COLUMN: Cousins injury a major blow for Pels, fans

Ryan Arena

I remember wrapping up coverage of the Hahnville-Destrehan basketball doubleheader one Friday night when I checked the score of the Pelicans and Houston Rockets game. I knew the Pels led by as many as 20 at one point and wondered if they’d hold on to put the Rockets away.

They did, though it clearly wasn’t easy with New Orleans holding on for a 115-113 victory. Those rascally scamps, I thought. Always an adventure, but nonetheless a huge win. The Pelicans were coming together at the right time, with seven wins in eight games. They were pushing for home court and they finally — finally! — seemed to be finding some consistency as one of a very few select teams with two elite players.

Then I heard the news … and it made me sick.

DeMarcus Cousins had torn his Achilles tendon and was done for the season.

Just like that …poof … all that optimism was gone. Just when something was starting to come together to distract me from that OTHER loss, the whiffed tackle and the prevent defense that wasn’t, in fact, less than TWO WEEKS after that one … the Pelicans suffered catastrophe. It’s not fair.

The loss of Cousins for this season alone was saddening. He was having an unbelievable season, the best of his career as the focal point of the New Orleans offense. You can’t find many players in the history of the NBA who averaged more than 25 points, 12 rebounds and five assists a game. Not to mention Cousins was hitting more than two 3-pointers a game and shooting well from the field and the foul line — which he got to often.

He was one of the most valuable players in the league and the return on the biggest clear trading win of Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps’ career.

Yet, like most things seem to go for Demps, who hasn’t had the best of luck during his tenure, to say the least — even the best move of his tenure results in a headache.

I say headache because this isn’t a torn ACL, a broken leg or a busted elbow. An Achilles injury is among the scariest for any athlete because the track record of athletes returning to peak form is not great, and NBA history is littered with players who didn’t even come close. Cousins is a free agent this summer and Demps will be tasked with the decision of handing Cousins a max deal, which was all but a formality prior to this injury, declining to do so or playing hardball in negotiations.

All the while, he’ll know that Cousins’ departure would likely anger Anthony Davis, while resigning Cousins comes with tons of injury-related uncertainty. All options are incredibly risky. Such is life in the Pelicans’ front office, it seems.

In terms of fan support, it’s a huge blow as well.

New Orleans is a resilient city full of people who want to support a winning team — and who have supported plenty of losing ones. But the Hornets/Pelicans franchise has never quite connected with fans like the Saints. Cousins going down when he did — in front of a near full capacity crowd that had started to believe again — is just another letdown.

How many times can this happen before people just refuse to buy in?

To the team’s credit, the front office has responded to the injury with some resiliency of its own. A trade of (essentially) a first rounder and Omer Asik for Nikola Mirotic gives the team some life for a playoff push this season, and the presence of the 6-foot, 10-inch Mirotic will help offset some of the pressure on Cousins as he recovers and returns next season.

Although the team has picked up the pieces, it’s another major setback, and another blow to fans of the local sports scene.

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