The loss of DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL, in itself, does not need to be devastating for the Los Angeles Lakers. According to SportsLine, their expected win total falls only from 53 to 52.3 without him, and those projections still have them as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The problem for the Lakers comes in the timing. August is an inopportune time to replace anyone, especially a high-upside signing.
The best free agents, and even the decent ones, have all signed by now, leaving the Lakers with very few playable centers to choose from. The trade market isn’t much better. Few teams are looking to give away actual contributors with only weeks remaining before training camp, but even if they were, the construction of the Lakers’ roster makes that impossible. Most of their players were signed in free agency, making them untradeable until December 15th.
No matter what they do, the Lakers are making an imperfect choice. If they act now, they would probably be adding a fairly limited player. If they wait, they could find someone better, but that adds a layer of uncertainty to their season. So let’s walk through the four realistic paths they could take to replacing Cousins in their rotation, and what kinds of players would be available to them in each scenario.
The Immediate Option: Free Agency
Anyone who is a free agent on Aug. 15 is a free agent for a reason. Every player remaining has a visible flaw, a defect glaring enough to scare away all 30 teams. These players are all available immediately and could potentially give the Lakers backup minutes, but none come with the potential Cousins brought.
Joakim Noah: Noah was excellent as a backup for the Grizzlies last season. His defense, energy, passing and IQ make him a perfect fit off of the bench. But his relationship with LeBron James has been contentious in the past, and he doesn’t exactly have a clean bill of health himself.
Kenneth Faried: Faried thrived at center offensively for the Houston Rockets last season, but has spent most of his career at power forward. Defense is the primary reason for that. Faried just can’t hold up at center on that end of the floor, so the Lakers would either need to handcuff him to Davis, essentially defeating the purpose, or accept that lineups featuring him are going to give up a ton of points.
Ryan Anderson: Anderson is in much the same position as Faried: a former Rocket who can help offensively, but not defensively. James has done well with shooting big men in the past, but Anderson has his own health concerns and he is downright unplayable in the postseason.
Dwight Howard: Howard suited up only nine times for the Washington Wizards last season but when he was last healthy, he had a very good season for the Charlotte Hornets. He will likely be waived by the Memphis Grizzlies eventually, and when he does, the Lakers should at least consider the possibility of a reunion.
The Ongoing Option: An Internal Replacement
The Lakers may have only one other true center on their roster in JaVale McGee, but they have plenty of power forwards who could potentially slide over to center in a pinch. If they don’t sign a player now, odds are they plan to use training camp and the preseason to experiment with some of the pieces currently in place. These are their internal options at center. None are ideal, but the Lakers will likely experiment before the season just to be safe.
Kyle Kuzma: The Lakers went down this road last year. It did not end well defensively. Reports have indicated that the same has been true with Team USA. The Lakers may give this look a whirl in super small lineups, but it won’t be something that they rely on.
LeBron James: The Lakers actually found success last season in short stints with James flanked by four shooters, but his ball-handling load is already enormous. Asking any 34-year-old to defend centers and play point guard offensively is just unrealistic. Expect to see this for stretches in the playoffs, but for the regular season, that glass will only be broken in case of emergency.
Kostas Antetokounmpo: The younger brother of MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has his brother’s height at 6’11”, but at a listed weight of 200 pounds, he’s just too skinny to play real minutes at center. The Lakers can experiment with the idea in the G-League as Antetokounmpo is on a two-way deal, but don’t expect to see much of this in the NBA.
Aric Holman: This one is a longshot, but the Lakers did sign a center to an exhibit-10 contract for training camp. Holman went undrafted out of Mississippi State for a reason, but if he wows the coaching staff in the preseason, he now has an outside chance of making the roster.
Anthony Davis: Davis will almost certainly play meaningful minutes at center now despite his preference for power forward. Nobody they can add right away can fill the 20-25 minutes that the Lakers were expecting out of Cousins. Davis is more valuable at center than power forward, so that is a silver lining here, but this will also expose him to more wear and tear in defending bigger players.
The Upcoming Option: The Trade Market
The Lakers have exactly three players that are legally tradable at this moment: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma. Don’t expect any of them to move just to replace Cousins. That means that if the Lakers want to trade for another center, they will have to wait until December 15th. That is when free agents who signed deals this summer can be dealt.
Another silver lining to the Cousins injury is that the Lakers now have $3.5 million in movable salary to work with in potential deals, either for a center or something else. If they do add a big man, expect Cousins’ salary to be involved. The Lakers won’t be able to aggregate enough salary to add a star, but the following cheaper players could be available in mid-season deals depending on how their teams play early on.
Nerlens Noel: Noel is represented by Klutch Sports, and if Oklahoma City’s season goes south as expected, Rich Paul could push to get his client sent to Los Angeles. The main constraint would be constructing a deal that keeps the Thunder out of the luxury tax.
Taj Gibson: Eventually, the New York Knicks are going to realize that they have too many big men. When that happens, Gibson becomes a very intriguing trade piece. The Lakers would need to fold a bit more salary into the deal (with Quinn Cook being the easiest solution), but Gibson is well worth the price.
Khem Birch: Nikola Vucevic is back on a four-year deal, and if former No. 6 overall pick Mo Bamba is healthy, he will join the rotation by default. That leaves Birch, a breakout backup last season, without an obvious role.
Boban Marjanovic: They are stylistically different, but Marjanovic is a decent facsimile of Cousins as an all-offense, no-defense big man. The Mavericks signed him partially as insurance against another Kristaps Porzingis injury, but may be willing to move him if the season begins on the right note.
The Unknown Option: The Buyout Market
The 2020 free-agent market is considered weak because it lacks star-power, but there is plenty of depth to go around. Inevitably, some of that depth is concentrated on bad teams, and when February rolls around, some of those teams are going to want to buy their upcoming free agents out to save some money and create minutes for their younger prospects.
There are no guarantees when it comes to buyouts. Both the player and the team need to be on board, and once a player hits the market, there is usually fierce competition. Relying on any of these players hitting the market would be very risky for the Lakers, and the wait would nearly defeat the purpose. But Cousins’ injury could earn the Lakers a Disabled Player Exception worth half of his salary. That $1.75 million could give them an advantage in buyout recruiting in February, and if they haven’t found another big man by then, don’t be surprised if they seek one out after the trade deadline.
Tristan Thompson: Thompson obviously has a history with James, and while Cleveland could probably squeeze some value out of Thompson in a trade, it should also be noted that Cleveland is nearly at the luxury tax as-is for a lottery roster. If they can save money in a buyout, it makes sense for them to do so.
Meyers Leonard: The Heat plan to be competitive next season, but they created a hard cap by acquiring Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade. They are pressed right up against that hard cap as is, and if they needed to create some extra money to maneuver with during the season, a buyout would be a creative way to do it. The Heat have plenty of centers as is, and Leonard is redundant with Kelly Olynyk in place.
Bismack Biyombo: Biyombo is known for his bad contract, but in limited minutes, he is still a solid rim-protector and lob finisher. He is almost certain to be bought out by the tanking Hornets, who are among the league’s more frugal franchises.
Miles Plumlee: It has been years since the lesser Plumlee has been productive in the NBA, but he was once promising enough to garner a $52 million contract. Perhaps he could still contribute to a winning team.