OAKLAND, Calif. — After a half-season of anticipation, waiting to see when the Golden State Warriors might break out their newest weapon, DeMarcus Cousins is ready to debut. The former All-Star, who hasn’t played an NBA game since Jan. 26, 2018, is expected to make his highly anticipated Warriors debut Friday night against the LA Clippers. And though the Warriors are excited to welcome Cousins to the court, coach Steve Kerr and his players know there will be an adjustment period.
“It won’t be simple,” Kerr told ESPN of working Cousins into the lineup. “Because he’s a dominant player. It’s a lot easier to fit in a standstill 3-point shooter. A guy who’s going to space the floor and not handle the ball a whole lot. He’s used to having the ball in his hands an awful lot. But on this team we got a lot of guys who have the ball in their hands, so it will take some time for sure.”
Kerr isn’t complaining. He knows the Warriors have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to All-Star-caliber players on the roster. He’s just affirming the point that was lost in the aftermath of Cousins signing a one-year, $5 million contract in July: How will the 28-year-old actually fit when the games count?
The track record of players returning from Achilles injuries is not great, especially for players of Cousins’ size. The former All-Star has mostly worked out in secret behind a curtain at the Warriors’ practice facility, making it hard to gauge how well he’s moving on the court, but Kerr said last week that Cousins was close to ready for game action.
“The last week, his scrimmaging looks much better,” Kerr said. “It seems to me like he’s gotten through a barrier conditioning-wise. It’s not easy for anybody coming off an Achilles injury, much less a center who carries a lot of weight and size. The thing that everybody who has an Achilles comeback talks about is the movement in space and how you have to get comfortable with those movements and that it’s not just a sprained ankle or knee or something where once it’s healed you feel normal. “
Draymond Green, who has taken Cousins under his wing since Cousins signed, says he believes the adjustment both for Cousins and the Warriors is going to be tough at first. But it’s an adjustment he thinks both parties will be able to get through because of the talent involved.
“I think two things: It is a completely different pace than he’s ever played since he’s been in the NBA,” Green said. “And he’s coming off an Achilles injury doing that. That’s tough. Nonetheless, DeMarcus is one of the greatest talents in this league. So we’re not going to play at some pace that he can’t play at and make him irrelevant to our offense. We’re going to make it work.”
Cousins does have some experience playing on a more up-tempo team — last season’s New Orleans Pelicans ranked first in the NBA in pace, as did his 2015-16 Sacramento Kings team — but he has generally thrived in a half-court setting. More important, he has thrived as the focal point of a team’s offense. Cousins’ usage rate has never been below 27.2 percent, and he led the NBA at 35.4 percent in 2015-16. But on a roster with four other All-Stars, Cousins shouldn’t expect to get his normal diet of post touches.
“He’s still going to be effective when he has the ball in his hands, but not as much,” Warriors star Kevin Durant said. “Just like it is for Steph [Curry], myself, Klay [Thompson]. We’re still who we are, but instead of 20 opportunities a game, it might be 13 or 14. So that’s how it’s going to be with [Cousins]. Some of those plays that he might have shot last year, or posted up, he might have to kick out and play our offense. Play around each other, play off of each other a little bit more. That’s what the adjustment is coming into this team.”
Kerr’s Warriors teams, on the other hand, have never had the kind of dominating low-post presence Cousins was before his injury and are more in need of Cousins’ services than when they signed him in July. Warriors starting centers rank 29th in both points per game (6.5) and rebounds per game (4.7) this season. Damian Jones, who started 22 games this season and shot 71.6 percent, is expected to miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle. Kevon Looney, who has started all but one of the Warriors’ games since Jones’ injury, is averaging a career-high 6.6 points but has attempted only eight 3-pointers this season. Cousins, by comparison, took an average of 6.1 3-pointers per game last season in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Green, the Warriors’ closing center in their once-devastating small-ball lineup, has been mired in a season-long slump. His 7.2 points per game are his lowest since his second year in the league, when he was primarily used as a reserve, and his 27.0 percent 3-point shooting is his lowest since his rookie season.
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So the ability to add Cousins to a team that has struggled by its own lofty standards, but is still at the top of the Western Conference, intrigues many — both inside and outside the Golden State locker room.
“Obviously, we want him to be himself,” Curry said. “We want him to be that player that he knows he can be. Bring that specific and unique skill set to kind of change our look a little bit. We have high-IQ guys all over the floor that will be able to figure it out. It might not be smooth at the beginning because it is going to be different, but he brings another element that we’ve never had before.”
Cousins has already made his presence felt throughout the first three months of the season by serving as the kind of teammate who can use humor to ease tension within the locker room. He was at the forefront of a viral locker room video from the opening weeks of the season, and Kerr noted how Cousins has been able to make his mark on an already successful group by using humor as a form of leadership.
“What happens during games is he’s on the sidelines and he’s making guys laugh,” Kerr said. “It’s been a really good way for him to sort of incorporate himself into the group without playing. But there’s no substitute for playing. You have to go out on the court and be with the guys in the competition to truly earn your stripes and gain the full confidence of the group.”
Cousins has been praised for not only keeping the mood light inside the locker room but for cultivating relationships with the younger big men.
“He’s personally done a great job from my vantage point of being present when he’s around and encouraging the big guys,” Curry said. “When DJ was playing and Loon and [Jordan Bell], staying in their ear, which for him I know helps him stay engaged.”
After years of being the go-to guy on the Kings and sharing the spotlight with Anthony Davis on the Pelicans, Cousins will be forced into a new role as an auxiliary cog in a championship machine. How he handles being outside of the spotlight after years of being in the middle of it will help define the story of this season’s Warriors run.
And Golden State is under no illusions about Cousins’ role with the team extending beyond this run. The proud center is almost certainly only on the team for the rest of this season. He will be looking for a max payday again this summer, and the Warriors won’t be in a position to offer it to him. Unless they cleared out cap room — something that would require gutting their roster — the most the Warriors can offer Cousins is 120 percent of his current $5.3 million salary. The organization understands the pressure Cousins faces in trying to show the league that he can play at an All-Star level again to lock down the big-money contract that eluded him this past summer while not disrupting the Warriors’ own quest for a third consecutive title.
“DeMarcus is a great guy,” Green said. “He’s kind of got this [reputation] of being a bad person, which he’s not. He fits into this group very well. And we’ll figure the basketball part out when he’s out there.”
There’s one other question regarding Cousins’ place on the Warriors: his temper. The mercurial big man has developed a reputation throughout his career for being a hothead, with opponents going so far as to game plan for an inevitable eruption at points earlier in his career. He was even ejected from a game while on the bench earlier this season, meaning his first official statistic as a Warrior was a technical foul. But with so much history on the line this season, the Warriors remain confident Cousins will be able to find his way quickly on and off the floor. After the early-season drama between Durant and Green, the group is counting on Cousins to assimilate quickly into the culture that has already been created, and only time will tell if he can rein in his emotions as part of a championship environment.
“Only one way to find out,” Kerr said. “He’s got to play. Once he starts playing, we’ll have a better feel for all that.”