Never mind that DeMarcus Cousins was in the middle of a year-long rehabilitation process from a career-threatening injury — one that has a history of preying on the long-term success of players who suffered from it.
Never mind that the chances of Cousins immediately returning to his All-Star form once he suits up for the Warriors is a vague possibility.
Never mind that Cousins will most probably show signs of frustration and anger, and that he will most likely have down spells in play and form that will test his patience and tempt him to become discouraged and disillusioned.
When Cousins chose to sign with the defending champions, Dub Nation was immediately filled with a cornucopia of emotions, ranging from unbounded glee to a level of smugness previously thought to be unreachable after the Warriors signed Kevin Durant. Just when everyone thought that the Warriors would not get any better, they actually did get better.
No doubt, many fans — especially those who weren’t fully cognizant of what made the acquisition of Cousins a swindle of epic proportions — immediately did their research to see what all the fuss was about. They wanted to see more of this big man who once laid claim to being the best center in the league.
Once the Google searches were executed, and the YouTube highlights were viewed, expectations suddenly shot up to stratospheric heights. Cousins could very well be the most dominant big man the Warriors would ever have — the fact that such dominance is paired with the already dominant nature of the Warriors would be the ultimate cherry on top.
Another 73-9 record could be coming up. Maybe the Warriors could break that record again. Heck, maybe we could finally go 82-0.
This all reminds this author of a certain movie called 500 Days of Summer. In it, a frustrated architect named Tom manages to date a beautiful woman named Summer. Tom has different expectations for the relationship than Summer does — he wants a committed relationship that would probably lead to marriage down the line, while Summer does not believe in true love and treats her relationship with Tom as something that merely makes the both of them happy in the present moment. The difference in expectations is all the more magnified when Summer abruptly cuts things off with Tom. Months later, Summer invites Tom to a party at her apartment, a sign taken by Tom to be the first step in rekindling their romance.
But as the following scene would show, Tom learns that expectations don’t always align with reality.
This is not to say that Warriors’ fans should expect their worlds to come crashing down in the same manner that Tom’s world does when he sees the engagement ring on Summer’s finger. But the expectations placed upon Cousins when he finally debuted for the Warriors where somewhat enormous.
Expectation: The All-Star center
The aforementioned Google and YouTube searches typed in by fans when Cousins signed with the Warriors probably brought up highlights such as this:
Warriors fans salivated at the thought of having a center who could seemingly do it all. He could score in a variety of ways — posting up, shooting the three, or taking his man off the dribble, as if he was a guard stuck in a 6-foot-11-inch frame. He could certainly pass the ball, attracting attention due to the threat of his scoring and using that to find opportunities for his teammates to break down defenses. While he wasn’t going to be the best at rim protection or pick-and-roll defense, he could be a big body down low who can stifle opposing bigs and haul down rebounds at a consistently high rate.
Would an Achilles injury really take those things away from him? Wouldn’t his rehabilitation be enough for him to regain at least most of his All-Star form and skill set? Questions like these swirled around fans’ heads — the reservations were still there, and rightfully so. But expectations soared even higher.
Reality: Still rounding into form
While Tom’s world came crashing down upon seeing Summer’s impending marriage to another man, Warriors fans’ worlds aren’t exactly going to lose major sleep over the fact that Cousins is still in the process of finding his rhythm, and that he clearly still isn’t the same world-beater that he was prior to his injury. The Warriors still have four All-Stars, and they still have the Hamptons 5 to close out games — a lineup that has a current offensive rating of 116.7 and a defensive rating of 98.2, per Second Spectrum tracking data from NBA.com/stats.
The allure of a 5-man lineup that is purely composed of All-Stars is undeniable, a feat that hasn’t been seen since the 1974-75 season, when the Boston Celtics had 5 All-Stars as starters. With Cousins inserted into the starting lineup as an expected game changer — one that was mostly thought of as more of a luxury than a necessity — the Warriors were expected to cruise their way toward another NBA Finals appearance and a probable third title in four years. But the numbers so far haven’t been as accommodating to that notion. Per Second Spectrum data, the All-Star starting 5 that includes Cousins has an offensive rating of 115.5 and a defensive rating of 116.5 — good for a net rating of -0.9.
