Apparently, the Golden State Warriors weren't already good enough.
After using four All-Stars to win a third title in the last four years by sweeping LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, they made yet another power play in free agency to steal the spotlight away from a certain four-time MVP and his new fit with the Los Angeles Lakers. DeMarcus Cousins is now aboard on a one-year deal worth $5.3 million, as first reported by Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, to give the team an All-Star at every one of the five traditional positions.
Yes, that means the Warriors essentially upgraded from JaVale McGee to Cousins. Yes, that means they used the mid-level exception to add Cousins shortly after the Lakers built around James by using the MLE on Lance Stephenson. Yes, that means the league's pre-eminent superteam is getting even more super.
But this move isn't as simple as it seems.
What It Means for the Warriors
From a skill perspective, this is obviously great news for the Warriors. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green already made for an unfair collection of talent capable of storming past anyone and everything thrown at them by the NBA. But Cousins, when healthy, is one of the game's premier bigs, and he plays a style that should fit nicely with the system deployed by head coach Steve Kerr.
As Marcus Thompson of The Athletic tweeted, the Warriors had been coveting a scoring big:
Well, they found one.
Cousins is a four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA representative coming off a season with the New Orleans Pelicans in which he averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks. That was the fewest points per game he's posted since his 2014-15 efforts for the Sacramento Kings, but he made up for the slightly diminished volume by slashing 47.0/35.4/74.6—the middle number coming on a whopping 6.1 three-point attempts per contest.
Oh, and Cousins was also playing some of the best defense of his professional tenure before he suffered the Achilles injury that put him in position to come aboard on a one-year deal. His effort levels sometimes lapsed, but he was figuring out how to leverage his physicality and surprising quickness alongside Anthony Davis en route to posting a career-best 3.6 defensive box plus/minus.
Of course, we don't yet know how much of this skill he'll retain.
Cousins likely won't make his debut in the Bay Area until late December or early January, given the typical recovery length of an Achilles rupture, though he told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears that he's targeting a training camp return. It's not like the Warriors need to rush him, either; they're not exactly lacking for talent in his absence. But when he returns, he'll still be attempting to fight his way past a malady that has severely affected the careers of many before him—a far more difficult task than returning from an ACL tear.
Still, if he's able to serve as a convincing simulacrum of his pre-injury self, he'll turn the Warriors juggernaut into a superuberjuggernaut. You almost have to send doubles to help against Cousins when he's playing bully-ball from the post...except you can't do that against a Golden State lineup featuring three of the deadliest shooters in NBA history on the perimeter. And if he's hitting threes, it's game over.
That's still not the best news, because the risks here are so ridiculously minimal.
What if Cousins doesn't return to form? Well, it's not like he needs to occupy a role bigger than the one McGee filled during the last title run. What if he gets disgruntled and starts demanding more touches? Just ship him off for a second-round pick, since he's only coming aboard on a one-year deal.
The downside for the Warriors is nonexistent. The upside, on the other hand, is astronomical—exactly what you might expect from one of the greatest teams in NBA history upgrading at center from a mercurial backup to an All-NBA talent without sacrificing anyone of note.
What It Means for Cousins
The downside is more prevalent when focusing on the individual.
Cousins can't be blamed for finally wanting to get the proverbial monkey off his back, even though the method of doing so is rather questionable. If the basketball-watching world hated Durant's decision to join a loaded team...
But the results may still outweigh those costs.
That the big man will play in the postseason for the first time in his career should be considered a foregone conclusion, though he might have to deal with an asterisk before history forgets how he finally got past the 82nd game of a season. In all likelihood, he's going to wind up with his first ring, as well. But if he's trying to parlay this one-year pact into a long-term deal that will secure him a massive financial windfall, the logic becomes increasingly unclear.
To prove he's moving past the Achilles injury, he needs touches.
Cousins has never been a passive contributor, instead demanding the rock over and over so that he can launch treys, go to work on the blocks and show off his distributing flair as a primary facilitator. He's never once posted a usage rate below 27 percent, and he's now coming off a season with the Pelicans in which he would've ranked No. 4 (at 31.9 percent) on that particular leaderboard had he registered enough games to qualify.
Sacrifices have to come now. They're wholly inevitable. Especially because he'll be joining the fray during the heart of the 2018-19 season after the Bay Area representatives have already established a rhythm, and he's not suddenly going to change how they operate and force Curry, Thompson and Durant to take fewer shots. If we're looking at a too-many-cooks scenario, he'll be the one left out in the cold, breathing in the aroma of spheres ripping through nylon while he's seated on the bench.
Can he work as a spot-up center and leverage his talents in a more specialized fashion? Sure. He is coming off a campaign in which he scored 1.01 points per spot-up possession to finish in the 58th percentile, and his remarkable passing has long been one of the league's most underrated and overlooked skills.
But that's still not the ideal way for him to prove that pesky injury is behind him. Winning with the Dubs may not help change his can't-win reputation throughout the league and its myriad fanbases, either.
What It Means for the Rest of the League
Parity is dead...for the time being.
We're not going to speculate about what this does for the league's popularity, though you'll see those takes all over the interwebs in the coming days. Nor will we fault the Warriors for making a mockery of their competition, since it would be rather difficult to ask the defending champions to reject a deal to which Cousins agreed simply because it would make life even tougher for their primary competitors.
But if the competitive balance seemed off in 2017-18, it'll be downright absurd in 2018-19.
The Lakers held the public spotlight for a brief time before the Warriors snatched it right back. LeBron James was ready to take the Western Conference by storm with the Los Angeles crew of misfits, but this should be the end of the team's ascent to the top of title-odd hierarchies. Once more, the world's best player will be fighting an uphill battle against a superpower that leaves him comically overmatched, and the seemingly inevitable loss will again diminish his legacy in the eyes of those unwilling to realize how difficult this obstacle is to overcome.
In essence, the Warriors are declaring war on all other storylines. All that matters (again) is whether some challenger can dethrone the champions, and that task is becoming downright Sisyphean. Just look at the All-NBA distribution between the Warriors' eventual starting quintet and the entire Eastern Conference, per Bleacher Report's Dan Favale:
In fact, this is the first time in decades a lineup has featured five All-Stars from the previous season. Cue Marc Stein of the New York Times:
And thus begins the battle for a silver medal.
James and the Lakers will be competitive, though this lessens the chances of a Kawhi Leonard trade where the Lakers would sacrifice existing assets. Cousins isn't coming to Hollywood, and the odds are stacked against them. The Houston Rockets will put a scare into the Warriors, but they lost Trevor Ariza while the Warriors added one of the NBA's best centers.
Though the Boston Celtics are overloaded with talent, we're talking about up-and-coming contributors. Any of Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward could function as Beantown's best player on a given night—but might struggle to crack the starting lineup if playing for Golden State (assuming a full recovery from Cousins). Ditto for the Philadelphia 76ers and their emerging tandem of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The target is firmly on Golden State's back, as is always the case for defending champions boasting a roster littered with superb talents. But now, if all goes according to plan, that target might just be coated with Teflon, covered by a layer of armor and surrounded by an impenetrable bubble suit until Cousins up and leaves during the 2019 offseason, unable to return to a roster growing too expensive to afford his full-strength services.
At this point, can we really rule anything out for this team?