As the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers came together at center court for tip off, the countdown clock to the long-awaited debut of DeMarcus Cousins finally reached zero. A fan base that has waited for half a year with bated breath would finally be able to see — and evaluate for themselves — just how much the All-Star center will contribute to a lineup already blessed with an embarrassment of riches.
Everyone knows that Cousins has the potential to contribute several skills that the Warriors have been noticeably lacking: the presence of a legitimate big man who can impose his presence in the paint on both ends of the floor, as well as a passing big man who possesses the playmaking chops to see off-ball actions around him and act accordingly.
Furthermore, Cousins’ ability to shoot the three allows the Warriors to stretch the floor even more than they are already capable of. With a starting lineup consisting of the two greatest three-point shooters in the history of the league and the deadliest scorer in the history of the game, the presence of a stretch five can add another nuclear warhead to a stockpile that is already full of them.
Cousins made his debut, and as expected, he showed signs of being winded and fatigued — being out for a year without experiencing the rigor and pace of a legitimate NBA game will have that effect. But in his 15 minutes on the floor — prematurely terminated through fouling out of the game — Cousins amassed a highly respectable line: 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, shooting 5-of-11 from the field (45.4 percent) and 3-of-4 from three-point range (75 percent).
Being a force on the offensive end is something that was expected out of Cousins; he can take his man down low, he can pull up from three-point range, and he can act as a passer on the post or elbow. But it was his respectable showing from the defensive end that came as a pleasant surprise. While he will never be an imposing rim protector, nor will he ever be an excellent perimeter stopper capable of locking down smaller guards and wings, he has shown the willingness to be a live body on defense — and against the Clippers, he proved that he was an able defender when focused and motivated.
Let’s dive into the film and analyze Cousins’ performance on both ends of the floor.
Cousins’ first quarter
We’ve all imagined how Cousins would fit in with the Warriors’ offense. A number of fans have probably used Cousins in the 1-5 or 3-5 pick-and-roll in games of 2K, with either Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant as his partner. With Cousins playing the role of screener, the possibilities are endless — he can roll toward the basket, using the gravity of Curry or Durant to steamroll his way to an easy bucket, or he can pop out toward the line and shoot the three.
While the realistic possibility of endlessly spamming pick-and-rolls is out of the question — thanks to Steve Kerr’s aversion to it — the Warriors are allowed to run it this one time, for the purpose of getting Cousins his first points as a Warrior.
With Durant as the ball-handler, Cousins sets the side pick, which fully catches Durant’s defender, forcing Cousins’ defender to pick up Durant. The paint is left wide open for Cousins to stroll through, since Curry and Klay Thompson are on the weak side and are forcing their defenders to stay nailed to the perimeter. And thus, exhibit A of what makes this lineup so “unfair,” as most non-Warriors fans would put it.
During a standard Motion Weak set from the Warriors, Cousins stations himself at the free throw line area and directs Thompson to use his screen to curl and go up for a jumper. Cousins is a solid pick setter, with his huge frame acting as a deterrent against Thompson’s defender, allowing the Splash Brother to go up and get a decent look at the basket.
One area of concern for Cousins on the defensive end is his ability to defend the pick-and-roll. He has shown a lot of difficulty in the past as the big man defender, especially when switched onto smaller and quicker perimeter players.
In this possession, the Clippers put Cousins’ pick-and-roll defense to the test. He gets switched onto the smaller Avery Bradley, who opts to go up for a mid-range jumper. Cousins gets his hands up high enough for a decent contest on Bradley’s shot, which misses.
Cousins would get taken out early in the first quarter as a result of accumulating two quick fouls. He would later return at the start of the second quarter, with his role being the main anchor of the second unit’s offense.
Cousins’ second quarter
The Warriors go to Cousins again to facilitate and create shots. In this possession, the roles are reversed; being the big man passer, Cousins should naturally be stationed in the low post, while the split action occurs between two perimeter players. But as a result of the Warriors looking to get Thompson a post jumper, Cousins instead pairs up with Andre Iguodala in the split action. Iguodala sets a screen for Cousins, who receives the pass from Thompson. The result: the first appearance of the third Splash Brother.
As previously mentioned, Cousins isn’t known for his rim protection. But all the Warriors expect from him is to be a live body in the post and to make life difficult for opposing big men down low. Matched up against Montrezl Harrell, Cousins stands his ground and becomes an impenetrable wall when Harrell tries to back his way down toward the basket. Harrell eventually fumbles the ball, and a turnover for the Warriors becomes a fastbreak opportunity for Cousins, who runs the floor ahead of everyone else. He doesn’t get the shot in, but it’s a promising development for someone who everyone expected to be slow and lumbering.
