Lowe: Is DeMarcus Cousins a good fit in Golden State?

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You’d like to think the Golden State Warriors had a grand plan — that they watched their beautiful game stutter in the middle of the Western Conference finals against the Houston Rockets‘ switching defense and thought to themselves, “Let’s wait out the cool market for the one potentially available dude who can just smash through those switches and cram in James Harden‘s face.”

That is not what happened. DeMarcus Cousins, an All-NBA behemoth, fell into the laps of the two-time defending champions over a chaotic few hours during which the market collapsed on him — so fast, several members of Golden State’s brain trust (including some very close to the innermost sanctum) had no idea the deal was coming. The Minnesota Timberwolves paid more for Anthony Tolliver, and hilariously hard-capped themselves in the process.

It is unclear precisely what happened between the New Orleans Pelicans and Cousins in those fraught final hours of a partnership that started with New Orleans forking over two lottery picks — Buddy Hield and the pick that became Zach Collins — in a February 2017 Hail Mary.

Julius Randle‘s sudden availability changed the Pelicans’ equation. They snapped up Randle when the Lakers renounced his rights, nabbing a third big man to play alongside both Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic — the starting duo that worked so well down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. Even so, the Pelicans still had something like $13.7 million to spend before bumping into the luxury tax. They could have outbid the Warriors’ paltry $5.3 million deal — the mini-midlevel exception for tax teams.

They didn’t. The Pelicans had a tentative meeting scheduled with Cousins in the coming days, per sources close to the situation. That will obviously not happen. Perhaps they had decided they simply did not want Cousins coming off an Achilles tendon tear, having seen what the stretchy and fast Mirotic-Davis combo could do without him. The fact pattern suggests a limited interest, at best.

By the time of their elimination — at the hands of the Warriors, naturally — the Pelicans had already explored the idea of offering Cousins a two-year deal at well below the maximum salary, sources told ESPN.com in May. They had to know that would go over poorly with Cousins, who believed his track record justified a max-level contract — even coming off one of the most devastating injuries in sports.

Then they pounced on Randle. Given how many roster spots they might have left to fill, they couldn’t realistically offer Cousins much more than the full midlevel exception for non-tax teams — just short of $9 million per season.

Yes, the two could have worked together on a sign-and-trade that would have netted something tangible for a player the Pelicans sacrificed so much to get. Such a deal could have earned Cousins more money, over more seasons.

It’s possible no such deal to Cousins’ liking existed. As I wrote in May, there was not much of a market for him — and almost none among teams with cap space once Dallas and DeAndre Jordan pulled the NBA version of college crushes who finally (and sloppily) make the leap when they run into each other at a bar in their mid-20s. This is the legacy of the regrettable 2016 cap spike: too many bloated, preposterous contracts from that summer clogging books today, leaving very little for quality players — and disproportionately pumping up the power of that mini-midlevel exception. The spike enabled the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. Now it has wrought this.

A number of teams had a No Cousins policy before he tore his Achilles. That number grew as teams feared committing to what might be a less explosive version of him. Remember: Any contract inked as part of a sign-and-trade must encompass at least three seasons. That might have been too long for teams that would have to send out some meaningful asset for him.

Only the first year’s salary in such deals must be guaranteed, meaning teams could trick the system by making the final two non-guaranteed — $0 if things go badly. That, of course, is unfriendly for Cousins. If he underperforms, the team walks away. Cousins might have been able to earn a little more scratch in 2018-19 under such a contract, but it’s unclear if even that kind of deal was out there — or if he would have cooperated with the Pelicans in arranging it. (Portland and New Orleans had very preliminary talks about a sign-and-trade, sources say, but Portland’s salary target is murky and it might have pushed for at least one non-guaranteed year. As ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported, the deal never got off the ground — in part because Cousins and Jusuf Nurkic, Portland’s incumbent free-agent center, share an agent.)

Play well leading into those non-guaranteed years and the team has you for the next two seasons at a below-market rate. Cousins now gets to prove himself with Golden State, and slip back on the market just as more space opens up.

By the middle of Monday, Cousins’ people were calling teams and pitching deals: one-year, $15 million in one place, per sources, other numbers in other places. Clearly, there was not much interest. It might be that the richest deal easily and quickly available to him was that full midlevel exception contract starting at around $8.6 million.

Any team offering that — and I’m not sure as of this writing that one did — might have sensed its leverage and tried to coax Cousins into a two-year deal at that price. For many of them, that was the smart play. Cousins would have justifiably resisted. Others are hoarding cap space for the summer of 2019 and so would have restricted their offers to one season.

A one-year deal didn’t make much sense for almost any other team beyond Golden State. (The Celtics tried, per Haynes, but are not busted up about missing out. The Rockets, always hungry for stars, may have some remorse about not chasing Cousins at this price — though they could not guarantee him a starting spot, perhaps a dealbreaker. Rumors of the Lakers’ interest, including in a potential double sign-and-trade flipping Randle and Cousins, were badly overstated, sources say.) Due to Cousins’ injury, you are getting only part of that season. You might not get another; there are strict salary limits in re-signing players who change teams on one-year deals.

(Cousins told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that he had no offers as of Monday morning and had instructed his agent to start calling teams — including the Warriors.)

Even had the full midlevel been on the table, Cousins in signing with the Warriors cost himself at most $3.3 million this season — and bought the right to try free agency again next summer in a better marketplace. If he wins a ring in the process, well, he never has to hear about that again. He was distraught last season upon missing his first chance at playoff action. Winning would ease some stress.

