The Warriors’ signing of DeMarcus Cousins this past offseason had NBA fans thinking another Golden State title was all but inevitable. And through Cousins’ first five games in a Warriors uniform, that nightmare was a reality.
“They’re only at the tip of the iceberg, and they already look great with him in there,” one scout told Sporting News’ Sean Deveney in late January. “He creates open shots, he eats up space in the paint, they have him playing to his strengths. And he’s not 100 percent yet.”
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It’s safe to say the honeymoon period is over. The Warriors have gone 4-6 in their last 10 games, including losses to the Magic, Heat and Suns. Golden State has a 112.6 defensive rating over that span, which ranks 23rd out of 30 teams. More concerning is the 109.3 overall defensive rating compared to last year’s 106.8 and 2016-17’s stingy 103.4.
It would be easy to place the blame at the feet of Cousins, who is still adjusting to his new team’s game plan. But the Warriors’ defense doesn’t change much whether Cousins plays or sits (108.4 defensive rating with Cousins on the court vs. 108.8 with him off), so this is far from just a Cousins issue.
And yet, in one specific matchup, Cousins could be targeted so frequently he is unable to stay on the floor. It all comes back to the Rockets, the biggest Western Conference threat to take Golden State’s crown.
When the Warriors last faced the Rockets on Feb. 23, Houston put Cousins in uncomfortable spots with Chris Paul (23 points, 17 assists) as the lead ball handler. There was the garden-variety isolation with Paul attacking Cousins one-on-one.
The Rockets threw out the high pick-and-roll as well, pushing Cousins back on his heels.
If Cousins sagged too far back, Paul drew a help defender, leading to an open look.
Cousins totaled 13 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three steals in a 118-112 loss, so it wasn’t a completely unproductive game, but he shot 4 of 12 from the field and committed six turnovers. He finished a season-low minus-17 in a little over 26 minutes of action.
Oh, by the way, James Harden sat out that game with a strained neck and flu-like symptoms. Harden and Cousins have not yet battled as part of the Rockets-Warriors rivalry, but Cousins has struggled against Harden in the past.
In a 2017 loss as a member of the Pelicans, Cousins often found himself stuck in no-man’s land, wondering if Harden (26 points, 17 assists) would go for the layup…
Or the lob pass over his head.
Clint Capela scored 28 points on 13-of-14 shooting in that game with six of his field goals coming on alley-oops and all of them within two feet of the basket. Obviously the Warriors and Pelicans aren’t on the same level in terms of talent, but Capela did plenty of damage on basic pick-and-roll actions as a result of Cousins’ hesitation.
To be fair to Cousins, he can create turnovers in these situations when engaged. Though he may sometimes rely too much on long swipes rather than defensive positioning, he is capable of poking the ball away if offensive players aren’t careful.
Even accounting for the occasional turnover or blocked shot, the Rockets would likely use as many pick-and-rolls as possible involving Capela with Harden or Paul in a playoff series. That would leave Warriors coach Steve Kerr with the difficult decision of how many minutes to give Cousins as opposed to small-ball lineups.
Cousins is far from the only defensive problem in the Bay Area, but in the postseason, teams are willing to attack weaknesses again and again. This was the case in the 2018 Western Conference finals with the Rockets relentlessly picking on Stephen Curry throughout the seven-game showdown.
If the West bracket ends with a Rockets-Warriors rematch, don’t be surprised if Houston’s attention shifts to Cousins.
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