When news broke that the Warriors had signed DeMarcus Cousins last July, it felt excessive, like an indulgent luxury, not the kind of necessity that defines most offseason moves. The Warriors already had four All-Stars on their roster and now they were adding a fifth.
The Warriors had made it a point to not only try to win championships but to make doing so as inevitable as possible, hoping to reduce the variables inherent in sports as much as humanly possible and signing Cousins was a form of insurance. Of course, Cousins was returning from a torn Achilles and no one was quite sure how good he would be once he returned to the court. However, in light of Cousins’ bad luck and the fact that he had yet to appear in a single playoff game eight years into his career, it also felt like the Warriors were doing him a favor as much as he was them. Golden State was giving him a chance to prove he deserved a bigger contract next offseason and the likelihood of winning an elusive championship in the process. It was a win-win situation for all parties. What no one counted on, what no one expected, was that DeMarcus Cousins would actually prove to be critical to their title hopes.
That is now the case.
The Warriors roster currently resembles an urgent care waiting room as much as a basketball team. Kevin Durant is still out with a calf strain; Kevon Looney is out indefinitely after suffering a fracture; Klay Thompson is dealing with a sore hamstring; Andre Iguodala had to leave Game 2 for a spell before returning and hitting the game-clinching shot; Stephen Curry looked off throughout much of the same game due to dehydration or some other undisclosed illness. In light of the Warriors’ perilous lack of depth, what looked to be an unstoppable juggernaut is showing its seams, unintentionally displaying what a fragile edifice the structure of any great team is, no matter how many stars are on its roster.
DeMarcus Cousins is not at full health himself. Just minutes into the second game of the postseason, Cousins went down with a quad injury that kept him from playing again until Game 1 of the Finals. He played just eight minutes in that game off the bench, providing 3 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists. In Game 2, though, he was reinserted to the starting lineup and proved crucial to the Warriors’ eventual victory. He got a double-double, with 11 points and 10 rebounds, along with 6 much-needed assists as he showcased his ability to pass to open shooters from the paint.
It’s easy to forget how domineering, how overwhelming of a player DeMarcus Cousins can be at his peak. Last season, before his injury, he was playing perhaps the best basketball of his career — posting averages of 25 points, nearly 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and a combined 3 blocks and steals per game. He was everywhere on the court, frustrating opponents in innumerable ways. What is unclear is how close he can come to approximating that form again. Since joining the Warriors, he hasn’t been asked to. With Durant, Curry, and Thompson carrying the bulk of the scoring load, he has become a supporting player this season, largely functioning as an ancillary option who can catch-and-shoot or make easy shots near the rim once the ball fizzes around to him after one of the Warriors’ patented passing frenzies. It should come as no surprise that a higher percentage of Cousins’ field goals have been assisted this season than ever before. Golden State has not needed him to be dominant, just present and reliable. Now, though, they need a little bit more.
With Looney out, likely for the rest of the Finals, the Warriors’ rotation at center is almost comical. There is Cousins, of course, but behind him is the notoriously unreliable Jordan Bell, Damian Jones, who has only played six minutes since Dec. 1, and Andrew Bogut — a largely immobile presence who knows the offense having played with the Warriors before, but has little to offer at this point in his career. They can play Draymond Green at center in bursts, but that’s not something sustainable over the course of an entire series.
There is now a pressure on Cousins that was not there just a few days ago. It had been widely assumed that his presence would be incidental to a Warriors’ title, but as the Warriors and Raptors prepare for Game 3 Wednesday, his presence and performance have taken on a much larger importance. Golden State needs Cousins to be more assertive than he has been so far this season. Frequently, he has faded into the background, not wanting to risk spoiling a good thing, though now is a time for him to take charge. It’s not clear how close he can be to the Boogie we saw last season, and it’s not likely the Warriors need him to be that good anyway, but they need him to approximate his stellar, and understated, Game 2 performance if not exceed it moving forward if the Warriors are to defeat the Raptors.
He does not have to take on the mantle of primary scorer. He does not need to be the all-around destroyer of worlds he had to be for the Kings and Pelicans, but an additional scoring punch and some extra facilitating from him would go a long way on a team this banged up.
Cousins has much to prove here. If the Warriors win, no longer would Cousins be seen as someone who took a free ride to an easy title, but an integral part of their success, a winner, a true and deserved champion. The skills are there and there is no doubt that the spirit is willing. The question remains, though, regarding the weakness of the flesh.