Who's to Blame for the Warriors Bringing NBA Teams to Their Knees?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJuly 4, 2018

Cousins enjoying the company of new teammates Steph Curry and Draymond Green at a past All-Star game.
Cousins enjoying the company of new teammates Steph Curry and Draymond Green at a past All-Star game.Bruce Yeung/Getty Images

Contrary to Chicken Little logic, the NBA didn’t cease to exist when DeMarcus Cousins, a four-time All-Star, signed with the mighty Golden State Warriors for the paltry sum of $5.3 million.

Sure, all things being equal, there was an element of unfairness to the deal struck Monday between the two-time defending champions and Cousins, who is also a member of Team USA and a two-time All-NBA second-teamer.

But when it comes to Cousins miraculously being available for the taxpayer mid-level exception to the team that has won three of the past four championships, all things were not equal. This was not the DMC who was running up and down the court with Anthony Davis in New Orleans last season, biding time until the inevitable max offers arrived in free agency. This was Cousins post-Achilles tendon rupture, with all the risks and uncertainties that come with that particular injury—even for an athlete who is not yet 28 years old.

So let’s be clear: The Cousins signing is not the root of the NBA’s competitive balance problem. It’s merely another symptom.

“Time will tell,” an Eastern Conference executive told Bleacher Report. “If anything, it emboldens everyone that much more to get better.”

On paper, it’s unfair. Whenever Cousins is available to return to the floor, Warriors coach Steve Kerr can roll out a lineup with five All-Stars, all of whom were either first-, second- or third-team All-NBA as recently as 2015-16.

But there are several problems with the assertion that Cousins joining the Warriors proves that the NBA is broken.

Cousins has reasons to smile as the newest part of the title favorite Warriors.
Cousins has reasons to smile as the newest part of the title favorite Warriors.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

When Cousins returns, there are no guarantees he’ll be the same player he was before the injury. There are also no guarantees that he’ll start, or that he will even fit with the Warriors’ pace-and-space style.

There are reasons the Pelicans weren’t standing on Cousins’ doorstep at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1 with a max offer, and not all of them are financial. It was evident to anyone who watched the Pelicans down the stretch of the season—most notably, the Warriors, who beat them in the second round of the playoffs—that Alvin Gentry’s uptempo, three-point-shooting system ran pretty well with Davis and Nikola Mirotic playing alongside each other. Cousins—an old-school, plodding post-up player with a history of stamina and conditioning issues (not to mention his short fuse and brooding persona)—is less of a fit.

To find the real problem, you have to go back to February 2015, when the National Basketball Players Association rejected the NBA’s proposal to smooth a massive influx of broadcast revenues into the player compensation pool, a move that would’ve prevented a $22 million spike in the salary cap in 2016-17.

By embracing such a massive, one-year spike in the cap and luxury-tax levels, the players paved the way for Kevin Durant to sign with the Warriors in July 2016 (and lead them to two more championships so far). If only LeBron James, a high-ranking member of the NBPA’s executive committee, had foreseen that the spike would end up jeopardizing his chase for championships. After beating Golden State in 2016, LeBron has lost the last two Finals to the Durant-led Warriors, winning only one game.

“The spike never should have happened,” an agent within the league told B/R. “Essentially, it ruined the back half of LeBron James’ career.”

Oddly enough, James’ decision to sign with the Lakers played a role in the Warriors getting Cousins. In order to free up some flexibility to add pieces around James, the Lakers renounced their rights to Julius Randle. The Pelicans scooped up Randle, the No. 7 pick in the 2014 draft, clearing the way to let Cousins walk.

The market for Cousins was virtually nonexistent, league sources told B/R, providing another stroke of luck for the Warriors in their bid to turn the NBA into NASCAR—two dozen slow cars moseying around the track and taking turns crashing and burning while the three or four fast cars pass them.

Can anyone prevent another Warriors title with Boogie now on board?
Can anyone prevent another Warriors title with Boogie now on board?Chris Elise/Getty Images

James spoke during the Finals about the embarrassment of riches on the Warriors roster, but he doesn’t seem to be complaining too much these days. According to a person close to James, he’s content to don the purple and gold in Los Angeles and carve out the next—and perhaps final—chapter of his career as a Laker.

James believes he can win there, but the more talent the Warriors collect, the more evidence mounts to the contrary.

In a recent interview with SB Nation’s Paul Flannery, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts called the league’s 2015 smoothing proposal “a disgraceful request.” Maybe she should try running one of the other 29 teams eating the Warriors’ dust.

“We all knew [the spike] was going to be an issue,” a Western Conference general manager told B/R. “She didn’t care, and unfortunately we didn’t fight hard enough to prevent it.”

Other team executives in the league aren’t exactly in the sky-is-falling camp over the Cousins signing; you have to admire their optimism. One Eastern Conference exec pointed out that if Trevor Ariza hadn’t shot 0-of-12 from the field and 0-of-9 from three-point range in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors might not have even been in the Finals.

Cousins’ other huge red flag is his attitude.

“Like with any team, injuries and the ‘disease of me’ will come knocking,” the Eastern Conference exec said. “They’re a strong group, though, so it will be fascinating to watch the plot unfold.”

Still, the fact remains that the two-time defending champions just added a fifth All-Star to their roster while the rest of the league sucks wind. As one agent put it, even if Cousins only makes it back to 70 percent of his former self, that “is still 10 times better than JaVale McGee.”

It’s fine to look at it that way, and it’s OK to lament. Just don’t forget who and what caused the problem in the first place.

If competitive balance in the NBA is inexorably broken, it isn’t DeMarcus Cousins’ or the Warriors’ fault.


Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@KBergNBA.