The franchise that has won three of the past four NBA titles plays with verve and edge again. That alone is enough to make the league shiver, but the Warriors also have unleashed DeMarcus Cousins, the all-star center who fell into their laps this past summer. And the early returns of this fledgling partnership should be relayed as a suggestion: Opponents might want to curl up in a corner and rock themselves for a while.
The timing is perfect, Green said. Earlier in the season, as the Warriors struggled and looked spiritless, Cousins might have felt pressure to help fix the machine. However, with Golden State playing its best basketball since last year’s NBA Finals, Cousins needs only to plug his game into the machine.
“It’s kind of lessened the expectations for him, allowed him to comfortably get back into the flow of things,” Green said. “If he came back a month ago, he’d probably be screwed, and we’d be screwed.
“To come back at a time where we’re kind of rolling, it allows him to come back and get his legs under him, get his feel back for the game after a year off, as opposed to coming back and trying to be that piece to right the ship, which could make it a lot more challenging.”
The Warriors won their ninth straight game Thursday night with a 126-118 victory over the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena. Cousins, who ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon almost a year ago, returned to the lineup last Friday. He has started the past three games for his new team, playing well in limited minutes (he scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds against the Wizards) and creating a rare NBA five-star constellation.
Gaze upon these Warriors, and the eyes don’t know where to focus. Everything is brilliant, the parts and the whole. Everything seems to fit.
You know the Warriors are in a good place because they are taking the success in stride — what’s a little nine-game winning streak to them anyway? — and preparing mentally for tougher times. They’re a team in constant search of the next challenge. They’re in their fifth season of this remarkable run, and when you have experienced the highs that they have, it is difficult to get out of bed for ordinary. For as much as they have used every team-building avenue at their disposal to stack the deck, they’re just as motivated to do something special with their abundance of talent.
The task isn’t to win simply because no other team has five all-stars. It is to make each individual thrive within a system that they believe has the flexibility to accommodate all of this star power. They’re competing to elevate their standard, and the most underrated aspect of the Warriors’ success is they often redefine how great players on the same team can function without greatly sacrificing their special characteristics.
When Mike Krzyzewski coached the U.S. men’s basketball team, he used to talk about this concept. He wanted his 12 NBA all-stars to understand a nuanced goal: To truly come together and be the greatest force, the players needed to be comfortable enough to play their games, not suppress themselves, within the tighter space of a super team. In sports, we talk a lot about sacrificing for the team. To Coach K, that doesn’t mean morphing into a different person. It means being the same player in a more compact way.
“The adaptation should be more subtle than people think,” Krzyzewski said during the 2016 Rio Olympics. “It’s a feel. It’s a comfort level. Once players figure it out, you can play a free-flowing game that accentuates everyone’s strengths instead of restricting them.”
That’s where the Warriors want to be by season’s end. If they can get there, they will win another championship in resounding fashion and possibly be able to claim that this ended up being the best — at least offensively — of their title teams.
It won’t be easy, but contrary to the popular and cynical perception of the Warriors, they don’t want it to be easy.
Talk about the team cruising with Cousins, and Green counters: “It’s not going to stay that way. It’s not going to always be that way. There are going to be challenges that come along with it.”
There are two seemingly conflicting beliefs about talent. You must have talent to win; it makes it easier. But managing that talent — and on another level, maximizing that talent — can be a burden. Plenty of good teams can’t get the best out of their big-name, big-money rosters, and interestingly, they tend to function better when they’re forced to play with less star power. The Wizards are an example, considering how much more cohesive and gritty they have been since John Wall had season-ending surgery.
Can they reach their ceiling without Wall? Of course not. But they’re not combustible and falling to new lows anymore. This season, they’re incapable of doing more with more. But they can make the most of a more-with-less situation.
On the other hand, the Warriors have been a model for adaptation through Coach Steve Kerr’s five seasons. They claimed their first championship and then won a league-record 73 regular season games the next season with a deep roster that revolved around Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green. In the summer of 2016, they reshuffled, added a fourth all-star in Kevin Durant and figured out how to bend their system to fit his sublime offensive skill and versatility. They have captured two more championships this way, and while there have been some adjustments — especially for Curry — there has been ample room for the foursome to express themselves in influential ways.
Curry and Durant have had to shave only a few points per game off their averages, and they now score in the high-20s with ease. Thompson is Thompson, a quirky but mentally tough sniper. Green facilitates the offense and anchors the defense. Now they’re embracing this five-star, Boogie Cousins experiment. And because they had to extinguish the Green-Durant drama, they have been reminded of how much maintenance chemistry requires. The lessons and humility gleaned from that incident will help them manage another headstrong star.
“He can do everything,” Thompson said of Cousins. “He can pass out of the post, pass out of the pick and roll. He can lead the break. He’s just one of the most skilled big men I’ve ever been around, and his ability to stretch the floor as well as finish at the rim is nearly unmatched.”
Thompson said Cousins’s court vision impresses him the most. For the Warriors to get the most out of all their talent, most every player must be a willing and creative passer. Their system isn’t about mindless ball movement. They move the ball with purpose, and their scorers have a good feel for when to break the system. They’re not merely a catch-and-shoot team. They have players who can catch and create — shoot, pass or dribble — from every position.
That’s what allows them to stretch the limits of how much star power one team can handle. As they stretch again for Cousins, they’re calling it a challenge. In reality, however, it seems like an opportunity to torment parity again. Find a corner and curl up before it’s too late.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.