And so here we are: The Warriors will at some point start five All-Stars. This predictably set off much talk about how they have broken the NBA. Allow me to play turd in the punch bowl: I am not sure how much this really helps the Warriors in the short term, and it doesn’t help them at all beyond next season.

If Cousins plays well, Golden State will have no mechanism to re-sign him coming off a one-year deal; they would be able to offer only 120 percent of his $5.3 million salary, and Cousins ain’t boogeying to that tune if he plays well.

And who knows when he will even play, or in what condition. All the excitement surrounding Cousins’ return, first in New Orleans and now in Golden State, rushes right past the sad reality that he tore an Achilles tendon. The sample size of players who have recovered to even 80 or 90 percent of their production level after that injury is small. The sample size of such big guys with some prior conditioning issues does not exist.

Optimists suggest he could return as early as December or even late November. (Cousins told Spears he expects to be ready for training camp.) The Warriors will afford him a longer timeline if need be. It would not be a shock if he doesn’t appear in a real game until around Christmas, sources say.

The fit will not be seamless. Cousins has been a divisive, brooding presence in the locker room, and the Warriors endured more turmoil of their own last season than ever before. (By all accounts, Cousins was better in New Orleans, but apparently not beloved enough to draw an actual hard monetary offer that appealed to him.)

Cousins has played at a fast pace before, first under George Karl and then Alvin Gentry, but even then he was not exactly rushing back on defense. He has rarely sustained the pace Golden State’s best lineups prefer.

At low points in both Sacramento and New Orleans, he sometimes loafed so badly that you would see nine players on the television screen for an alarming number of consecutive seconds. He loves to hold the ball and post up for buckets — things the Warriors do not do.

He might exacerbate Golden State’s one unshakable bad habit: maddening turnovers. In something of a point-center role last season, Cousins coughed up five turnovers per game — the third highest such figure ever for a rotation player. There are few things that bust a team’s integrity more severely than a player who throws bad passes, and then mopes instead of getting back on defense.

His effort within half-court defense is inconsistent — a trait the Warriors have generally not accepted of any core player. He doesn’t have the speed or stamina to switch over and over.

Given good health, it is hard to imagine any five-man group with Cousins usurping the Death Lineup — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green — as the Warriors’ best overall and crunch-time go-to. There is no shame in that. Cousins can’t make the Warriors much better because it is mathematically impossible for a team this good to get much better.

But at this price? Replacing backup-caliber flotsam? Come on. And there are universes in which the fit is cleaner. For one, Cousins has finally arrived at a team that simply will not, and should not, take any of his crap. Even at his peak, he is their third-best player, and if I’m building a team to win actual basketball games, I probably take both Green and Thompson over him, depending somewhat on roster context. The Warriors don’t need him, and if they don’t need him, they do not need to suffer any unpleasantness. Proven champions can tell impolitic newcomers to kindly shut it. Golden State’s stars know him from Team USA, and signed off.

He should help on the defensive glass, an on-again, off-again weakness that was on-again last season, when the Warriors ranked 25th in defensive rebounding rate. He can push the ball himself or, even better, outlet pass the Warriors into fast breaks — all without lumbering over half court. He can lope into trail 3-pointers or spot up when the Warriors invert the offense. Curry has never had a pick-and-roll big man partner (not counting Durant) who can punish switches on the block like this.

Passing out of the post and from the elbows is perhaps Cousins’ most Warriors-friendly skill. Golden State actually posts up a lot; it averaged 16.7 post touches per game, third most in the league, per Second Spectrum tracking data. It just uses the post as a vehicle to unlock passes instead of back-to-the-basket shots. Golden State topped all teams in the percentage of post-ups that led to shots for players one pass away, per Second Spectrum data. On an individual level, Warriors comprised six of the league’s overall top 10 post players by this measure: Green (No. 1), Iguodala, David West, Zaza Pachulia, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney.

Cousins is a good passer from all over the floor, and sometimes a brilliant one. He merits almost automatic double-teams. If he tilts the balance of his game toward quick-hitting passes, he can play within Steve Kerr’s system.

Sometimes, he will play outside of it. That’s fine. That’s the point of signing DeMarcus Cousins: to let him smush stuff underfoot. Imagine the luxury of hitting a lull against those switchy Rockets, with Durant fading away for midrange misses, and just turning to Cousins: Trample Eric Gordon and lay the ball up, please. Smart team defenses make that exercise harder than it sounds, but Cousins has seen every zone-ish anti-bullying scheme.

When he tries, Cousins can be a plus defender — at least in spurts. He is unmovable on the block and more of a deterrent at the rim than you’d think, considering he doesn’t jump very high. When he bothers to get in a stance and spread his arms, he gets his hands on a lot of balls. He ranked 10th overall in deflections in 2016-17, before falling to just outside the top 20 last season. He snares a lot of steals for a big man. The Warriors, after steals, transform into fire.

Given everything — the injury, the timetable for return, Cousins’ limitations — I’m very skeptical this signing merits the hype or the anguish. Cousins’ reputation and statistics have always inflated his contribution to winning — both on the floor and behind closed doors.

But the guy is damned good. And for this price, all the Warriors are really paying him to do is bulldoze switching defenses at a few critical postseason moments — if this team even experiences any of those.

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