DeMarcus Cousins makes the Warriors a better team; that much is not up for debate. Despite his Achilles injury, he is a skilled offensive player who fills the paint defensively. And he’ll be better as he continues to shake off the rust and build chemistry with his All-Star teammates.
But some of it has been frustrating for him. Cousins has just recently had his minutes restriction lifted, and he hasn’t seen much of the floor in crunch time. Clearly, Steve Kerr trusts his Death Lineup to close games—after all, they’ve been one of the best lineups ever.
Cousins has been fine so far this season: his Player Impact Plus-Minus of 0.9 and Box Plus-Minus of 2.0 paint the picture of a good role player. Shockingly, his offense has been below average by both metrics, an area where he’s been great in the past.
When Cousins is on the floor, he’s had a lot of playmaking responsibilities. He’s third on the team in usage rate (which is only a bit lower than his rate last year), and is racking up high numbers of assists and turnovers, as is usual for him. Most disappointing for him has been his scoring: his True Shooting of 53.2% is far below his rates from previous seasons, and his 28.9% three-point accuracy is the worst since he began shooting threes.
The solution is for Cousins to take a step back as a playmaker and assume a more complementary role. He’ll gain more confidence playing with the other stars, and he’ll trust his legs more as he chooses his spots better. It’s against what he’s done for almost all of his career, but he does have the tools to be a smart secondary initiator: he sets mean screens, passes well, and can punish switches onto smaller defenders. I’m confident he can improve on this end, though part of that is dependent on him figuring out how to adjust to a new role. As his comfort in the offense and with his body increases, he can again assume a larger role.
On the flip side, Cousin’s defense has been superb. After his injury, the greatest concern was his agility and quickness on that end: Cousins has never been great as a defender, and has never been the most athletic guy. But so far, his defense has been a pleasant surprise: he’s blocking a lot of shots, and takes up space in the paint with his size. He’s also clearly the best rebounder on the team. His only major fault right now is his fouls, but over time, I’m sure he’ll be able to rein them in. It’s still a mystery how Cousins will fare on the perimeter if the Warriors decide to switch screens, but we’ll figure that out when it’s necessary to.
So for Cousins, adapting to the right offensive role, finding a comfortable chemistry with his teammates, and controlling his fouling habits should be the way forward. Eventually, I believe he’ll begin hitting his shots, especially around the rim, where he’s looked awkward so far. His three-point shot should arrive sometime too. He should be a good starter for the team.
The catch is that while Cousins will be very valuable to this team, he might not be present in their best lineup. The lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green has almost three years of chemistry, and they’ve terrorized the league using small-ball and speed. Even though Cousins might close games in certain matchups, he probably is not going to be part of any better lineup, and that’s fine! The Death Lineup is one of the most iconic five-man groups in NBA history, anyways.
Cousins has to realize that he’ll have to sacrifice a little bit. He’ll still play as many minutes as he wants, and when he’s back in rhythm offensively, will shoulder a heavy offensive load. But integration into a championship team is difficult, and he’ll have to keep grinding to make the fit perfect. Sometimes that means taking a step back.