DeMarcus Cousins isn’t expected to be the dominant center he was before an Achilles injury sidelined him for a year. The most that the Warriors can ask of him is to be at around 70-80% of his past form, and that alone should be enough to give opposing teams more things to think about (in addition to having to worry about the other four All-Stars).
Going by the history of previous players who have suffered the same injury and made their comebacks to the NBA, Cousins has a mountain to climb in terms of getting back to his peak All-Star form — assuming he does reach that level again in the future. Knowing this, the Warriors — true to their nature as an accommodating and nurturing organization — gave Cousins the proper environment and plenty of time for his rehabilitation.
While Cousins made a statement in his return to active duty against the Los Angeles Clippers, he experienced a slight regression to reality against the Los Angeles Lakers by scoring 8 points. He was, however, a +24, and contributed in a myriad of other ways, such as setting solid screens, being a force on the boards (9 rebounds), and assisting on a couple of baskets (5 assists).
For Cousins, there is no where to go but up. As he starts to rediscover his feel for the game and his conditioning slowly returns to one that is used to the rigor and pace of an NBA game, his contributions to the team will be more pronounced.
That improvement may be coming sooner rather than later. Against the Washington Wizards, Cousins upped his minutes spent on the floor — 24 minutes, as opposed to 21 against the Lakers. Furthermore, he produced an efficient offensive performance, scoring 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting, while hauling in 6 rebounds and dishing 3 assists.
Let’s dive into the film and see how he showed signs of improvement against the Wizards.
As many fans remember all too well, Cousins’ first points as a Warrior came from a pick-and-roll sequence with Kevin Durant. Cousins’ ability to set a solid screen, coupled with Durant’s gravity, allowed Cousins to roll uncontested toward the rim for a thundering dunk. It was a sight to behold, and it was the first example of what Cousins’ presence can bring to a lineup that is already replete with elite offensive talent.
The Warriors ran another Durant/Cousins pick-and-roll against the Wizards, and as expected, the result was devastating. In this possession, Stephen Curry successfully forces a missed shot, and the rebound is hauled in by Cousins, who brings the ball down and hands it off to Durant. This immediately flows into a pick-and-roll, with Cousins’ solid screen forcing Durant’s defender to trail behind him and Cousins’ defender being forced to pick up Durant on a potential drive. This frees up Cousins to roll toward the rim, receive the pass, and go up for the easy bucket.
One of the more pressing concerns for Cousins upon his return to active duty was his mobility. Known for his ball-handling skills and his ability to take his man off the dribble, an Achilles injury is the biggest detriment to such a skill set. However, he displayed a promising recovery toward his pre-injury mobility during this sequence. After the Warriors get a stop, he receives the ball on the right wing, elects to go one-on-one, and spins his way inside for another layup — a vintage scoring possession from him.
Cousins is a legitimate threat from the perimeter, and despite attempting only one shot from three-point range, it was an example of the absurdity that he brings to an already out-of-this-world offense. With Shaun Livingston bringing the ball down, Draymond Green runs slightly ahead of Cousins and sets a screen on Cousins’ defender. A trailing Cousins receives the pass from Livingston, and having been freed up by Green’s screen, he buries the uncontested three. The sight of a power forward screening for a center shooting a three is quite a rare one — yet the Warriors possess that exclusive luxury.
Although Cousins isn’t particularly known for his rim protection — or for his overall ability as a defender, for that matter — he has shown glimpses of his potential as a live body on defense through good positional defending. But in this sequence, he surprises everyone by timely rotating onto a drive and blocking a shot attempt clean. Defensive effort by Cousins can only mean good things for the Warriors, a bonus that is added onto the pile of abilities that he brings to the defending champions.
Another advantage of using Cousins in the pick-and-roll is the potential to have much smaller defenders getting switched onto him. In this possession, Klay Thompson links up with Cousins in the pick-and-roll, and the Wizards are forced to switch a small defender onto the center. But Cousins’ roll has the defender trailing behind, allowing him to have inside position and easy access at the basket.
In this possession, the Warriors initiate the offense with Motion Weak. Durant screens for Cousins underneath, with the objective of trying to force a switch down low. Curry feeds Cousins the ball and relocates to the weak side. Seeing that Curry has a window for a shot, Cousins passes the ball back to Curry, but that shooting window quickly closes. Curry opts to penetrate inside, drawing several defenders onto him and leaving Cousins open on the perimeter for a mid-range jumper.
This sequence is what opposing defenses’ nightmares are made of. The Warriors run their patented low-post split, with Cousins being the low-post decision maker, and Curry and Durant being the executors of the split action on the perimeter. This is the ultimate scenario of “picking your poison” for the defense — and the poison that they decide to consume is Curry. Two defenders attach themselves to Curry to prevent a possible open three, leaving Durant to cut inside for the open dunk, courtesy of a well-timed Cousins pass.
Cousins gets another seal simply through pure effort; in transition, he runs ahead of everyone else, including his defender. As a result, he gets inside position in the paint, and an entry pass by Durant nets Cousins another easy bucket inside.
Being featured in the second unit allows Cousins to become the first or second option. With Thompson struggling on offense, the Warriors look to Cousins to score down low. Livingston makes the entry pass to Cousins on the right block, where he has a smaller defender guarding him. Realizing this, the Wizards attempt to double him, but it is a weak attempt at doubling; Cousins uses his left elbow as leverage to slide his way between the two defenders to put in another close range shot.
The Warriors look to Cousins again in the post. Another entry pass is made, and Cousins takes advantage of his size and heft to back his way down closer toward the rim. Another double attempt is rendered moot when Cousins simply goes up for the jump hook and another easy bucket.
Despite his excellent showing against the Wizards, Cousins is still very much a work in progress. It will take several more games and more actual playing time to fully get his feel for the game back. During the first two games, there were instances where Cousins clearly knew what he wanted to do, but it was simply a matter of his body not responding to his wants. The more games that Cousins participates in, the more that disconnect between mind and body will disappear.
The process of reconnection is looking like it’s going smoothly for Cousins. In due time, he will find his way to much better form, while at the same time contributing whatever he can to a team that is on its way to another stretch of dominance.
When asked by Kerith Burke about how he was coming along and if he feels he made the right choice by signing with the Warriors, Cousins’ answer was simple.
“I’m coming along good, and I made the right choice.”
And the results speak for themselves.
Forty-eight down, 34 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.