Nathaniel Friedman on the triumphant return of DeMarcus Cousins and how he reshapes Golden State.
Even Boogie didn’t see it coming. By his own admission, the tenth-year big man—who, in case you hadn’t heard, is a Warrior now—had no idea his debut last Friday would go so well. It had been almost a full year since Cousins tore his Achilles midway through the 2017-18 season. Despite proclaiming that he was in “the best shape of [his] life” after surgery and rehab, Cousins was, like everyone else, expecting his return to form, if it happened at all, to be a gradual process.
Instead, Cousins looked very much like his old self. Within the first two minutes, he threw down a vicious lane-clearing dunk. After going to the bench with two quick fouls (his minutes were expected to be limited anyway), Cousins returned in spurts throughout the game. He seemed to get better every time he stepped back onto the court. By the end of the night, Cousins was draining threes, crashing the boards and commandeering the paint, effortlessly moving the ball within the Warriors’ system, bringing it up the court, and setting an especially brutal version of the screens that makes Golden State’s offense go. Cousins finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists in a scant 15 minutes of play. He was 5 of 11 from the floor, including 3 of 4 from three, and chipped in a steal and a block before fouling out.
One game in, it sure seems like Boogie is back, and everyone worried he might never be the same again can breathe a sigh of relief. His recovery would be a feel-good story for the ages: Cousins, who has only really come into his own in the past two seasons, is one of the most gifted, entertaining, and more recently, beloved players in the NBA. His on-court presence would be sorely missed if he went away. But he’s also an athlete you genuinely wish success upon because. Cousins isn’t just an athlete we admire, or whose performances move us. He’s a personality we connect with, a character who charms us while pulling zero punches and giving no fucks. When Cousins called Friday night’s fanfare “the fakest love I’ve ever seen,” it was at once good-natured and caustic—which is to say, it was quintessential Boogie.
There is, however, a catch: DeMarcus Cousins now plays for the Warriors. Cousins coming back healthy means Golden State can start an All-Star at every position—depending on how the rest of Boogie’s career goes, it could end up being looked back on as five Hall of Famers. Adding Kevin Durant to a 73-9 Finals team was excessive. Getting prime DeMarcus Cousins on top of that is almost impossible to fathom. And it’s not a matter of sheer talent. Based on Friday’s game, it looks like Cousins is an ideal fit for the Warriors, in terms of both addressing weaknesses and having a game suited to their style of play. We were so busy wondering about whether or not Cousins would be shipshape—whether he would be able to contribute at all—that this level of compatibility was never really broached. But it appears that Cousins augments the Warriors and the Warriors bring out the best in him. It’s the best case scenario for him, and them, but the worst case for other teams and anyone invested in the idea of competitive balance.
This sets up a screwy dynamic: The general consensus is that Boogie deserves to thrive but the Warriors have no right to get any better. We want to see Cousins in peak form, or even unlocking new parts of his game. Whatever he accomplishes, though, will help Golden State win basketball games, and what’s more, will be very much a function of their system. Cousins could hypothetically scale new heights with a different team. But it will happen with the Warriors. There is almost as much ill will toward that franchise as there is accumulated good will for post-injury Cousins. And if Cousins has emerged as a player whose appeal transcends team allegiance, disliking the Warriors is something that a broad swath of NBA fans can agree on.
There is, however, the possibility that Cousins changes the way people see the Warriors—or more accurately, how they watch that team. None of the warmth they feel for Cousins is going to rub off on his teammates (though it’s hard to understand how someone could adore Cousins and find Draymond Green off-putting and immature). But part of what fuels the hatred of the Warriors is the perception that they don’t consistently play up to their potential. It’s one thing to hoard talent; it’s another altogether to squander it by failing to put on a show every night. And this team is so insanely proficient that the Popovich-ian strategy of conserving energy for the playoffs, or giving opposing scouts only so much to work with, only goes so far as an excuse. Speculation that the Warriors are bored, dysfunctional, or perpetually out-of-joint stems directly from this desire to see them going full-bore at all times. They screwed up the entire league; the least they could do is give us our money’s worth.
What made Cousins’s first game back so exciting, though, wasn’t just that he was fully-operational and able to contribute. He was as fun to watch as ever, maybe even more so, and it was because the Warriors maximized his entertainment value. When Golde
n State provides a matrix for basketball that makes your jaw drop, it’s harder to hold them in complete contempt. And if Cousins could potentially push things in that direction, his arrival on the scene couldn’t happen at a more ideal time. The Warriors have been white-hot for the last two weeks. They demolished the Nuggets and took their place atop the West. They’ve won 7 in a row and 9 of their last 10. Curry is mounting a dark horse campaign for MVP—his numbers compare favorably
to his unanimous 2015-16 award—and Green, who appears to have gotten his body together and his psyche reined in, has come alive as a tertiary shooter and playmaker while greatly reducing his turnover numbers. Most importantly, they’ve been exactly the thrill-a-minute team we have always wanted them to be. You also got the sense that the Warriors fed off of Cousins’s energy and that of the moment, a welcome antidote to the rumors, and sometimes outright displays, of infighting that have dogged them all season. The Warriors made Cousins whole again and it’s possible he did the same for them.
The Warriors tearing through the league as an unstoppable force makes might make them even less sympathetic, as if that were even possible. But them pushing things to that extreme opens up the possibility of actually enjoying their dominance. When winning and losing lose their meaning, all that’s left is the aesthetics of the sport. And when the Warriors get into “beautiful game” mode, you can only be so mad at them. It gives even their most hardened critics something to respect. The negative effect they’ve had on the NBA suddenly gives way to all they can provide for us as fans of the sport, and the Warriors have a goal to attain that’s not so obviously within their reach. When Cousins wins a title, we’ll only care so much. But if we get half a season of him—and the Warriors—playing like he did on Friday, cheering him on won’t feel like an act of treason. The outcome is almost beside the point. What will matter was that we were along for the ride.