The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is prone to surprise, whether it’s at a frothy beverage or the wonders of the human body. In the case of the Warriors signing DeMarcus Cousins for roughly the same amount they gave Nick Young last year, his reaction was right in line with the consensus: “I was really very shocked,” he recently told EuroHoops.net.
On its face, the Cousins deal was pure gluttony. Two years after adding a top-five player to an already-historic core, the Warriors replaced Kevon Looney (or whichever springy defensive big they’re favoring at a given moment) with a player selected as an All-Star starter six months prior. As a result, Golden State has become not only a modern dynasty, but the team of factoid nerds’ dreams. For instance, did you know that the Warriors will be the first team in 43 years able to start five players who made the previous season’s All-Star Game? Or that only six players have averaged more than 25 points in each of the past three seasons, and the Warriors now employ half of them? And all it cost for such distinctions was a salary-cap exception worth less than what the Heat gave Wayne Ellington.
Purely from a value standpoint, $5.3 million for even half a season of a five-win player is more than you can ask for with the Warriors’ limited means. There’s a chance that the ruptured left Achilles that ended Cousins’s New Orleans tenure will keep him from becoming the player he once was — which, as a quick refresh, was virtually unprecedented. (Kevin Pelton’s research into Achilles injuries shows an 8 percent drop-off in production from pre-injury projections, though even then Boogie’s numbers would still be in the 20–10 range.) There’s also the question of whether the coaching staff, even one as breezy as Golden State’s, has the emotional bandwidth to fit another high-usage personality into its frontcourt. And the question of when Cousins will be ready to play again. (Tom Haberstroh’s research suggests mid-November.) But these are the sorts of luxuries you can afford at a position of strength.
Need is a different story. Positions are context-dependent, etc., etc., but Golden State now has four players with guaranteed contracts who are best identified as centers. That’s not counting Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, each of whom logged at least some time at the 5 this past regular season (and even more in the playoffs). Jonas Jerebko, signed this offseason for the veteran’s minimum, might also soak up frontcourt minutes. What the Warriors really need are wings. (Say, Wayne Ellington.) It sounds sacrilegious to suggest a team built around Hall of Fame shooting needs a shooting guard, but anyone who watched Young and Quinn Cook moonlight as rotational regulars after Steph Curry went down last spring, or saw Andre Iguodala on the sideline for six crucial postseason games, would agree. That includes Warriors president Bob Myers.
“We had been preserving our taxpayer midlevel exception for somebody that might fall through the cracks and not get paid in a very tight free-agency market,” Myers said in a radio interview with 95.7 The Game following the Cousins deal. “But mostly we were thinking wings.” Instead, they ended up with the free agent who takes up a lot of space in the paint and even more oxygen out of the room.
If there’s a reason to hand-wring over the signing of Cousins it’s that the Warriors chose excess over practicality, that they bought a used Jaguar when they really needed a Prius. The Warriors are incredible, but not immortal. With Iguodala turning 35 in January and his 3-point percentage drifting closer to the Mendoza line, Golden State had an opportunity to turn the savings from Durant’s new contract into an Iggy insurance policy. First-rounder Jacob Evans, a 3-and-D’er in theory, could help a defense that slumped to eighth last regular season, a low in the four years of dominance. Cousins almost certainly won’t. But counting on either a 21-year-old or a mercurial big man on the mend, or both, only increases the risk profile.
You can make the case that the Warriors could use a little spice in their lives to avoid complacency amid a fifth straight nine-month odyssey to the Finals; Curry sounded downright giddy on The Bill Simmons Podcast about figuring out how to meld Cousins’s brute force into their existing offense. But as Rockets GM Daryl Morey noted last summer, the Warriors’ dominance forces every other team to be bold. (Two weeks after saying that, Morey traded for Chris Paul.) There wasn’t a need to mess with the formula that’d just led to a third title in a clean sweep. And yet, here we are, with New Coke.
Cousins is a disrupter. He uses his cinderblock frame and a nasty bark to throw opponents off balance. His steady block rate is belied by one of the league’s worst foul rates. Even the touch and vision that make him so special come through dominating possessions: His usage percentage hasn’t fallen out of the league’s top five in four years.
The Warriors will attempt to bottle all of that up and turn Cousins into the ultimate trump card. After years of forcing bigs off the floor with their shooting, Golden State may now be able to force opponents to match up with their size. The Rockets had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Now here comes Boogie, who put up a triple-double in only 30 minutes in a late-January game against Houston before his left leg gave out. If the plan is to let Cousins cook against second units, he might wind up eating the Nerlens Noels of the world like hot dogs.
But the disruption goes both ways. Cousins has never been a part of a top-10 defense (New Orleans ranked 13th last season after it traded for him, 22nd the season before he went down), and it will be difficult for Golden State to keep switching when its center is still on the other side of the court. It’s also hard to imagine that Boogie — who got more touches in his first full season next to an All-Star teammate, not fewer — will be content cutting to the basket like he’s Zaza. Recent history provides an obvious counter: Durant and Chris Paul maintained All-NBA-worthy production while sharing the ball with an MVP. But while both had to adjust how they played, neither had to make major sacrifices in how often they got the ball. Durant’s usage last season is nearly identical to his last season in Oklahoma City, and Paul finished in the top 10 in time of possession. The Warriors are talking about using Cousins like the Hornets did Al Jefferson when they transitioned to small ball in 2015–16. Even if Golden State somehow incorporates what Cousins does into its flow-based system, he — or, worse, one of their three other offensive superstars — will almost assuredly be doing less. There was already enough concern-trolling over fitting in Durant’s isolations as it was.
The suspicion has been that the disease of more would eventually catch up to the Warriors. Maybe we should be worried not about dollar amounts but hubris.