DeMarcus Cousins Gives Golden State Warriors Most Lethal Death Lineup Yet

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IJanuary 18, 2019

Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In basketball, the better team usually wins.

There's no March magic or getting hot at the right time in single-elimination playoff scenarios some other sports have. The seven-game series in each round rewards the better team almost every time. For the past few seasons, that team has been the Golden State Warriors.

And they're about to get a hell of a lot better.

DeMarcus Cousins is set to come back from a career-altering Achilles injury Friday against the host Los Angeles Clippers to complete what will be the most dangerous starting five in NBA history: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Cousins.

Take that, Death Lineup.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The chemistry, playmaking and general scoring threat from each position made the Warriors champions and changed the way NBA teams think about positions. Adding Cousins to the mix could be more problematic—this isn't just a 2K grouping or the Western Conference All-Star starters; it's real life, and there's only one basketball to share between four 20-plus-point scorers and an extra point guard in Green. 

Trying to fold all these ingredients into one another will be a tough process, especially when they all share the court. That's a lot of mouths to feed.

The first thing to understand is Cousins' preferences and what he does well. Then you can find areas for him to carve out a niche within the immensely successful lineup.

Head coach Steve Kerr plans to take a measured approach to the Cousins experiment, telling reporters they'll feature him in a deliberate, simplified way:

"We're kind of sticking with the basics of trying to narrow the menu instead of broaden it, but there will be a couple wrinkles that we'll put in. I think he already fits in pretty well with some of the stuff that we run. But we'll put in some low post stuff for him. We gotta get a feel for him, too, but we've got a package of plays that we have in mind, but it doesn't feel right to just throw all that stuff at him right away, so we'll take our time with it."

Cousins was an astronomically high-usage player (34.3) over his past five seasons, and that will come down as he acclimates to his new environment. But his previous teams' expectations of him can explain a lot of that usage.

For players as talented as Cousins, the in-between game can produce efficient offense. Because of that, the New Orleans Pelicans asked him to post up a lot—seventh-most in the league last year—where he scored 45.6 percent of the time. His 7.6 post-ups will decrease (as will Durant's 6.5), or he'll have to find trade-offs to optimize floor balance so the Warriors don't get caught hemorrhaging points in transition.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 08:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the New Orleans Pelicans dunks the ball during the second half of a NBA game against the Sacramento Kings at the Smoothie King Center on December 8, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. the Sacramento King
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Cousins has dominated the ball in previous stops, but that doesn't mean he can't play off it. There's a real possibility he isn't the same offensive focal point he has been in previous stops, but he can flex his shooting ability.

Last season, he averaged a career high in shots from distance and converted a respectable 36.9 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers. That shooting from the 5 will give the Warriors more space than they've had in the past with their revolving door of centers—without sacrificing the passing and brains.

"It's a different feel for us," Kerr said. "We've had a lot of really good centers here when you think of Bogs [Andrew Bogut], David West, Zaza [Pachulia], JaVale [McGee], a lot of guys that really played their role. We haven't had a dominant scoring center, so it's pretty exciting but a little daunting, too. It's not going to be simple to plug him in. He knows that, the team knows that. But it's a fun challenge at the same time."

Cousins controls the game in more areas than just the post. He's an incredible passer and decision-maker for a 6'11", 270-pound big man, which is why he should fit in nicely with the rest of the starters. He gets a bad wrap for his attitude, but he's not a selfish player; losing's just frustrated him.

In Golden State, he'll have it easier than ever. His assist-to-usage ratio (assist rate relative to the amount of possessions a player uses) was in the 83rd percentile among bigs last season, suggesting he's a willing, capable passer.

That sort of passing helped the Warriors overcome some of the clunkiness with Green while they tried to incorporate Durant. Green may appear to be struggling offensively since Durant came to the Bay in 2016, but the duo is tops in the league in net rating this season and sports a true shooting percentage 10 ticks above average.

The Warriors have built their empire on ball movement, extra passes and egalitarianism. They're loaded with smart players who understand their fit within the group and what kind of sacrifices they need to make to win championships. Cousins hasn't been a part of a system quite like this in the past, but rather than questioning the fit or trying to poke holes in the group, it's best to realize the simplest outcome is most probable: They'll all get even better.

Per Mark Medina of the Mercury News, Durant said:

"Most of us in the locker room know the game just as much as coach. So a collaborative effort comes from wanting to be successful each possession and coach calls great plays for us and we try to fine-tune little details within those plays sometimes. But he has a template we play out of and guys have been around the system for so long. They can see things before they happen. Just try to use your basketball IQ."

SAN JOSE, CA - OCTOBER 12: DeMarcus Cousins #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors talk during a pre-season game against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 12, 2018 at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Lineup staggering will be key for Kerr. At all times, one or more of Curry, Durant or Cousins should occupy the court. Having an elite shot creator on the floor will prevent offensive stagnation. Curry and Thompson can be added to any combination of players because of their shooting prowess

Cousins' box-score numbers may decrease in volume, but he'll more than make up for it in efficiency. He'll likely have his easiest path as a scorer as well. He may not have Anthony Davis to toss lobs to, but finding an open Curry or Thompson for three is just as good. Defenses won't be able to hone in on Cousins for fear of a worse fate.

When it comes to integrating talent, Kerr has set the bar high. The balancing act of keeping so many star players happy can be tough, but there couldn't be a better situation than Golden State. Curry is back to his unanimous-MVP ways. Durant is quietly putting together one of his best seasons. Thompson has been streaky but can catch fire at a moment's notice. Green will make sure everyone is involved.

Kerr's team has a combination of shooting, ball movement and selflessness that will allow it to be better than it has ever been when Cousins returns to form.

Curry told reporters the Warriors "understand what it takes to obviously win a championship but also how to deal with some kind of down periods of a season. We have high expectations for ourselves and understand we're under the microscope with everything that we do. At the end of the day, what happens in that locker room and how we approach every game, that's all that matters."

The best part of all is Cousins doesn't subtract from an already great team. He doesn't eliminate the possibility of the Hamptons 5 lineup closing games in the playoffs. He just adds a supremely talented big man to complement what the Warriors already have.

Now Kerr can choose based on matchups. Warriors players have the right mentality about how to plug Cousins into their system. They also know how the outside world perceives them. That's all the motivation they need to make it work.

"All hell's about to break loose," Green told NBC Sports Bay Area when asked about Boogie's return. "It's gonna be fun."

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