Cousins’ defense gets tested again on a smaller and quicker player. Switched onto Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Cousins again does a good job of contesting the shot without fouling, resulting in a miss and another opportunity for him to score on the other end.
This time, the Warriors go to Cousins in the post, where he shows off his ability to spin his way inside against three defenders. He pumps out a fake to get a defender up in the air, before going up for the point-blank shot. It misses, but he is fouled and sent to the line, where he makes 1-of-2 free throws.
Cousins was taken out shortly at around the 7:30 mark and would not return until the start of the third quarter.
Cousins’ third quarter
With Cousins situated on the right block, Curry looks to cut inside for a layup. He deftly nudges his defender toward another Clipper defender, who inadvertently sets a screen on his own teammate. This frees up Curry to dive inside, and Cousins whips out a well-timed and accurate bounce pass to Curry for the layup. This is an example of what the Warriors greatly desire out of Cousins: a seven-foot passing machine not seen since Andrew Bogut.
Cousins doesn’t get an assist on this possession, but his bounce pass to a cutting Draymond Green forces the defense to collapse inside, leading to a kick out pass to Thompson, who takes advantage of a scrambling defense by making his way inside for the easy layup.
Once again, Cousins shows his willingness to play defense by stationing himself in front of a driving Tobias Harris. He sets his feet, establishes a position just outside of the restricted area, and gets to the spot just in time to draw the charge, as he points to the bench and gets acknowledged for his excellent defensive play.
Cousins follows this up with yet another excellent defensive sequence. Matched up against Harris — an obvious mismatch — Cousins allows him to make his way inside, before poking at the ball cleanly and stripping it away. This immediately leads into a fastbreak layup for Green on the other end.
After forcing a miss from Bradley through another good contest, Cousins hustles his way ahead of everyone else in transition. Durant threads the bounce pass to a rim-running Cousins, who easily beats his defender and drops in the easy layup.
Shortly after, Cousins gets taken out and is rested until the start of the fourth quarter
Cousins’ fourth quarter
Once again, Cousins is sent out to lead the second unit. Shortly after committing his fifth foul and drawing an offensive foul himself, Cousins sets an off-ball screen for Thompson. The screen is solid enough for the defense to focus all of its attention on Thompson’s curl and dive inside — which leaves Cousins all alone on the perimeter. This sequence is what the Warriors and their fans’ dreams are made of: a big man capable of stretching defenses to their limits.
Cousins gets another wide-open, virtually uncontested three. With Green handling the ball up top, he gives it to Cousins, who thinks about pulling up but decides against it, passing the ball back to Green instead. Meanwhile, Thompson tries to create all sorts of chaos with his off-ball movement; he curls around Green and dives inside, bringing several defenders along with him. Green passes the ball back to Cousins, who doesn’t hesitate in pulling up for his third three of the night.
Before ending his debut for the Warriors by fouling out, Cousins has one final contribution on offense. Off-ball screening gives him a huge mismatch against Patrick Beverley on the elbow. With the defense giving special attention to that matchup, they ignore Iguodala on the weak side corner. Cousins whips a pass directly to Iguodala, who promptly buries the three.
Cousins is a proven go-to-guy on offense. He is capable of taking his man one-on-one, using his size and skill to make most big men in the league look like fools. For most of his career, it was enough for him and his team, and it was something that he became accustomed to on a nightly basis.
It was almost expected that he would try to do something similar during his return from a long hiatus, and the Warriors — being the welcoming team that they are — were more than willing to force feed him and make him feel comfortable.
But what was seen instead from Cousins is the willingness to play within the system. Plenty of time spent on the Warriors’ bench has given him enough time to observe the Warriors’ culture, one that feeds off of harmony, camaraderie, and joy. He has been convinced that despite the presence of several stars who could easily command their own teams and have the right to demand that they have the ball with them at all times, they eschew that notion for the purpose of achieving something greater than individual glory.
Cousins observed all of those, and he waited. And when the time came to finally show how he would respond to such a culture, he responded by proving that he was fully entrenched in it.
Cousins isn’t merely the “Third Splash Brother,” nor is he just the fourth or fifth option in a lineup full of many options. He isn’t just the latest in a long line of passing big men that have played for the Warriors. He is much more than all of those.
On Friday night, DeMarcus Cousins proved that he is truly a Golden State Warrior.
Forty-six down, 36 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.