, who might never be the player he was before the injury and will likely miss part and possibly all of the 2018–19 season? The answer is the Lakers would have to believe the Boogie they get would still be the best center in the league and there was no better elite player upon which to use their rare cap space. That’s a scenario we could easily see this summer if LeBron is not available.
Signing Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins could be the Lakers’ ideal free agency plan for this summer as far as building a championship caliber roster. The Lakers already have their point guard, small forward, and power forward of the future in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Adding Paul George at shooting guard and DeMarcus Cousins at center could give the Lakers a starting lineup that could challenge the Golden State Warriors.
While the center position appears to be undervalued in today’s guard and wing driven league, it’s also a position of weakness and vulnerability for most of the league’s best teams, like the Warriors and Cavaliers. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka may believe that acquiring an All-NBA center is a must for if the Lakers want to win another NBA championship and that DeMarcus Cousins is the perfect fit for the Lakers and worth the gamble to sign him.
There’s no doubt the Lakers’ Plan A is to sign LeBron James and Paul George this summer but if LeBron decides to not to come, then the Lakers’ Plan B should be to sign George and Cousins. Locking up Boogie to a max contract despite the injury is a huge gamble but one that makes better sense than spending cap space on lessor talent or saving it for free agents who might not be available next summer. The Lakers can’t pass up a chance to sign Boogie.
Signing Boogie and Paul George would give the Lakers two of the best players in the NBA just like adding LeBron James and Paul George would have done. While they might have to wait until 2019 for a fully recovered Boogie, the Lakers would have a clear path back to the top with two legitimate superstars and four talented young players with the potential to become All-Stars down the road in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle.
While signing Boogie is definitely a gamble, the Lakers would be wise to use their cap space for a sure thing this summer than saving it for summer 2019. As it stands right now, Anthony Davis appears to be staying in New Orleans, Kawhi Leonard want to be a Spur and Klay Thompson a Warrior for life, and Jimmy Butler isn’t likely going to want to leave the Wolves. Assuming LeBron doesn’t come, Boogie Cousins is the superstar the Lakers need to go with PG.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka sincerely believe in the concept of Lakers Exceptionalism so when they talk about adding two superstars to the Lakers, they’re not talking about second tier stars like Al Horford, LaMarcus Aldridge, or Blake Griffin. They’re talking about Top 15 NBA superstars like LeBron James, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kawhi Leonard. True superstars like that don’t come on the market often so you need to act when they do.
So if the Lakers’ Plan A to pair Paul George with LeBron James doesn’t work, they should move to plan B and sign DeMarcus Cousins to a 3-year max deal as the team’s second superstar. It’s a gamble that might require a year and a little luck to win but the payoff for the Lakers would be cashing your chips for a legitimate, game changing superstar and the perfect player to complement Paul George, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle.