- Golden State turned the likes of JaVale McGee and Nick Young from punchlines into champions, and the DeMarcus Cousins reclamation project has a significantly higher upside.
DeMarcus Cousins isn’t for everyone: The polarizing center’s size, skill and reliable 25/10 production come gift-wrapped in a deep pile of red flags that have repeatedly sabotaged and sidetracked his NBA career.
He’s beefed with coaches, teammates, opponents, referees, fans and media members. He’s a four-time All-Star and a zero-time postseason player. He often does too much offensively. He often does too little defensively. His conditioning has drawn questions over the years, and he suffered a season-ending and potentially career-altering Achilles tear in January. Even putting aside the new health questions, he’s too good at what he does, and too comfortable doing it, to fully address his shortcomings and transform himself into the leader of a contender. At 27, it’s too late for him to undergo the type of personality overhaul he would need to drive a team with championship aspirations.
While Cousins isn’t for everyone, he’s perfect for the Warriors. The defending champs agreed to sign Cousins to a one-year contract for $5.3 million on Monday, thereby adding a fifth All-Star to their jaw-dropping starting lineup. Cousins—who played on USA Basketball’s 2016 Olympic team with Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson—arrives in the Bay Area as the undisputed steal of the summer.
The filthy-rich Warriors just got even richer, capitalizing on Cousins’s uncertain health and a tight cap environment to address their weakest position with the most talented free-agent center on the market. By inking Cousins, the Warriors broke up the rising Pelicans’ All-Star duo, kept one of the few remaining stars away from joining LeBron James on the Lakers, and extended their lead over the likes of the Rockets, Celtics, Sixers, Spurs, Blazers and Thunder, all of whom seem headed for lateral (or worse) offseasons. Instead of tinkering on the margins of its rotation, as most championship teams are forced to do, Golden State once again took out the dynamite and exploded the league’s hope for something resembling competitive balance. They have dominated with stiffs and rookies at the five and now it could get much, much worse.
For Cousins, who surely had visions of signing a long-term max contract prior to his injury, the Warriors are an ideal Plan B. He can take as long as he needs to return to full health, as Golden State has plenty of talent and patience to hold down the fort. He can expect a manageable workload in terms of minutes once he returns, as Golden State will have Jordan Bell, Green and other big men on hand. And he can anticipate playing within balanced lineups and the clearest and most well-honed system of his career.
The Warriors will also be good for Cousins in ways he might not realize or be willing to admit. So often frustrated by the weak links around in Sacramento, Cousins now finds himself in a bit of a role reversal: He will be the new guy who needs to prove he can hold his weight within defensive schemes and absorb his new organization’s carefully-crafted opinions on shot selection. Golden State knows it can win without him, a fact that keeps the pressure on Cousins to play to his strengths and avoid his weaknesses. This dynamic has helped the Warriors turn the likes of JaVale McGee and Nick Young from punchlines into champions, and the Cousins reclamation project has a significantly higher upside. Duh.
This move isn’t just about properly rehabilitating his body or refining his game, it’s about completely rewriting his reputation. In recent years, Cousins has worn the Scarlet L: He’s the NBA’s best player to never win anything. He never came close to making the playoffs in Sacramento, his arrival didn’t lift New Orleans into the 2017 playoffs following a midseason trade, and the Pelicans played better and more freely after his injury during their 2018 joyride to the second round. The Warriors provide the opportunity for him to claim a championship ring to pair with his Olympic gold medal, all while sparing him the mental burdens of leadership.
Golden State can certainly use what Cousins brings to the table, even if he’s somewhat limited next season. His ability as a low-post scorer is unique among Golden State’s stars, and he should feast in single coverage given the many shooters that will surround him. Cousins will likely parade to the free-throw line next season, as defenses give fouls to prevent dunks set up by the Warriors’ tic-tac-toe passing. His three-point range will be helpful too, allowing coach Steve Kerr to deploy big lineups with five shooting threats, thereby opening driving lanes for Stephen Curry and isolation attack opportunities for Durant.
Defensively, Cousins will need to prove that he can move well enough and lock in consistently enough to warrant crunch-time minutes. It’s conceivable that Golden State sticks to smaller looks in late-game scenarios during the postseason, and Cousins will need to show that he can handle benchings with maturity. Importantly, though, Cousins gives Golden State a talented body to help limit regular-season wear and tear on Green and Durant, and he matches up nicely with Boston’s Al Horford and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, two possible 2019 Finals opponents.
There are potential friction points. Green is likely to speak to Cousins in a way that no teammate or coach has ever dared. Cousins and Durant memorably got into a hallway brouhaha last December. Green, Cousins and Durant all are quick to draw technical fouls and sink into persecution complexes; that tendency is unbecoming of such a talented team and could spell trouble if their frustrations multiply together in short order. Unlike Cousins’s previous coaches, though, Kerr has a powerful release valve: he can simply reduce his center’s role, fully confident that he can win and avoid losing his locker room.
The biggest downside for the Warriors is that Cousins’s stay in the Bay will likely be brief. He should hit 2019 free agency with better health after a deep postseason run, ready to seek a lucrative long-term contract in an environment where more teams will have greater spending power.
For Golden State, an aspiring dynasty that shows no sign of slowing down, pulling a star on this type of budget rental is almost too good to be true. After so many losing seasons and so much criticism, Cousins should feel the same way about his new home, however temporary it might be.