DeMarcus Cousins is a member of the Golden State Warriors. Four All-Star Games, two All-NBA Second Teams, and an Olympic Gold Medal are just the shortlist of accomplishments in the latest star to join the league’s best team, but this player brings with him an ill-timed Achilles tear that cost him somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million solely in 2018-19 salary, to say nothing of what he may earn over the next four years. The steep drop from being a surefire max guy making $177.2 million over the next five years to taking $5.3 million for a single season has to hurt for Cousins, but the feeling of champagne flowing down his face as he celebrates his first NBA Championship 11 months from now will likely make him feel better about how things played out.
There are some questions about how Cousins will fit on the court and in the locker room next to his new teammates, but any issues should be overrun by the pure talent up and down the roster. In his years in Sacramento and New Orleans, he only had a short stint playing next to another player at his level, but his partnership with Anthony Davis came to a premature end this past January. Now he has two players at his level in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and two players well above it in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant – how will he change his game to fit the pass-first culture Golden State holds dear? Holding the ball and probing from the three-point line and in the post are staples of Cousins’ offensive game but are antithetical to everything the Warriors have built over the past few years. Then again, we had similar questions about the score-first Durant and while there have been hiccups here and there, two championships in two years would indicate that things are just fine for them on the court.
When he puts his mind to it, Cousins can be a good passer and some of his turnover issues might be overblown based on the roles he played in Sacramento and New Orleans versus the much smaller, more focused role he’ll have in Golden State. In lineups with Curry, Thompson, Durant, and a shooter to be signed later, it’s not hard to imagine Cousins playing Green’s role as the ball handler in their triangle-split cuts offense, with Curry and Thompson screening for one another off the ball while Cousins is allowed to probe in the mid-post and make the right play. And when things break down, he’s still DeMarcus Cousins with a one-on-one matchup in the post.
A team at the Warriors’ level doesn’t look around the league and have to figure out how they match up against the majority of teams. There are really only two or three teams about which Golden State actually has to worry, Boston and Houston chief among them. In the Western Conference Finals, Houston was within one historically bad shooting performance of knocking off the Warriors and it had everything to do with their defensive aptitude – the Rockets switched the Warriors to death and it almost, almost worked perfectly for them. Boston has built an entire team of guys between 6’6 and 6’10 who can switch seamlessly, smothering shooters and getting into ball handlers aggressively and successfully. Golden State has struggled in these situations in the past and it’s here that Cousins’ sheer size and skill will be most useful to them – if Houston sticks to their switching strategy and wants to put a smaller guy on Cousins, then he’ll go right through his man to the basket. The Warriors’ offense slowed down in the Houston series and, if he brings anything to the table, Cousins will be able to punish that particular defensive strategy.
Elsewhere, there will be tests of Cousins’ focus and continuous intensity. A terrific offensive player, the combination of size and fluidity has never quite translated to the other end of the floor, where he often plays with little effort. That won’t fly in Golden State and there will be moment of contention between Cousins and the coaching staff about his defensive work. On the other hand, we’ve never seen Cousins in a situation like this, in which he’s not the sun and stars for his team’s offense and can put in effort on the other half of the game.
Hanging over the entire signing is Cousins’ awful Achilles tear, suffered in January just before the 2018 All-Star Break. The history of big men recovering from Achilles injuries is decidedly poor and it showed in Cousins’ market this summer. New Orleans was hesitant about bringing him back and the remainder of his market dried up extremely quickly. The best teams, including Golden State, were willing to take a one-year flier on him, with the knowledge that he can take his time to recover fully before returning in the second half of the season. Reports indicate that he’s planning on being ready for training camp, but given the long history of centers and Achilles injuries, the patient path will be most prudent for him.
In the hours following Shams Charania breaking the news on Twitter, there was a lot of consternation over how the league could possibly allow this, why the Warriors continue to add All-NBA talent, and a general feeling of hopelessness among the fans of the other 29 teams. Cousins is a huge name who’s had a lot of success in the league (though he’s never seen the floor in a playoff game to this point in his career) and, on the face of it, the best team in the league (and perhaps league history) picking up yet another high-level player must mean something is wrong with the very fabric of the league, right? Well, not so fast. Any of the other 29 teams could have had him, but the significant questions about his injury kept him off a lot of target lists altogether and after two days of free agency produced almost nothing for him, taking a deal with Golden State made the most sense for him. His incumbent New Orleans Pelicans were willing to make an offer, but once they picked up Julius Randle earlier in the day, it was clear that Cousins’ stay in New Orleans had come to an end in a way nobody expected just six months ago. The fact is, his market fell apart when his Achilles ruptured and when it came down to taking $8-10 million elsewhere or $5.3 million with the Warriors, it’s not hard to see why he chose the latter.
How the league got to this point is another conversation entirely. Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in March 2015 ahead of his free agency that summer but still got a four-year $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks. Matthews is obviously a different player than Cousins, but the difference between $70 million over four years and $5.3 million for one year can’t be totally explained by Cousins being bigger than Matthews and the fears about what the injury will do to his game. The Matthews contract came in before the league-wide cap spike in 2016 but after teams knew it was on the horizon and Cousins entered free agency in the NBA’s equivalent to the 2008 financial crisis this summer. Of everything that happened that pushed Cousins toward Golden State, the 2016 cap spike is perhaps the most important, as I outlined in the wake of the agreement yesterday. I won’t reiterate my thoughts on the cap spike and what the players could have done to avoid it, but suffice it to say that anybody in a leadership position during negotiations over cap smoothing a few years ago has no leg to stand on when it comes to hand-wringing over the Warriors adding yet another All-Star to their team.
As for the long-term health of the NBA going forward, notions of the league’s demise are absolutely overblown. Cousins will return from his injury at some point in the 2018-19 season and unless his game absolutely falls off a cliff, he’ll return to free agency next summer looking to make up for money lost this year. Golden State will be limited to a starting salary of $6.4 million to bring him back, which almost certainly won’t be enough to retain his services, even if the team rolls through the playoffs en route to their fourth championship in five years. A one-year pitstop in Golden State is the best place for Cousins to recover from his injury and play on a high-level team, but unless he plans on giving up what could be at least $100 million to continue his career with the Warriors next summer. The optics of a fifth All-Star joining the league’s best team aren’t great for the league, but any notion that this move ruins the competitive balance in the NBA overstates things. If he doesn’t return to full strength in 2018-19 or never gets back the athleticism and skill that made him an All-NBA player in the past, then a $5.3 million contract makes sense for him and he won’t have the devastating effect on the playoffs we imagine. If he does, then it’s a one-year blip before he moves on to another team next year. Either way, it’s not the end of the world for the league as a whole and won’t be detrimental to the long-term health of the NBA in any way.