There was a time when it was unclear if DeMarcus Cousins would ever play basketball again.
During the 2017-18 season, Cousins was on his way to vaulting the New Orleans Pelicans into one of the NBA’s elite teams alongside Anthony Davis when he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. The injury cost him a potential max contract, and he signed with the Golden State Warriors that offseason on a minimum deal.
His lone season with the Warriors in 2018-19 was derailed by a quad injury and the following year with the Los Angeles Lakers, an ACL tear in training camp kept him out the entire year. It was just brutal luck for a player who was once an All-Star and franchise talent.
The Houston Rockets gave Cousins a shot at the beginning of this season and he actually looked like he could still be a productive NBA player, putting up 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in 20.2 minutes per game. But the Rockets ended up cutting him right before the trade deadline.
He was out of the league for a couple of months before the Los Angeles Clippers came calling with a 10-day contract. Serge Ibaka was out of the lineup with a back injury, but even then, the Clippers had nothing to promise him in terms of what his role would be.
“We just told him that right now we don’t know what the situation is going to be, but just be ready to play if your name is called,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue told media after the team’s Game 5 win over the Phoenix Suns. “He worked every day, five-on-five with the young guys, played, kept himself ready. I just told him, I never know, I can’t tell you if we’re going to play small or big. Just be ready and before the game starts, the night before, I’ll try to let you know whether we’re going to play you or not. And he’s been great.”
Coming into the playoffs, Cousins’ role has fluctuated depending on the matchups. He didn’t play against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and he played the first two games against the Utah Jazz before Lue opted to go with smaller lineups and Nicolas Batum at center as he decided to do against Dallas.
But here in the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Cousins might end up being the reason the shorthanded Clippers resilient postseason continues. Already without Kawhi Leonard and Ibaka, the Clippers found out they would be without the services of Ivica Zubac who suffered an MCL sprain in Game 4.
Lue opted to go small again with Marcus Morris as the starting center, but it was Cousins who provided a much-needed spark. His intensity and his mindset were exactly what the Clippers needed as they managed to hold off elimination for at least one more night.
“It’s always just being ready to go. I realize the situation in the end. All I can do is be ready when my name is called, so control what I can control,” Cousins said. “I’m not going to change, my mindset don’t change. When I step on the floor, I feel like I’m the best one on the floor regardless of who is in front of me. And I know for a fact can’t nobody guard me one-on-one. So my mindset doesn’t change, I just wait for my opportunity.”
In Game 5, Cousins brought a physical presence in the paint and he took full advantage against Phoenix’s smaller second unit. He finished with 15 points, routinely scoring around the basket. He also dished out three assists, showing flashes of the once-great all-around versatile big man he used to be.
If the Clippers want to continue to extend this series and perhaps even win it, they’re going to need more performances like this from Cousins. While his mobility is clearly not what it used to be, his skill is still there and he can still be effective in limited minutes especially when going against Dario Saric who has assumed the role of backup center for the Suns.
“He slows the game up for us which is a good thing because he’s still a dominant big and demands a double team. I think it’s a great breakup for us when we’re playing the spread and fast pace to have Cuz slow the game down in moments where we can dump it down there and get production,” Paul George told media after Game 5. “He brings the toughness. That’s what this team is prided on. We’ve got toughness from top to bottom and Cuz just adds to that.”
While injuries and team direction have played a big role in Cousins’ role in his previous stops after New Orleans, he credits the Clippers culture and organization as a whole for allowing him to be so comfortable and for accepting that what is asked of him might change on a game to game basis.
“I think it’s a good fit, the culture is a good fit for my personality. I think everybody in the locker room, coaching staff, front office, I think we all have something in common. We’re very familiar with one another,” Cousins said. “I think it’s just a good culture fit. We understand each other, everyone respects one another, respects each other’s opinion, each other’s space. It’s just a smooth organization.”
For a Clippers team that is banged up, short-handed and has played almost every other day since the beginning of the month, Cousins’ performance was able to get them some much-needed rest for some of the starters. He kind of spear-headed the offense a bit and the team didn’t miss a beat while George, Morris and Reggie Jackson got a breather on the bench.
Back when the Clippers had the opportunity to bring Cousins in towards the end of the regular season, it was precisely for this reason that Lue felt like signing him, despite the potential injury concerns, was an absolute no-brainer.
“He went through some injuries which is unfortunate, but guys forget he was a max player before he went through all those injuries,” Lue said. “Just having the post presence on the floor, he’s a great passer when he catches it down low. He’s tough to handle down there.”