You didn’t need a background in coaching to notice the play that carried the Toronto Raptors to their title-clinching win. It was simple, yet it had also given the Golden State Warriors fits all series, and never more so than in the second half of Game 6.
The Raptors ran it over and over. Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet would dribble the ball across the half-court line. A Raptors big man-maybe Serge Ibaka, maybe Marc Gasol-would come and set a screen. It didn’t matter which one. All that mattered was that DeMarcus Cousins was guarding the person setting the screen.
This-being attacked and then subbed out for late-game defensive possessions-couldn’t have been what Cousins imagined the previous July when he called up Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers to pitch his services.
Cousins at the time was still recovering from a ruptured Achilles-an injury he’d suffered in January after being traded to the Pelicans-and dismayed by the lack of free-agency offers. He told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears afterward that he didn’t receive a single offer. Some reports have claimed that the Pelicans did, in fact, offer Cousins a deal. According to the New York Times‘ Marc Stein, it was in the two-year, $40 million range.
Either way, it’s clear the market was cooler than Cousins anticipated. Some teams were worried about the lingering effects of the injury and if Cousins would even return to the floor for the upcoming season. Others were worried about inking the mercurial Boogie to a long-term deal; many around the league employ what is described as a “No Cousins Policy.”
To Cousins, joining the Warriors on a one-year deal at the discounted rate of $5.6 million was an opportunity to assuage all concerns. “This was my ace of spades,” he told The Undefeated back then. “This was my chess move.” In Golden State, he could prove himself healthy and capable of contributing to a winner and maybe wash some of that “head case” stink off.
The opportunity to do so arrived in the Finals. Cousins did his best, and Game 6 was a perfect example. He was active on the boards and gave a hemorrhaging Warriors team a much-needed offensive lift. His drive and finish across the lane with less than a minute left nearly extended Golden State’s season.
But everything is magnified in the Finals, especially flaws, and throughout the series, one of his was laid bare.
Cousins’ skill set, while impressive and diverse, is one of a previous age. That’s fine for a reserve, but what about a player seeking a $100 million offer? Or, put another way: In a league continuously moving away from traditional centers, can an interior player, even if he is a four-time All-Star, still command a megadeal?
This, more than anything, might be the largest obstacle standing between the 28-year-old Cousins and the nine-figure deal he so desperately craves.
If there ever were an offseason for Cousins to cash in, this would seem to be it. Perhaps you’ve heard about all the teams that have cleared their decks in anticipation of the stars set to become available: The Knicks! The Nets! The Lakers! The Clippers! The Mavericks! And that’s just a sampling. Surely one of them would be interested in Cousins, especially if they were to be left standing in the game of Free-Agency Musical Chairs?
And yet a handful of NBA executives and front-office people recently polled on the topic all responded with the same prediction: that Cousins is once again forced to sign a one-year deal, with the only difference being this time he’s able to negotiate more cash and maybe-maybe!-have some sort of one-year player option attached.
“I doubt he gets what he wants,” one executive said.
Is it fair to judge Cousins on his seesaw Finals performance (8.3 points per game on an ugly 42.5 percent shooting) or to solely focus on the areas he struggled? Probably not. This was a strange season for him. He had a new role on a new team, all while recovering from a major injury. And let’s not forget the quadriceps tear he suffered during the playoffs’ first round, which, as evidenced by his inability to create more than a few inches of distance between the soles of his fleet and the court, left him severely limited.
There were even some promising signs flashed during the Finals loss to the Raptors. “I was really impressed with his passing,” one NBA scout said. “I had never seen him pass like that.” In eight playoff games, the rate to which Cousins dished out assists compared to how often he was finishing possessions was the best of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass.
But you can’t ignore the warning signs that Cousins may be destined to join the long list of players who never regain form following an Achilles tear. His points per shot attempt during the regular season was one of the worst marks from about all big men in the league, according to CleaningtheGlass. Combine that with his reputation across the league (whether it’s warranted or not is a separate conversation), and you get the feeling Cousins could be in for a frustrating summer.
So, which teams might be willing to bring Cousins in?
Now that they have Anthony Davis, the Lakers (who declined to ink Cousins last season) would appear to be out of the running. The Nets have no interest. Neither do the Hawks. Some opposing executives suggested the Knicks, but Cousins would gobble up playing time from prized prospect Mitchell Robinson, who Knicks decision-makers are enthralled with. The Pacers are set in the frontcourt (Myles Turnes and Domantas Sabonis). The Mavericks have sniffed around him before-maybe that’s the answer.
Or perhaps Cousins decides to take out his chess board again.
“I would say the hope is, frankly, that he can do a lot better financially than what we could offer him. But who knows? Every year is different,” Kerr told reporters last week. “We have to figure out our own situation, particularly with Klay [Thompson] and Kevin [Durant] and how all that shakes out. But I could absolutely foresee a place for DeMarcus here if he wanted to come back. It’s just a question of what are his goals? What’s out there for him?”
Cousins was posed this question a little over an hour after the Warriors’ Game 6 loss.
“I really enjoyed it [in Golden State]. I’m open, so we’ll see what happens,” he told reporters. “I mean it was a weird summer last summer, so you never know how things work out. Like I said, I’m open, and I’ll make the best decision for myself and my family, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what way the wind blows.”
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter,@YaronWeitzman, and sign up for his newsletterhere. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix joins Howard Beck on this week’s Full 48 podcast to discuss the Lakers’ monumental trade for Anthony Davis, and the league’s new balance of power.