OAKLAND – When describing the role and expectations for DeMarcus Cousins as a Warrior, Steve Kerr chooses his words carefully, not so much about Cousins on offense but certainly in regards to the big man’s defensive responsibilities.
“We’ll be much better suited to guard some of the big, huge centers,” the coach says. “Guys like (Oklahoma City center) Steven Adams and (Utah’s) Rudy Gobert, (Portland’s Jusuf) Nurkic. We’ve been pretty small against those guys and that pose a big threat.
“The flip side of that is (Cousins has to) guard the perimeter. We’ll have to play around defensively to figure out how we want to guard the pick-and-roll.”
The term “play around” is, in this instance, a euphemism for “make adjustments.” It’s something the Warriors must do. And those adjustments will have to be substantial.
In winning back-to-back championships, the Warriors utilized a switch-heavy defense, with defenders relying less on fighting through picks and more on simply attaching themselves to whomever comes their way. It has been tremendously successful largely because their roster has been versatile enough to make it work.
The ability to switch and do a decent job defending the perimeter has inflated the value of Kevon Looney. It was a contributing factor in Kerr’s decision to bump up Jordan Bell’s playing time in the last two series of the 2018 postseason.
It’s why JaVale McGee played a total of three minutes in the Western Conference Finals, which went seven games, why David West’s minutes were reduced by half in the final two rounds last postseason and why Zaza Pachulia played a total of 25 minutes in 21 postseason games.
Can’t switch, can’t play.
At 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, Cousins’ physical profile is more West-Pachulia than Looney-Bell-McGee. Though Boogie possesses fabulous offensive gifts, pretty much the full package, asking him and his surgically repaired Achilles’ tendon to switch onto James Harden 30 feet from the basket invites foul trouble or getting cooked.
“He’s not a runner. He’s not a sprinter,” Kerr said of Cousins. “So that will be a little different. We’ve played at a pretty high pace here over the years. I imagine he’ll be in a trail position on the break at times, which could be pretty good, especially considering the shooter that he is from the top of the key area.”
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So there is roughly zero chance Cousins will be put in such a compromising position on defense. The Warriors, no matter what Kerr says or how he says it, won’t do it.
Listening to the whispers around the Warriors the past two weeks, the suspicion is that Cousins’ dramatic improvement in recent scrimmages was mostly because he increased his defensive intensity.
“Steve was looking for a certain thing, on the coach’s side of things,” Cousins says. “But for me, it was kind of the same thing every day. So it was hard to find that point where I could just break through and actually do what he was looking for. That’s more on the coaching side of things.”
When Cousins signed with the Warriors last summer, he aligned himself with a coaching staff unafraid to demand effort on defense. Moreover, any lack of effort will be called out by his new teammates. Though Cousins is good friends with Draymond Green, don’t think Draymond won’t blister him for loafing on defense. Loafing is not how the Warriors have won championships.
So how do the Warriors play it with Cousins on defense? They’ll have to turn back the clock to Kerr’s first two seasons, when Andrew Bogut was in the middle. Though Bogut earned his money on defense and Cousins earns his mostly on offense, the physical profiles are similar.
As good as Bogut was on defense, he had no business trying to defend a guard on the perimeter. So he hung back as a rim protector while his teammates either switched or dropped.
“We’ve always had a format here, although we changed a little bit after Andrew Bogut left,” Kerr says. “We had a different philosophy the first couple years.
“But the last couple years, we’ve been a switch team and we have to figure out, ‘Is that the way to go?’ Or do we employ different schemes? And we’ve talked about that. We’ll work on everything and come up with the best plan.”:
Switching is ideal with the “Death Lineup,” which features three players are similar length. Though Green is the center in that lineup, it’s the guard or wing that is in trouble when he switches out to the perimeter.
Switching is not ideal with the Boogie Lineup. The Warriors know that. Cousins knows. His teammates know. So look for a more conventional defense. It’s the surest way for Cousins to stay on the floor in the postseason.
If the Warriors want Boogie’s offense, they’ll have to accept his defense. They’ll have to adjust. I suspect they already are.