I remember exactly where I was when I found out that DeMarcus Cousins was planning to sign with the Golden State Warriors. I was doing dishes when my phone melodically informed me of a Twitter notification.
When I saw the news from Woj, I initially thought it was a fake account; then I remembered that I only have my notifications set to Woj and Shams. It was real. It had to be. Boogie was coming to the Warriors.
It’s been about six weeks, and I’m still excited to the point of grinning randomly throughout the day. I can’t stop thinking about watching one of the most skilled big men in the modern era on a nightly basis. One of the best passing bigs, who can shoot threes like a guard, decimating defenses alongside Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
And one of the most misunderstood personalities in the league joining Green and Steve Kerr, in an atmosphere where personality and fire are embraced, not shunned.
I couldn’t be more excited.
For all the elation I feel, something tugs at me in a different direction. I don’t really think that that Cousins helps all that much, even if he makes a full recovery from his achilles injury.
I know, it seems odd. The Warriors have a bevy of young, offensively-challenged centers, and Cousins is a four-time All-Star who averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game last year.
He’s elite. But how much does he really help this team?
Cousins is, at times, a more than capable defender. At the Las Vegas Summer League I asked Warriors’ assistant coach Jarron Collins about when they’ll prioritize Cousins and his offense, versus the defense of their younger centers; Collins proceeded to tell me exactly how outstanding Cousins is on that end of the floor.
Matched up on the block, Cousins can body opposing bigs with aplomb. His immense strength, paired with nimble footwork, allows him both the ability, and the confidence to defend the league’s elite offensive players in the post.
But that’s not the way of many modern offenses, and it’s not the defensive style that Golden State employs. The Warriors aim to switch everything, which relies on bigs capable of holding their own when matched against smaller players.
Kevon Looney does not carry the name pedigree of Cousins, but plays such as the one in this video were vital in the Warriors’ successful plight for a second consecutive title last season:
Cousins was in the 91st percentile last year when defending isolation opportunities, and in the 75th percentile defending post-ups. But he was a far more pedestrian 55th percentile when defending the screener in the pick and roll, and often struggled when switched onto smaller players.
While Cousins is a dramatically better offensive player than Looney, Jordan Bell, or Damian Jones, the Warriors have no shortage of offense. What they need against the Houston Rockets is a player who can control Clint Capela’s dives towards the rims, while also making Chris Paul and James Harden work after a switch occurs. Cousins is behind Golden State’s young center options in that regard.
Of course, some of this can be alleviated by simply limiting Cousins’ minutes in certain matchups. But, then again, limiting the minutes of a veritable star is easier said than done.
Death to the death lineup?
The Warriors played their vaunted death lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green, and Andre Iguodala a mere 127 minutes last season. But they outscored their opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. It wasn’t their best lineup, but it still presented mismatches up one side and down the other.
Cousins immediately replaces Iguodala as the team’s fifth star. It’s hard to imagine Iguodala - so long the team’s closer - getting the important minutes in the waning moments of the game, or starting in the NBA Finals to create matchups to feast on.
Yet that is, increasingly, the way of the league. Not small lineups, per se, but lineups with versatility, both offensive and defensive. Lineups with five players who can get down the floor and run in transition, while also switching on defense.
Those lineups, while deadly, are already nearing extinction with the Warriors, and with an elite, traditionally-sized center, they’ll grow rarer still.
Ball holding and slow motion
The Warriors are not only one of the best assist teams in NBA history, but a franchise that has made passing an extreme focal point.
That is made possible, in part, by the fact that the offense rarely pauses. The ball is always moving, and with it, the cutters. Neither ball nor player stay in one place for very long, unless the shot clock is diminishing, and a superstar is forced into isolation mode.
Cousins, while certainly a selfless offensive force, doesn’t usually play that way. He’s far more comfortable catching the ball on the block, taking his time, sizing up his opponent, and going to work.
The good news: this usually works out well for him. The bad news: it doesn’t really play into the Warriors’ offensive scheme, and risks stagnating the offense when an easy shot doesn’t transpire.
Furthermore, Cousins is often slow to get back down the court, meaning that oftentimes Curry or Thompson will have found a transition three before Boogie has a chance to impact the offense.
In all, Cousins will do far more good than harm on offense. The question is how much it will impact the flow and style that the Warriors are accustomed to, and excel at.
And yet . . .
There seems to be a fear that Cousins’ attitude could cause issues in Golden State. I’m not buying it.
In Sacramento, Cousins was faced with unfair expectations, a lack of star and veteran leadership, and a dysfunctional organization. These things don’t exist in Golden State.
When Cousins joked at his introductory press conference that he and Green should go ahead and get their first fight over with, it became clear that this won’t be an issue. Cousins is a strong personality, as is Green, as is Durant, as is Kerr. They all accept that; they all welcome that.
DeMarcus Cousins joking on if he will fight with Durant and Draymond to get it out of the way pic.twitter.com/KNFZ0QmCLQ— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) July 19, 2018
That strength should come with respect, and while Cousins was ostracized for a big personality in Sacramento, he will be embraced for it - and met with similarly large personalities - in the Bay Area. He is not defensive, and neither are his new teammates.
If this seemed pessimistic, it wasn’t meant to be. I remain enthused beyond belief, and cannot wait for Cousins’ rehab to end, and his games to begin. Regardless of how well it works, he’s a generational talent, a joy to watch, and a misunderstood character that deserves to be appreciated.
Ultimately, Cousins offers Golden State something very similar to what Durant did, when he signed. It’s not increasing the ceiling of the Warriors so much as the floor. At their best, the Warriors with Cousins are unlikely to be much, if at all better than in years past.
But at their worst, they absolutely will be. They survived Curry being injured last year. They survived Thompson picking up a bucket full of fouls just minutes into a critical Conference Finals game. They survived off nights, and new defensive schemes, and ejections.
When the season throws challenges the Warriors way, they’ll be far more prepared to stay afloat. And while Cousins may not have the impact that some think, but that’s sure worth a lot.