It still feels kind of unbelievable that DeMarcus Cousins is on the Golden State Warriors. When the news broke last month the six-time All-Star center, a two-time All-NBA selection and one of the most physically gifted big men in professional basketball, had decided to take the taxpayer’s midlevel exception of $5.3 million to join the team that’s won three of the last four NBA titles, allowing the defending champs to roll out a full five-All-Star lineup next season — just as soon as the 28-year-old recovers from rupturing his left Achilles tendon last January — the overwhelming reaction tended toward shock, hysteria and the as-yet-unnamed sensation that C.J. McCollum’s been feeling this summer. (Maybe “Jenniferosis?”)
The move sparked another reaction in Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, though. During a Wednesday visit to “The Dan Patrick Show,” Morey — the NBA’s reigning Executive of the Year, the self-described obsessive who built a roster that arguably came within one hamstring pull and one world-historic brick festival away from toppling the Warriors — said that what Boogie-to-the-Bay evoked most in him was … curiosity (head to the 26:25 mark for the interview):
“I was really curious. I mean, you know, Bobby [Warriors general manager Bob Myers] is really good at his job, and he likes to take smart gambles, like I do. So I understood the move. But, uh, it’s going to be interesting. I mean, they’re obviously — Coach [Steve] Kerr is one of the best, too. It’s a little scary. They’ll probably figure out how to make it work, but it’s a little bit hard on paper to figure out how to make it work. But we do that well, and so do they. They’re going to be a tough out again, obviously. They’re arguably the best team in NBA history. They’re on their path to maybe be able to make that argument.”
As much of a no-brainer as it is to add a player of Cousins’ caliber for a touch over $5 million when presented the opportunity, Morey’s not wrong: the Warriors will face an adjustment period whenever Cousins is ready to return to the court after rehabilitating his surgically repaired Achilles tendon.
For one thing, Golden State and Cousins will have to find a tempo that works. The Warriors have long preferred to put the pedal to the metal, ranking among the NBA’s five fastest teams in terms of “pace factor” — how many possessions they average per 48 minutes of floor time — in all four years of Kerr’s tenure. Their best lineups — the iterations of the small-ball “Death Lineups” built around Draymond Green at center, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt, and Andre Iguodala, (then) Harrison Barnes and (now) Kevin Durant on the wings, the ones to which they turn when it matters most and it’s time to leave the opponents in the dust — have long played even faster than that, averaging 107 or 108 possessions-per-48, far above even the numbers posted by the league’s leaders.
Last year’s leaders, by the way? The New Orleans Pelicans … who morphed into Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced fever dream when Cousins sat. They averaged 104.26 possessions-per-48 with Boogie off the court, and really seemed to find their sped-up stride late in the season — read: after Cousins’ season-ending injury — behind the post-trade partnership of Anthony Davis and Cousins’ replacement, Nikola Mirotic. It’s not that Cousins can’t get up and go — the Pelicans averaged 100.74 possessions-per-48, right around eighth place in a 30-team league, with him on the floor last season — but it’s reasonable to wonder how a player who has in the past preferred a more deliberate pace (and who hasn’t always exactly devoted himself to busting it back on defense in transition) will fare in a cranked-up scheme, especially coming off of the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer.
In addition to speed, there’s also the question of style. Cousins led the league in frontcourt touches two seasons ago and finished second last year, acting as a high- and low-post hub for a lot of the Pelicans’ actions. While he floated up near 60 such touches per game, no member of the Warriors over the past two seasons has gotten above 40, offering some evidence of Golden State’s predilection toward ball and player movement, whirling cuts and a more egalitarian playmaking approach. Kerr and Cousins will have to find a happy medium there, some equilibrium that allows a star player to do his thing while still working to augment the galaxy of fellow stars that surround him.
Cousins’ partnership with Anthony Davis offers some hope there, as his usage rate dropped in New Orleans from its league-leading levels during his tenure in Sacramento. So, too, does his evolution into a good-to-great passer; over the past four seasons, the only big man to log the dime on a higher share of his teammates’ buckets has been Denver playmaking wunderkind Nikola Jokic. Even when sharing the floor with an MVP-caliber world-breaker, though, Cousins remained a super magnetic gravitational force. While playing alongside Davis last season, he still finished 29 percent of New Orleans’ offensive plays with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover, a rate topped by only 15 players last season.
From Andrew Bogut to Zaza Pachulia, Golden State’s offense has presented opportunities for pivots to make plays out of the post. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote last month, last season the Warriors “topped all teams in the percentage of post-ups that led to shots for players one pass away.” To take advantage of those chances, though, a player who has long since grown accustomed to having the rock in his hands and doing with it as he sees fit will have to get right with spreading the ball around more quickly and readily … because if he can’t, it’s not like the Warriors will need to cater to his whims to make him happy. They’ve already proven to be quite good enough to beat everybody without him.
Morey’s right: for reasons that extend beyond just the challenges of integrating a new piece coming off a career-shaking injury, dropping Cousins into the Warriors’ ecosystem is a bit more complicated than just saying, “Tack an extra eight points and two rebounds on top of what Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee averaged last year.” But given the collective will to make it work — Cousins cold-calling Golden State after coming up empty on more lucrative offers in the early stages of free agency, the Warriors’ existing constellation all signing off on the addition, the understanding that this is less the dawn of a new era than a single-season marriage of convenience — and the collected intelligence of a coaching staff that’s designed and redesigned offensive and defensive schemes that have maximized the abilities of just about every player who’s rolled through the Bay of late, there’s plenty of cause for optimism, too.
It seems more likely that the Warriors find smooth solutions to whatever bumps they face in getting Boogie up to speed than that the NBA’s reigning dynasty just wind up broken down on the side of the highway. Morey and his retooled Rockets are going to have to figure out how to present that sort of roadblock themselves.
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