It’s been quite the year these past two days of free agency. As the Lakers have commandeered the entire period in an attempt to build a dynasty capable of upending the Warriors’ reign, Golden State seemed content to watch the action unfold over a bowl of popcorn. But never underestimate the avarice of a team that already has it all. During an eerie calm on Day 2, the Warriors managed to casually raise the stakes on the rest of the league yet again. DeMarcus Cousins reportedly agreed to a one-year, $5.3 million deal with Golden State on Monday, a stunning development in what has already been a chaotic summer.
All things considered, there is no better place for Cousins to rehabilitate both his ability and his confidence than playing for arguably the greatest team of all time. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, Golden State will take its time with its new big man, aiming to install him into the lineup sometime in December or January, roughly the one-year mark of when he tore his Achilles last season. Availability likely factored into the cratered market for Cousins’s services; by the end of his search for a temporary home, only two teams remained, according to ESPN’s Chris Haynes: the Warriors and the Celtics, both of which have the luxury of being patient with all of their signings. And like the Warriors’ last bombshell signing, it was Draymond Green who played a significant role in Cousins’s recruitment, according to Yahoo’s Shams Charania.
What pressure there might’ve been for Cousins to immediately reassert himself as the player he was fades on a championship team with this much talent. The Warriors, who will sign Boogie through their allotted midlevel exception, however, are acutely aware of this deal’s potential upside. They will have Cousins around for just long enough to see what can be salvaged of an All-NBA-caliber big man who suffered the worst possible injury right as he had finished sculpting his skill set into something unique.
There are no real precedents for Cousins’s situation, a 27-year-old star standing 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds who has torn his Achilles tendon. Anderson Varejão and Mehmet Okur, two players of comparable size, both tore their Achilles on the wrong side of 30, and even in the prime of their careers, neither could make plays off the dribble from the 3-point line the way Cousins did in his time with the Pelicans.
When given the freedom to explore the outer bounds of his game in New Orleans, under former Golden State assistant Alvin Gentry, Boogie managed to upend the hegemonic expectations of a player with his build. He ran the pick-and-roll as a ball handler about as often per game as Jayson Tatum did for the Celtics, despite having 3 inches and 65 pounds on the offensively gifted rookie. As a Pelican, Cousins shot almost exactly league average from 3 at 35.9 percent, and last season had more spot-up possessions per game than any player in the league. His role diversity was both an adherence to the modern style and a middle finger raised high to anyone who questioned the wealth of talent encased within his gargantuan frame.
What happens, though, when the limitations begin to come from within? Cousins will turn 28 in August; in a just world he’d be entering his prime right as the confidence in his game peaks. How would Boogie, ever the emotive player, deal with a skill set that has become something akin to a phantom limb? Even if Cousins doesn’t maintain the dynamic range he had just last year, his ability to hit from the perimeter will give the Warriors an element they have never been able to attain from the litany of true centers they’ve boasted over the years. Golden State should be able to play pure five-out in a majority of its configurations, a luxury it wasn’t able to tap into in the later stages of the NBA playoffs. But this deal still means much more to Cousins than it does to the Warriors, who likely would have strode into the postseason as presumptive favorites even if they hadn’t acquired an All-Star at the cheapest conceivable rate. How, exactly, does Cousins market himself next season if he becomes a player akin to what Brook Lopez has become on the Lakers: a remarkable offensive talent hamstrung by a body seemingly incompatible with both the pace of play and the shifting responsibilities of the center position? The Warriors have everything in place to hide Cousins’s deficiencies, but do they have the room to amplify what he’s still special at doing?
Ultimately this is a clear win-win for both the Warriors and Cousins. Golden State gets to brandish a new weapon, while Cousins might just score a free ticket to a championship as he rounds himself into form. As he becomes more in tune with his body (and possibly his new reality as a player), he’ll also be changing the narrative of who he is as a player. He spent six and a half years in Sacramento as a statistically dominant player on a bad team; in a season and a half with a middling New Orleans squad he somehow doubled down on his numbers while expanding his game beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected from him; now, after having narrowed his choices between two clear-cut contenders in Golden State and Boston, he’ll have the opportunity to prove, for the first time in his career, that he’s more than just his gaudy stat line — that he’s willing to make sacrifices to win. He was an All-Star whose output rivaled Anthony Davis’s, a clear-cut top-five player; now, he might just be the most talented ring chaser ever.
I think it’s the best possible outcome for Cousins, and yet it feels bittersweet. Signing with the champs, amid the Lakers rumors — amid everything that has happened in his career — is, true to Boogie, an act of defiance. It’s just not the one we’re accustomed to.