When it’s all said and done, DeMarcus Cousins will be a footnote in Golden State’s dynasty. He might play 50 games in a Warriors uniform, likely less. Golden State coach Steve Kerr said recently that he is happy with Cousins’s rehabilitation from his torn Achilles, though not to the point that the coach is comfortable putting a timeline on a return. Boogie himself, however, does have a timetable: one year with the Warriors, and he’s gone.
“We made no bones about it when we signed him,” Kerr said on Thursday. “It’s a one-year deal. We’re not going to have money to sign him next year, and he knows that. So we’d like him to help us win a championship. And we’d like to be able to help him get a great contract next year somewhere else. That’s the reality.”
Like Kerr said, it’s a matter of not having enough salary cap space to go around. Klay Thompson will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is expected to re-sign with the Warriors. Draymond Green, whose contract runs out in 2020, will also be eligible for an extension then; if he makes an All-NBA team or wins Defensive Player of the Year this season, Green will be eligible for the designated veteran extension—a.k.a., the supermax. There’s much for the Warriors to consider monetarily, and Cousins is the last thing on the front office’s mind. Because the franchise signed Cousins for only one year, the Warriors don’t have his full Bird rights, meaning they can’t go over the cap to re-sign him.
Golden State signed Boogie in July for $5.3 million (the taxpayer’s midlevel exception) after the center tore his Achilles the previous January with New Orleans. It was a win-win: Cousins could add another look on offense that the Warriors could throw at an opponent in the playoffs, while the 28-year-old four-time All-Star could re-establish his value for next summer, when several teams will have heaps of cap space to spend. If he scratches the Warriors’ back, he’s scratching his own.
The best-case scenario for Cousins depends on how quickly he can return to action. There isn’t a reason to rush him back in the franchise’s eyes. They’re still the same championship team without him, as evidenced by an 8-1 start and a plus-13.1 point differential, and Achilles injuries (or foot injuries of any sort) can be especially damning for big men, who put more weight and strain on the area than smaller players do. But the Warriors could’ve used a player like Cousins in past postseasons. Against the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals, they couldn’t counter their opponent’s size in the frontcourt (this was before Kevin Durant came along), and last season, they almost fell in the Western Conference finals after a horrific shooting performance against a Rockets team that went small. Last season, Cousins played well against Houston, including the game during which he tore his Achilles; in two matchups, he averaged 19.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists. The Warriors can go small better than anyone, but it might be just as advantageous this season to have a big-man counterattack. The Warriors’ top Western Conference competitors so far include the Pelicans (and Anthony Davis), the Jazz (and Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors), the Nuggets (and Nikola Jokic), and the Blazers (and Jusuf Nurkic). Golden State can essentially swipe New Orleans’s original strategy from last season: Let’s go big, better. Boogie can be the hero, if Golden State needs it.
Cousins’s worst-case scenario is that his recovery gets delayed, or he doesn’t return to full strength. The Warriors don’t need him in the playoffs to win; Cousins’s passing and scoring would be another wrinkle to throw at teams, but they’ve won three championships in four years without the big man. If the experiment never pans out, and Boogie spends the postseason on the bench or barely coming off of it, he may be labeled a risky signing once again.
Former Pelicans teammate Davis, for one, is a bit more optimistic. Davis told ESPN’s The Undefeated that “hopefully, down the line” he can “reconnect” with Cousins, his teammate for only a season and a half. If the two are teammates again, it’s unlikely to be in New Orleans. Cousins hasn’t spoken with general manager Dell Demps since he accepted the Warriors’ offer, according to The Undefeated, leaving an unresolved rift between him and the front office. Davis is obviously still keen on his former frontcourt mate, and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said he thinks Cousins “is the best player at his position in the league.” But that was Cousins before his Achilles injury, a Cousins whose combination of size and strength and skill allowed him to be such a dynamic offensive player—and also one who didn’t play defense, and had past issues getting along with front-office executives. Multiple franchises will have money to spend this summer, and Cousins is fortunate to be coming available at a time when not many max-worthy players are hitting the market. But there’s no guarantee that an opportunity for a big payday means he’ll be offered one, regardless of how this season pans out. Even a scenario in which he and Davis team up again makes little sense after how well Davis performed after Cousins’s injury.
That version of Cousins was somebody who could be part of a championship team. And there is a good chance Cousins leaves his time in Golden State with his first ring. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll walk away a winner.