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LeBron James, Frank Vogel and DeMarcus Cousins discuss possibility of playoff return

Frank Vogel and LeBron James know that DeMarcus Cousins could help the Lakers if he returned to full health. They just want to make sure he’s careful and doesn’t rush back.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — If one didn’t know that the video they were watching was recorded last night, and not last summer, DeMarcus Cousins could have been talking about his fit on the Los Angeles Lakers heading into the season.

“Man, we got so many guys with different abilities,” Cousins said during a recent appearance on the “All the Smoke” podcast. “I can spot up, ‘Bron (LeBron James) is going to draw everybody. I’m pretty confident I can knock down a shot. We got shooters all over the floor. I can playmake. It’s like pick your poison.”

But Cousins wasn’t talking about some theoretical fit during the preseason. He missed all of that — along with training camp and every game the Lakers have played this year — with a torn ACL he suffered in an August pick-up game. The team has never gotten to see how Cousins would help them, so all he was left to talk about was how he might fit during a theoretical postseason comeback.

Could he actually come back, though? Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel once again said that Cousins was “on track” for a return by the playoffs this weekend, continuing a trend of him offering optimism that the seven-footer might suit up for the Lakers this year.

But when asked at practice on Thursday if there is anything he’s seen from Cousins that gives him such hope that he could be back this year, Vogel offered what might have been the first slight bit of pushback he’s given regarding Cousins’ status.

“There is no date (he’d have to return by in order to play),” Vogel said. “And there is really no specific signs. I’m not even sure where he’s at with exactly what he’s doing day-to-day. I just still know he’s a long way away, but they’ve said they’re not ruling out him returning. That’s really all I can give you.”

When pressed on what his dialogue has been like with the training staff regarding Cousins, Vogel said that he won’t hear much from them until Cousins is closer to action than he is right now.

“I just know he’s not close. As he starts getting close and able to do things, they’ll come to me and let me know,” Vogel said.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors
For now, the only times the Lakers have really seen DeMarcus Cousins on the floor is when he’s shooting around after practice or during the team’s warm-ups for games. It’s not clear if he’ll ever get closer to actual minutes this year.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Vogel admitted that the Lakers were planning on using Cousins’ “versatile” set of skills heading into the season, talking up his 3-point shooting, rebounding and playmaking specifically. But while the Lakers were counting on those talents before, James made it clear that the team only wants Cousins back if he’s ready, not because they desperately need him.

“He’s progressed every single day, every single month. He was limping and now he’s actually shooting and actually jumping on his jump shots,” James said. “We want to continue to stay optimistic about his health. We don’t want no setbacks, as he’s had the last couple of years. His health is most important.”

Still, James couldn’t help but admit that Cousins’ skills — if he was at anywhere close to full strength — would be a benefit for the Lakers.

“If we can get Cuz anywhere back to what he was capable of doing a couple of years ago, it’s a big plus for us. There’s no pressure on him, there’s no pressure on our ball club to have him out there right away,” James said. “We want him to be healthy and have a great clear mind and great attitude, which he’s done since he’s been down here.”

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
DeMarcus Cousins may not have played for the Lakers (yet), but the team has cited him as a source of their chemistry, and as a guy not afraid to hold LeBron James accountable at times.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Getting Cousins back to the level of a few years ago, given the seriousness of ACL injuries, seems exceedingly unlikely. As is the idea that it would make sense for Cousins to return this season, either logically or medically.

Our own Dr. Rajpal Brar broke down the medical reasons here, so I won’t further belabor those. And as has been written in this space before, Cousins coming in cold to a new team after not playing real basketball in months, just in time for teams to ratchet up their intensity for the playoffs would seem to be a big risk for him and representatives heading into what might be his last free agency chance. Not to mention that the Lakers are getting pretty solid play out of both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, and while a healthy Cousins would provide a different element, it seems far from a certainty that he’d be close enough to 100% to not be more of a liability than an asset.

Anything is possible, but even the perpetually positive Vogel noted how difficult of a situation Cousins debuting during the playoffs would be if that’s how things worked out.

“It’s a big challenge. It’s not ideal. That’s why we’re keeping expectations tempered. Not ruling it out, but obviously to come back from basically a long stint of being out and being in rehab like he’s been, for your first action to be in a playoff atmosphere... that’s not the ideal situation,” Vogel said.

“It is something that he’s encountered before. He did it in Golden State. It’s just something where we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

We’ll see if the Lakers even get there.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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