If he can get on the floor, DeMarcus Cousins could be a game-changer for the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors were already good enough. They had captured back-to-back NBA titles. They had a starting lineup that featured four All-Star players in their prime. Then, a couple of years after signing away the biggest threat to their dynastic run, Bob Myers and Joe Lacob teamed up once again to “ruin the NBA”. They added a fifth all-star to their prized lineup—DeMarcus Cousins; immediately the 2018-19 Golden State roster was elevated to a pedestal alongside the likes of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics (a team that featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton).
Cousins had been playing like the best center in the NBA during the 2017-18 season. He averaged 25.2 points per game, 12.9 rebounds per game, 5.4 assists per game, 1.6 blocks per game, and 1.6 steals per game. The only other players to average 25-12-5-1-1 in a season are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2018-19). Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP in 1976 and Antetokounmpo looks on the way to capturing the award this year.
How is it that Cousins posted numbers on par with two MVP-caliber players, but reaped none of the benefits? Injury.
Cousins played just 48 games last season, suffering a torn Achilles in late January. A seemingly guaranteed multimillion dollar extension snapped away just like the tendon connecting calf muscles to the Cousins’ heel bone.
No player of Cousins size had ever suffered an Achilles injury and returned anywhere near the same athletically. Skepticism was everywhere and no team was willing to give him the money he sought, which led him to the Bay Area.
Cousins only played 30 games with Golden State this season and saw just one game and four minutes of postseason action before suffering a quad injury that most feared would keep him out the rest of the way. However, Cousins has attacked rehab like it’s a rebound and is likely to play in Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals on Thursday.
With Cousins on the court, the Warriors are afforded a luxury that they haven’t had in any of their previous four trips to the championship: a true post threat. Now, Cousins conditioning will be a question and it’s very likely that he’ll be placed on some type of minutes restriction. He’s also, obviously, a huge defensive concern.
So how can he impact this series despite being limited in his availability? Well, he can force Nick Nurse’s hand in lineup choices throughout the series. Even though this isn’t the same Cousins that was rampaging through the league in 2017-18, he still commands respect and attention from the opponent.
Last year, in two games against the Toronto Raptors, DeMarcus Cousins scoring numbers took a noticeable drop. His points per game dipped to 22.5, he shot 39.5 percent from the field and 29.4 percent on three-pointers.
The Raptors defensive strategy mostly revolved around using as many bodies as possible against Cousins. Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira, and Serge Ibaka all took their chances defending Cousins. Oftentimes, head coach Dwane Casey, opted against doubling and in the two-game sample size we have this tactic seemed to work.
Yet, as we get ready for the 2019 NBA Finals, Serge Ibaka is the only player (or head coach) from that group that remains with the team.
For all of the athleticism that Ibaka brings to the game he is no match for Cousins. Cousins’ sheer size (6-foot-11, 270 pounds) allows him to bully the skinnier Ibaka around in the lane.
Cousins also has the advantage in length (Cousins has a 7-foot-6 wingspan compared to Ibaka’s 7-foot-3 wingspan) and is crafty enough to also attack him off the dribble.
The only other center on the Raptors roster is Marc Gasol. Gasol was acquired at the trade deadline so like Cousins he missed the two games these teams played against each other from November and December.
But if we look back at the 2017-18 season we have three games worth of data to decipher. In those three games, Gasol was the primary defender on Cousins for on 103 possessions according to Second Spectrum.
In those three games, most of Cousins’ scoring numbers improved (27 points per game, 43.5 3-point percentage, and 12 free throw attempts per game).
A big part of the increase was Cousins 3-point shooting. Alvin Gentry — a former Warriors assistant coach — had the Pelicans run a lot of “Spain” pick-and-roll. This action had Anthony Davis set a screen on the ball and instead of rolling, Davis would then set a down screen for Cousins before finishing his path to the basket.
Memphis often had Gasol play drop coverage in screens involving Cousins, opting to keep the one-time Defensive Player of the Year in the lane to protect the rim. In turn, you can see Gasol try to instruct Davis’ defender to switch onto Cousins behind the arc, but he was often late to do so.
Cousins used his ability to stretch the floor in a secondary way against Gasol, as he would pump fake to get Gasol to commit hard and then dribble around him. In the video below Cousins is unable to finish multiple times because other Grizzlies pack the lane to help, but against Golden State, those help defenders won’t be as close to the basket as the Warriors will have multiple shooters on the floor.
Gasol showed the ability to make life partially difficult for Cousins in one-on-one situations, but if Cousins is anywhere near 100 percent he holds an athletic and speed advantage over Gasol that Kerr and the Warriors will surely try to exploit.
After making four straight appearances in the NBA Finals most know what to expect out of Golden State on the big stage. Many other NBA teams have tried to copy the outside shooting and small-ball nature that the Warriors have brought to the forefront of the modern NBA. Masai Ujiri made some splashy deals to recreate the Raptors into what they are now.
Ujiri has rightfully been congratulated for making the tough choices that have helped Toronto make their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals. However, with the off-season addition of DeMarcus Cousins on the other side, the Warriors have an ace in the hole that could highlight the lack of depth Toronto has on the interior following those moves