Lakers won’t need Cousins to be player he once was, but they do need him

John Calipari: Devin Booker vs DeMarcus Cousins

Asked about the on-court scrap between two of his former players in the NBA on Wednesday night -- Phoenix's Devin Booker had to be separated from Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins -- John Calipari said he bet Tyler Ulis wanted to get involved.
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Asked about the on-court scrap between two of his former players in the NBA on Wednesday night -- Phoenix's Devin Booker had to be separated from Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins -- John Calipari said he bet Tyler Ulis wanted to get involved.

The big decisions for the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency were a breeze. Kawhi Leonard was the plan, and if it took getting Paul George to secure him, it was fairly easy for the Clippers to do whatever it took to get that done.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ choices, though, were much tougher and eventually led them to DeMarcus Cousins, one of free agency’s biggest wild cards.

Convinced that they had a chance to sign Leonard, the team decided to press pause and wait, making only two back-end signings — Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels — before Leonard eventually committed to the Clippers.

In the aftermath, the Lakers were regarded as big losers, maybe the best player in the NBA choosing to play with the Clippers instead of teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the right players around stars like that could be the difference between title contention and a fight for a spot in the playoffs.

General Manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers saw enough from JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo to bring them back. Same for Alex Caruso. Danny Green, the team’s biggest acquisition, is a plug-and-play shooting guard. Dudley is regarded as an ultimate team player, and Daniels is unabashedly a one-dimensional player — he can shoot.

The Lakers and Pelinka have to feel like they acquired guys they know, players they can count on to be themselves. And then there’s DeMarcus Cousins, a player that they possibly can’t have a feel for.

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Maybe it’s a sign of confidence, a sign that the Lakers have a better culture than people realize. Cousins could flourish flanked by Davis, who he’s played with before. The former University of Kentucky star could regain some of the quickness that helped him become one of the best scoring big men in the league.

Or, maybe it’s a sign of panic, Pelinka taking a massive swing on a player still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and a permanently bruised reputation.

Last season in Golden State was supposed to help with both — a chance for Cousins to take his time with his recovery on the league’s most talented team while also proving that he could be an important piece on a winning team — and not just a dominant option on a bad one.

The results were mixed.

He smoked All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and Denver in early April — his best game since tearing his Achilles tendon in late January 2018. That night, he scored 28 points to go with 13 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Jokic never got going. The Warriors won the Western Conference showdown by 14.

But he Cousins re-injured himself in the playoffs, and after his return in the NBA Finals he only mattered for brief spurts. He helped the Warriors win Game 2, with 11 points, 10 rebound and six assists in almost 28 minutes, but he was just 1-for-7 shooting in the next game. And by Game 5, with the Raptors attacking Cousins because of his limited mobility, Coach Steve Kerr mostly kept Cousins on the bench.

Ironically enough, Kevin Durant’s Achilles tendon tear forced Kerr to turn to Cousins in Game 5, and he had his best outing of the playoffs, scoring 14 points while helping the Warriors shake off the emotional trauma that came with Durant’s injury.

It was a glimpse of what Cousins could be — a quick impact off the bench like a relief pitcher able to throw 100 mph fastballs all the time because he’s not worried about conserving energy. But it’s also a reminder that, with the Warriors facing elimination, Kerr was perfectly content keeping Cousins on the bench.

A Golden State Warriors employee told The Times that Cousins could be a “pain in the … “ when the team tried to limit his minutes as he worked back from his Achilles injury. Will he be OK splitting minutes at center with JaVale McGee? Will he be OK with coming off the bench (a logical role for him with James and Davis more than capable to handle the scoring load with the starting five)?

Accepting that kind of role is tough, particularly for a player as talented as Cousins. Before his injury, there were only a few players his size skilled enough to score from the post and the point. Since? There’s been just some of that ability on display. Accepting that things might not ever be the same can’t be easy.

Luckily, the Lakers won’t need Cousins to be the player he once was, not if Davis and James stay healthy and not if Kyle Kuzma continues his growth. But they do need him.

They need him to be good enough on defense to play in key moments. They need Cousins to be adaptable to the team’s needs. They need him to continue to get healthier.

If Pelinka’s right, the Lakers didn’t “lose” as much of the offseason as people believe. Cousins can rewrite some of that narrative.

It’s just that no one can be sure whether he still can do that.