— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) January 22, 2019
LOS ANGELES — With DeMarcus Cousins’ debut now out of the way, the Golden State Warriors now have to integrate their biggest offseason acquisition into the flow on the floor, as he gains his conditioning back.
Head coach Steve Kerr said at shootaround that Cousins’ minutes would steadily ramp up, and that will start on Monday night against a Los Angeles Lakers team that won’t have Lonzo Ball (ankle, out for 4-6 weeks), LeBron James (groin) or Rajon Rondo.
While Golden State is looking for a bit of revenge for a Christmas beatdown in Oakland, that will be secondary to figuring out just how to fit Cousins in, during his second game back from an Achilles rupture, beyond the theoretical work that’s been done by the coaching staff up to this point.
“The combinations that fit well together can make an impact at one end or the other — preferably both,” Kerr said before Monday’s game. “We’ve had pretty good second units over the years. We’ve had a lot of depth and we’ve found combinations that worked for us.”
On Friday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, Cousins started with Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and played with that unit for seven of his 14 minutes. The other seven, he played with a second unit of Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Thompson and Green. Both units were plus-10 on the night.
“I think it just makes sense for a team to try that way,” Kerr said of that second unit. “We’ve played Steph and Kevin together, most of the time over the two and a half years that Kevin’s been here. We’ve occasionally staggered them. WE did that for about a 10-game stretch recently. For the most part, I think we’re at our best when those guys play most of the first, most of the third, so you want to have a good combination out there to start the second and the fourth. A good combination that can defend and can get you a bucket.”
Cousins, of course, can help the Warriors in both areas. He’s arguably the best trail man in the league — as he showed when he was able to hit three shots from beyond the arc on Friday — and he’s a willing passer (averaging 3.2 assists per game over his career). As he gets his legs underneath him, he’ll be able to anchor that second unit.
“He filled the stat line, and to do that in 15 minutes, cut down on fouls, he’s going to be tremendous for us,” Thompson said at shootaround. “How skilled he is, for a dude that big, to be able to step out and stretch the floor and hit threes is such a big aspect for us. He’s experienced so much, he’s so skilled, he can score from anywhere on the floor.”
Playing with the second unit seemed to agree with Cousins in his debut, despite the fact that both he and Kerr noted he’s barely practiced with the full team, much less with multiple lineups.
“He’s such a talented and cerebral player that you can kind of plug him anywhere,” Thompson said. “He’ll make the right play.”
Also, for the first time in his career, Cousins is not his team’s primary scoring option, which takes pressure off of him, and allows him to play with some more freedom.
“This is a first, in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said on Friday, when asked what it felt like to not get constantly double teamed. “I definitely could get used to this.”
“He’s been the man on teams that needed him to be the savior,” Kerr said. “That’s not required now. It’s a different role, and I think he’s embracing it. Again, we have to work at it and find his sweet spot.”
That kind of unselfish basketball — Kerr ideally wants to see 320 passes per night when the Warriors are going strong — is what has anchored the club’s four-year stretch of dominance, and, Lakers head coach Luke Walton said, is part of the reason why superstars want to play for Kerr.
“Steve did a great job of building a culture over there that allowed them to get superstars that are unselfish,” said Walton, an assistant under Kerr for two seasons. “Like Steph and Klay, they don’t really need the limelight. They have different superstars that excel at different things.”
When Golden State added Durant, the transition was seamless, because he fit in with what Thompson and Curry both did, as a drive-and-kick passer and as a slasher and shooter. Cousins fills a role the Warriors haven’t really had down on the block, save for David West, but also has the ability to stretch out to the perimeter, drive, pass and shoot.
“A guy like DeMarcus can change your entire strategy if you want,” Kerr said. “That’s a great option to have, but you have to find the right balance … We’ve been lucky to have this combination of players. It’s hard enough to accumulate star talent, but when you’re able to get guys who already fit together pretty naturally, that’s a real blessing.”
“Getting DeMarcus back is a huge jolt,” Thompson said. “What are we on, a seven-game winning streak? Pretty impressive. Got a chance for an eighth. Let’s get double digits. We haven’t done it all year. It’ll be real nice.”