The Golden State Warriors have taught us more about DeMarcus Cousins since his return from a meniscus tear than he has shown us about the team.
The truisms that players would have you believe about big men are pretty silly. You’ve got to “feed” post players, they say, reward them for running the floor or playing defense. They don’t get to play with the ball in their hands, so if they rotate over to swat a shot, they deserve the chance to put it in the hoop themselves. Very infrequently does watching a basketball game back up this kind of spiritual requisition on the part of guards toward their bigs — unless you’re watching DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins’ mindset and energy level on the court seems to depend greatly on his involvement in the action. It’s part of what makes him so difficult to judge and what likely makes teams worried about committing to him long-term, particularly after a torn meniscus in early 2018. He’s likely not a first or second option on a great team, nor is he your typical 2019 title team center. Without the ability to switch on defense or be the focal point of an offense, a max salary seems far beyond Cousins’ reach now.
That being said, with Cousins’ free agency looming after his one-year deal with the Warriors expires this summer, we did learn quite a bit about Cousins since he joined the Golden State lineup on Jan. 18.
The insults about Cousins’ defense precede his actual performance
Cousins doesn’t do himself any favors by complaining to referees and occasionally getting stuck in quicksand, but he’s not a bad defender. The Warriors’ problems guarding will be important to watch in the playoffs but statistically, the D is better when Cousins is on the court. The Warriors’ 109.6 defensive rating without Cousins in non-garbage time minutes would rank 15th over the course of a full season. Their 106.7 mark with him on the court would be in the top five.
When it comes to creating turnovers, Cousins’ energy level has actually been better with the Warriors than in the past. He posted the highest steal and block rates of his career this season.
He’s far from perfect. Teams will still blow by Cousins when he’s sleeping and he restricts Golden State’s ability to switch and overhelp, turning down the rabid energy that has helped them win three of the past four NBA titles.
They play more traditionally against the pick-and-roll with Cousins in the game. Warriors coaches have Cousins use a shallow drop to corral ball-handlers and keep Golden State’s defense steady. This means sometimes Cousins gets beat against jitterbug ball-handlers, but the Bucks have taught us it’s easier to manage breakdowns inherent in drop coverage when you have long, smart defenders on the court at all times. Golden State isn’t as effective recovering in those situations but their playoff rotation figures to be better — and feature less of Cousins.
He’s not an elite player
Which brings us to the next factor. The winning version of Cousins is not an All-Star. With just a 56.7 true shooting percentage and heavy turnovers throughout his career, Cousins is unlikely to ever become an offensive focal point on a contender. More reasonably, he settles into a role similar to how he was used in New Orleans, with another big man finisher next to him and shooting around the arc. The compromise by Cousins and the Pelicans between creating offense and buying into a team game worked.
The Pelicans inverted pick-and-rolls, tinkered with triangle concepts and got out in transition, all in an effort to maximize Cousins. That’s still the blueprint for any team that wants to steal him from Golden State and commit to him long-term. Cousins remains an elite passing big man. He reads the game a few steps ahead of everyone else — which made him an ideal fit in Golden State’s offense — and his handle allows him to maneuver in the halfcourt.
Another skill Cousins showed us is his ability to finish with better talent around him. According to Cleaning the Glass, Cousins shot 67 percent at the rim this season, putting him in the 64th percentile among bigs. That’s another caree- high. With the best spacing we’ve ever seen on an NBA court, Cousins looked solid, proving that if Sacramento had been able to properly build, this could have come sooner.
It’s hard to tell if another team will be able to gift Cousins such great spacing next season — the Warriors included.
His ideal role is still unclear
Cousins’ game is better suited as a role player. With a lower usage and great teammates, Cousins is suddenly in a class of Unicorns — he actually can space the floor and defend around the basket. It’s not a maybe or one-day type of thing. Cousins as your third or fourth best player, in theory, is tantalizing.
But you can’t pay former No. 5 picks who have made two All-NBA teams (and may win the championship this season) role player money.
Using Jusuf Nurkic’s contract, signed in 2018, as a blueprint makes the discussion interesting. Forgetting Nurkic’s injury for a moment, he is signed on a below-market deal the next three seasons at around $12 million per year. Nurkic played at a borderline All-Star level this year on both ends, fits Portland’s system perfectly and made the stars on his team better. Can Cousins ever be that type of player?
Probably not. More likely is a team staking the 2019-20 season to Cousins by gifting him 25 possessions every night to go to work and crossing their fingers. He plays like a team’s best player even when he’s not close — and he hasn’t been the best guy on a team since 2017.
If Cousins is willing to return to Golden State as a pseudo-Kevin Durant replacement or join a good team on another smaller prove-it deal, the benefit could be real for the team. Cousins is a good basketball player. But if a team that strikes out sees Cousins as a consolation prize (hi, Lakers), it could get ugly.
If he can’t get a guaranteed second year without a team option at or above Nurkic’s $12 million, then a one-year, big-money deal may be his best option. But what are teams hoping to see from him that they haven’t already? The book seems to be written.
A prospective team will have to spend a lot of time, silly as it sounds, making him comfortable. From Cousins’ perspective, however, the key to eating this summer may be to accept not getting fed in the games.