The news came down just as the first Summer League action of 2018 unfolded. In the midst watching Memphis rookie Jaren Jackson, Jr. drain one 3-pointer after another while Atlanta’s Trae Young missed shot after shot, the incredible development that DeMarcus Cousins had joined the Golden State Warriors began to make the rounds.
After double-checking that 7/2 hadn’t replaced April Fools Day as the day where ludicrous misinformation makes the rounds, it became obvious that Christmas in July hadn’t forgotten the defending champs after all. While LeBron James joining the Lakers and Paul George staying put in Oklahoma City remain the biggest stories in NBA free agency, Cousins taking a one-year flier with the two-time defending champs is the ultimate shocker.
Why would one of the league’s best centers, expected to command a max contract when he suffered an Achilles tear in an impressive win over Houston back in January, sign anywhere for $5.3 million?
Fans of the game took to social media to express their displeasure. Some swore off watching the ’18-’19 season. Good luck with that.
From a betting standpoint, the acquisition caused the Westgate Superbook to move Golden State from a 10/11 favorite (-110, implied win probability 52.4%) to 4/7 (-175, 63.6%). The Lakers were downgraded from 7/2 to 5/1 while the Rockets went from 6/1 to 13/2.
The Warriors were 2/3 (-150) to get out of the loaded Western Conference prior to signing Cousins and are now a 4/9 (-225) favorite. I wouldn’t jump on either new number even though my current lean is indeed that Golden State will close out its final season at Oracle Arena with a championship. I’ll detail why later, but it’s important to make another point.
Similar to how Kevin Durant did the right thing for himself in joining Golden State because he was sold on the role he’d get to play and the area of the country he’d get to live in, Cousins is rightfully looking out for No. 1.
Knicks center Enes Kanter photo-shopped a picture of commissioner Adam Silver in a Warriors uniform, which won’t go over well in the league office. Other players sounded off. The best center on the market had just filled the only “hole” that Golden State had to fill. A day after Finals standout JaVale McGee agreed to jump ship to the Lakers to play with LeBron, the Dubs found someone to replace him.
The best part of the story is that Cousins called them.
While I understand the outrage since basketball fans didn’t care for an NBA Finals sweep by the heavy favorite that most everyone predicted would win the title when the season began, you can’t help but appreciate what Cousins is doing here. With most teams’ money dried up and New Orleans unwilling to invest heavily on potentially damaged goods, loyalty flew out the window.
Watching buddy Rajon Rondo also leave for L.A. for a one-year, $9M payday while he couldn’t get a solid offer from anyone should remind everyone this is a business first and foremost. It’s fleeting, too, and you make the most of your opportunities when you can. Who would’ve had Rondo, at one point, a pariah, making more than Cousins in ’18-’19 when the calendar year began?
Had he not been injured, perhaps the Lakers would’ve come calling to make him a max player alongside James. New Orleans, a market that typically can’t land top free-agent talent, likely would’ve bent over backward to keep his partnership with Anthony Davis in play. Instead, because the Pelicans performed extremely well without him after trading for Nikola Mirotic, Cousins’ options were limited.
Cousins told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears that the Pelicans never even made a solid offer. They talked, but nothing substantial materialized. The Pels instead signed Julius Randle, who was dumped by the Lakers so that they could afford to sign Rondo.
The Wizards would’ve spent their $5.3 million mid-level exception to reunite Cousins with his friend John Wall, which certainly would’ve been interesting with the East now wide open due to James heading west. There were a few other teams who likely would’ve taken a gamble if he’d remained patient for a few more days, but the fact is, Cousins had already decided that Plan B could stand for brilliant if he played things right. Through Draymond Green, he got in touch with Golden State GM Bob Myers and made the move happen.
“This is my ace of spades,” said Cousins. “This is my chess move.”
Whether it ends up being checkmate for the rest of the NBA remains to be seen but narrowing down his finalists to the Warriors and Celtics is a clear indication of two things, and they’re what matter most in this equation.
Cousins wants to win. He did enough losing in Sacramento and his reputation paid for it. A brooding malcontent who often sabotaged the Kings nearly as often as his dominance kept them in games, his time in New Orleans proved that playing on a winner soothed the savage beast. He was more productive and not as much of a distraction on the floor, bickering with refs less.
He’ll do more winning in Oakland than he’s ever done in his career. He won’t be the focal point, the guy with the target on his back. This is every bit as much about boosting his reputation as it is about getting a ring.
The other part of this equation that favors Cousins, who is absolutely right to make the most of this situation with no regard for your entertainment value, is the lack of pressure he now faces in attempting to get back to action. Although he said in May that he hoped to be back for training camp, look for Golden State to tweak that goal in an effort to ensure that the 6-foot-11, 280-pounder doesn’t rush back.
An Achilles tear is considered tougher to come back from than a torn ACL, especially for big men. I’d be surprised if the four-time All-Star participates in whatever Christmas Day contest the Warriors are called on to play since there is no reason for him not to take a full calendar year off following his injury. He can now rehab with a training staff considered one of the league’s best and do so with no pressure to come back and play a huge role.
In Oakland, he can blend in. There will be no need for him to be at 100 percent until April. If that’s the case, the sky is the limit. Although Cousins could be an x-factor off the bench during the regular season as he’s eased back into action, once he’s ready, he’ll likely start to fill out a starting lineup that has to be in the conversation as the most imposing in league history.
Let’s call them the Five Tops since Kevin Durant, Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson join Cousins in believing they’re the best at their position.
During the regular-season, however, fade Golden State’s projected win total. They’ll have to make some concessions to ease Cousins into things and come off a season where they couldn’t avoid complacency setting in. Although homecourt advantage in the loaded, LeBron-infused Western Conference would come in handy, the Warriors have proven they don’t need it to win a title, having captured a decisive Game 7 in Houston this past May.
There’s also likely to be a point in the season where because of injuries or a slump, Golden State isn’t going to be as heavy a favorite to win a third title in four years as they are at the moment. Maybe Cousins’ pick-and-roll defense will be so bad at first that the Warriors go back to -110. Boston could look so dominant that you may be able to get the Dubs at even money or better.
The payoff for Cousins won’t arrive until May and June. There’s some risk that it could backfire since there’s certainly a chance he blows up and costs Golden State defensively or drags them down in some other way, but the payoff is potentially huge. He could prove that winning, as it is for most, is a cure-all. He could demonstrate that he’s more mature and an excellent teammate, doing so with all eyes watching.
He could get back to 100 percent, looking like his old self because he’s gotten a chance to return at a deliberate pace. He may again emerge as the NBA’s most productive old-school big man, the best of a dying breed.
If he’s successful, this move will be lauded as the best thing that’s ever happened to him and he’ll earn a ring before re-entering free agency in search of greater riches next July.