That sound you just heard was jaws around the NBA hitting the floor with the news that All-Star DeMarcus Cousins has agreed to a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
In a move straight out of a poorly designed video game, the Warriors — when healthy — can add a fifth All-Star to their starting lineup for less money than the New York Knicks just agreed to pay Mario Hezonja.
So how will Cousins fit in the Bay Area? And how much will his addition help Golden State’s chances of making it four titles in five years?
How the Warriors got Cousins
Let’s start by answering the question of how this happened. As I explained last week, the tight market for free agents and particularly centers made bargains possible. Given those constraints, Cousins’ market was squeezed in a hurry.
The Dallas Mavericks, the team with cap space most motivated to sign a center, quickly agreed to terms with DeAndre Jordan. The Los Angeles Lakers evidently prioritized perimeter players for the one-year contracts they were offering, signing former Golden State center JaVale McGee for the veteran’s minimum. And Cousins’ own team, the New Orleans Pelicans, got a cheaper, younger replacement in Julius Randle after the Lakers renounced his rights.
With the remaining teams with cap space either rebuilding (Atlanta and Chicago), in no need of a center (Philadelphia) or uninterested in a reunion (Sacramento), those moves left a sign-and-trade deal Cousins’ only real hope of getting more than the $8.6 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception.
So, unless there’s a suitor we don’t know about, odds are Cousins actually didn’t sacrifice much money to take the Warriors’ smaller taxpayer midlevel. At that point, the chance to join the defending champs was probably worth taking slightly less money for one year. Cousins will return to free agency in a year hoping for a better market, as more teams will have cap space and he’ll be a year further removed from the ruptured Achilles tendon that ended his 2017-18 season before the All-Star break.
What can Golden State expect from Cousins?
The Achilles injury should temper expectations for Cousins to some extent. As I’ve noted before, the track record for players coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon shows them playing about playing about 8 percent worse the following season than projected based on their pre-injury stats.
Of course, Cousins has plenty of room to decline and still be an elite player. Even after accounting for the injury, I projected Cousins to be 8.6 wins better than a replacement-level player next season before considering where he’d sign. That’s more than the 7.4 WARP the Warriors’ centers combined for last season, and of course they’ll still get additional contributions from backup Jordan Bell (1.8 WARP in 57 games as a rookie) and any other centers they sign.
That projection did not factor in a late start to Cousins’ season, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Cousins is hoping to return sometime in December or January. That would be a conservative timetable for returning from the Achilles rupture, suffered on Jan. 26. Just last year, we saw Rudy Gay return at the start of training camp from an Achilles injury suffered on Jan. 18.
If any team can afford to wait on Cousins, it’s Golden State, which has prioritized peaking in the playoffs over piling up regular-season wins. Adding Cousins may force the Warriors to spend an additional roster spot on center depth, but that’s a price Golden State will surely pay.
How will Cousins fit with the Warriors?
Adding Cousins will require adjustment for both him and his new Golden State teammates. Cousins has used more than 30 percent of his team’s plays each of the past five seasons, including 32 percent last year with the Pelicans. By contrast, only one Warriors center used more than 20 percent of the team’s plays while on the court in 2017-18: David West at 22 percent. Previous starters McGee (19 percent) and Zaza Pachulia (17 percent) had much lower usage rates, so something will have to give with the new starting five when Cousins is healthy. Ideally, that will be Cousins, a lower-efficiency scorer in the past than most of his new All-Star teammates.
Cousins will also have to get comfortable making quicker decisions with the ball on offense. He has had the opportunity to hold the ball and survey the defense before deciding whether to shoot, pass or drive, something that’s frowned upon in the Golden State offense because of the way it allows defenses to load up.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, Cousins’ average touch last season saw him hold the ball for 2.6 seconds, far longer than the Warriors’ centers. Bell had the longest average touch time of those players at 1.7 seconds. For that matter, Cousins’ touches were longer even than those of Draymond Green (2.2 seconds on average).
At the other end of the court, Cousins isn’t ideally suited for Golden State’s switch-heavy defense. Per Second Spectrum tracking, Cousins switched on just 46 screens all of 2017-18, 2.7 percent of the screens he defended. Even Pachulia, the slowest-footed of the Warriors’ centers last season, switched 13 percent of the screens he defended. So Steve Kerr will want to avoid putting Cousins in situations in which he has to switch.
I would say there’s some risk to this signing for the Warriors. Cousins’ relationships with his teammates have been mixed, and those with coaches worse than that. If he’s unwilling or unable to adapt his game, it’s even possible Cousins could hurt Golden State more than he helps. In that case, however, the Warriors could simply look to trade or move Cousins and move on with relatively little pain.
For all the critics bemoaning Golden State continuing to ruin the NBA, the good news is this is almost certainly a one-year partnership. The Warriors will be able to offer Cousins only $6.4 million to return in 2019-20 using non-Bird rights, and if he plays well Cousins will easily beat that in free agency.
That said, in this case the critics do have something of a point. The addition of Cousins and the Houston Rockets losing starter Trevor Ariza means the gap between Golden State and the rest of the NBA appears to have only widened this offseason.