As Drake’s “Nice For What” blared in the background, DeMarcus Cousins swayed right, swayed left, placed his hands on his hips and playfully bounced. The New Orleans Pelicans had just clinched a playoff berth with Cousins in a walking boot, but the jubilation of that moment would be vanquished by the time free agency arrived. In the interim, the Pelicans would sweep the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, snatch a win off the Golden State Warriors in the second, and set off whispers — which would later become bullhorns — that the team was better off without its injured four-time All-Star center.
Cousins heard every word of the criticism that he wasn’t a winning player and somehow was holding back the franchise that made the daring move to acquire him the year before. He internalized it, processed it and filed it away in that mental folder of negative fodder that has followed him throughout his career.
Reputations are hard to shake in the NBA, and Cousins did himself no favors with his behavior during some toxic, losing seasons in Sacramento. But he had hoped some of that had been buried with his play in New Orleans, where he connected with Anthony Davis to push the Pelicans toward respectability. Once Cousins got hurt, old hot takes resurfaced. His combustible past and ruptured Achilles tendon made for tepid interest from around the league, and no team was willing to pay what his talent should have otherwise warranted. But a desire to win was always at the root of his crazy, so when he made the stunning decision Monday to join the Warriors, Cousins basically told all of his haters, “Look at what you made me do.”
The Warriors provide Cousins with what he needs most: the chance to repair his injury and his image. Because Golden State doesn’t really need a fifth All-Star, Cousins can take all the time he needs before playing again. As for healing perceptions about his game and character, Cousins would only have to revert to the form he showed on the international stage — where he already connected with the Warriors’ four other starters and lobbied to become a third Splash Brother in World Cup and Olympic play — when he put aside pride and sacrificed for the greater good.
Cousins will only be around for one year because next summer he’ll be looking to possibly quintuple the $5.3 million that he’ll earn this season. Golden State was the prohibitive favorite to three-peat the moment Kevin Durant elected to run it back one more time. So Cousins’ arrival doesn’t change anything that wasn’t already expected to happen, it just makes another championship parade feel like more of a certainty. And before we go through another round of whining over how the Warriors have destroyed parity, stacked the deck too much in their favor and gone from the underdog playing with unbridled joy to the bully ensuring that they’re the only team that can win, let’s stop for a moment to applaud how we got here.
The Warriors are what every fan should want their team to become. They organically drafted and developed talent taken outside the high lottery slots generally slated for stardom, established a culture that made it attractive to stars and pounced when unexpected opportunities presented themselves. Jealousy for their good fortune in building this dynasty is at least part of the foundation for the hate they’ve generated while winning three titles in the past four years.
Stephen Curry’s fragile ankles led to a team-friendly rookie extension that opened the door for Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant (after an unexpected salary cap hike) to walk through that door. Their refusal to offer Klay Thompson in a potential Kevin Love trade kept the best shooting backcourt ever intact. David Lee’s injuries gave Draymond Green the chance to become the team’s most indispensable player and defensive backbone. They found the coach in Steve Kerr who had the disposition to bring all of these personalities together after first determining that a Curry-inspired, 3-point happy offensive system would be the best way to rig the modern game.
Owner Joe Lacob generated some league-wide eye-rolling when he stated the Warriors would be “light years ahead” of everyone else, but that has played from the time he made the comment to when they barely let LeBron James have 24 hours to bask in the glow of joining the Los Angeles Lakers. General manager Bob Myers can’t even act as if getting Cousins on a ridiculously low, one-year rental was part of some devious scheme or well-planned strategy. Cousins called the Warriors out of desperation and frustration, wanting to see if the reigning champs had any interest in the league’s most mercurial talent who happens to be recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. The other 29 teams had a chance to make a run at Cousins, but the structure of the deals that the Pelicans and others presented were so infuriating that they pushed him to pop out his middle fingers — like Tupac, or rather, Bill Russell — to the rest of the league.
The Warriors are now the first team since the 1975-76 Boston Celtics to have five All-Stars on the same team, but they’ve supersized those fries will all of these guys in their respective primes. They got lucky again. Durant, a former MVP, just happened to hit unrestricted free agency in 2016, the same summer that a lucrative television deal — and the players union’s refusal to smooth salaries — opened up a maximum salary slot for them to add another star. And Cousins just happened to hit free agency while coming off a devastating injury that will be difficult to come back from. That cannot be overstated enough.
What also can’t be overlooked in all of this is that talent alone guarantees nothing. Cousins only makes the Warriors unfair if he can return to full strength (again, Cousins doesn’t become available at this price if he were healthy). He only makes the Warriors unfair if he’s willing to accept that the touches won’t be as prevalent and some of the team’s best and most effective lineups might not include him. Durant blended almost seamlessly in Golden State, but that was the anomaly in these superteam unions, which rarely take off without a hitch. Cousins has a different personality that can be abrasive at times and will surely test a team that has had to put out some minor brush fires over the past two championship seasons.
Cousins is willing to take a chance, taking an insane paycut to prove his point that in the right environment, he can contribute to a winning program. Having the chance to win big in the backyard of the organization that spurned him first also provides ample fuel for Cousins to make this work. The Warriors are now gluttonous, boasting an overflowing bounty of riches that features one-fifth of the game’s best 25 players in a league in which 13 teams had no All-Star representation last season. But don’t cancel the season yet — not until Golden State wins another ring and Cousins is stepping into another locker room, dancing to the music while champagne is being poured on his head. We’re a long way from June, and so much could happen between now and then.
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