Most people expected Cousins to have difficulty on the defensive end, with teams throwing a ton of pick-and-rolls his way to take advantage of his reputation as a lackluster perimeter defender, a notoriety that is even more pronounced after his Achilles injury. The Rockets were a litmus test of Cousins’ readiness in defending such actions — an examination that continued with the Charlotte Hornets, who also threw Cousins into plenty of pick-and-roll situations.
While Cousins showed flashes of competence in defending the pick-and-roll — stifling drives to the basket, contesting some shots, and even blocking some of them — he still is, overall, a liability. His slow foot speed allows either the ball-handler or the roll man to easily blow past him for the drive. He tries to compensate through dropping back into the paint to prevent rolls to the basket, but this runs the risk of allowing the ball-handler to shoot an open jumper. Against teams with better shooters that are more capable of punishing drop coverage, this can be a problem.
Defense is only one side of the coin in terms of Cousins’ struggles. As GSoM’s own Hugo Kitano pointed out, Cousins has a respectable Player Impact Plus-Minus of 0.9 and Box Plus-Minus of 2.0, which are indications of a “good role-player.” Even if the Warriors are content with Cousins having the same impact as that of a very good role player, fans might be somewhat underwhelmed or slightly disappointed that he isn’t capable so far of showing much more.
Individually, Cousins has been struggling to make his body respond to the signals that his brain is sending. The human brain is complex and amazing, capable of storing sequences and data that are kept in reserve till the time comes when they are needed. Cousins’ mind remembers all of those moves and repetitions that were fine-tuned during years of practice and in-game experience — but the data hits a snag when it tries to communicate with his still recovering muscles and limbs.
Cousins’ struggle to find his old offensive rhythm has been evident over the past five or so games going into Monday night’s game against the Hornets. That struggle was more evident against the Houston Rockets, as seen in these series of clips from a piece by Marcus Thompson II in The Athletic:
The noise of doubt around Cousins started to grow a bit louder after the loss to the Rockets. People started to doubt his potential to become a legitimate offensive threat, a force that defenses needed to pay attention to at the expense of being stretched too thin by the other threats on the floor.
If there was any indication of those doubts not falling on deaf ears, it was Cousins’ offensive performance against the Hornets. Finishing the night with a season-high 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting (1-of-4 on threes), it was easily Cousins’ best offensive performance with the Warriors so far. The Cousins that most fans expected to show up upon his return made an appearance on Monday night — one that seemed to be mobile, with a quick first step and the ability to finish at the rim, which allowed him to become the perceived roll man threat envisioned by several people prior to this season.
He even managed to unleash a couple of crossovers that caught the defense by surprise — easily the most eye-catching sequences of Cousins’ night.
While this is a good sign of Cousins’ progress toward achieving full form and fitness, there is the matter of consistency to address. Will he be able to have more nights like this? Perhaps he can — he played for 31 minutes against the Hornets, a season-high, which allowed him more leeway to show what he was capable of.
But to temper expectations a bit, the realistic take to grasp is that Cousins’ performance on a game-to-game basis will most probably wax and wane. He will have nights like Monday, where he was in the zone offensively, moving nimbly and with the kind of confidence he had before his injury. He will also have nights like the one he had against the Rockets, where he seemed slow and lumbering, struggling to finish at the rim and getting suffocated by defenders he would normally finish over.
Tom’s 500 days of Summer started with high expectations before reality came to knock him back to his senses. Cousins’ 365 days of rehabilitation and subsequent return to active duty similarly came with high expectations, but reality came to brush some of that luster away.
But that doesn’t mean that Cousins is a lost cause; it just means that with a little more patience — both from him and the rest of the team — everyone will eventually figure things out. And Monday night was a great indication of that mutual understanding.
Sixty down, 22 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.