- DeMarcus Cousins has endured so much to reach his first NBA Finals. But in yet another cruel twist, Golden State may be better off without deploying its All-Star center.
DeMarcus Cousins isn’t always the most sympathetic figure, though in this moment, perhaps he should be. It wasn’t until Cousins’ seventh season that he knew what it was like to play alongside another star, when the Kings shipped him to the Pelicans rather than pay his next contract. Within a year, Cousins tore his Achilles tendon while chasing down an offensive rebound, costing him that very deal. Teams were understandably reluctant to make long-term offers to an All-Star center after such a devastating injury. Rather than accept their unfavorable terms, Cousins made his own by making his own way to the Warriors for the taxpayer mid-level exception, worth just $5.2 million.
It took Cousins nine years in the league before he first experienced playoff basketball. After two games and 25 total playoff minutes, Cousins ruptured his left quad while in pursuit of a loose ball. When the Warriors ousted the Rockets with one of the defining wins of their era, Cousins could only celebrate from the bench and the locker room. While his teammates came back from three consecutive 17-point deficits to sweep the Blazers in the Western Conference finals, he could only encourage those players in action. Cousins chose to take his rehab and comeback with the Warriors in the hopes of being a part of something like this. Now he was, only marginalized by the fact that a new injury prevented him from actually competing.
“Fairness doesn't really play a part in this sport,” Cousins told the assembled media in advance of the Finals. “Fairness doesn't really play a part in life, honestly, but these are the cards I was dealt and all I can do is deal with it however it comes. So I'll make the best of the situation, which I've tried to do. Yes, it was tough dealing with the Achilles injury and then overcoming that and then, boom, coming back with another one, but that's just the cards I was dealt. I would be lying to say like when it happened I wasn't thinking to myself: Why me? Or: Why now? Or whatever the case may be. But I'm a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. God's got a plan for me. I gotta be patient, and my turn will come around.”
It’s to Cousins’ credit that he’s now made that turn possible. According to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Cousins has been a full participant in practice—a minor miracle given how distressing his injury first appeared six weeks ago.
“DeMarcus has done an amazing job coming back from the injury, which we felt at the time was season-ending,” Kerr said. “So he's done an incredible job of rebounding, rehabbing, and now here he is. He's scrimmaged a couple times this week. He's pain-free. It's more a matter of rhythm, timing, and conditioning, all those things.” If this were the regular season, Kerr noted, the process of reintroducing Cousins to the lineup would be fairly straightforward—starting with playing him for as many minutes as Cousins could handle.
“It's not the regular season,” he continued. “It's the Finals. So we have to figure out: What's the best way to utilize him? How many minutes he can play, what the game feels like, what the matchups are like?” These are diplomatic terms for an unfortunate truth: At this stage in the playoffs, Cousins is a complication. It’s impressive as hell that he has made himself available to play, but challenging to decide how much he should.
Kerr and his staff have a team in rhythm to consider—a team that, frankly, could win the title without Cousins playing another minute. Kevon Looney has been the best of Golden State’s centers throughout the season. Draymond Green will obviously play the position some when Kevin Durant returns to make the Death Lineup feasible again. Even Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut, and Damian Jones have been able to spot the Warriors minutes in select matchups. Cousins could be better, but would he be content in going through so much in recent weeks only to play a handful of minutes a game?
An honest conversation about Cousins is entirely fair under the circumstances. It seemed that the Warriors played their best basketball without him even before this most recent injury, in part because they never fully figured out how to defend the pick-and-roll with Cousins as a central part. A flaw like that could prove fatal against the Raptors, were Kerr to proceed thoughtlessly. Kawhi Leonard won’t play any differently in knowing what Cousins has been through. His trying times won’t change the wants of Kyle Lowry, or Pascal Siakam, or Marc Gasol. Toronto is a team fully capable of beating Golden State, which leaves Cousins in a precarious state.
The problem isn’t the discourse, but the shame of it all. At what should be the happiest time of Cousins’ career, injury has left him a cog—a strategic piece to be played or not, again subject to circumstances beyond his control.
“I believe this is the stage that every basketball player as a kid growing up dreams of,” Cousins said. “To be here is a huge honor and it's an incredible feeling, so I'm extremely excited about it and it makes me that much more—it makes me that much more antsy to get on the floor and help my team. If that opportunity is presented to me, I plan on taking full advantage of it.”
It’s that painful “if” that now stands between Cousins and the NBA Finals. “It would mean everything to me,” he said of playing in the championship series. “And hopefully that happens.”