Maybe your first thought was of the insanely overpowered Boogie-Draymond-Durant-Klay-Steph lineup the Golden State Warriors now can assemble, and of what never-before-seen levels of basketball excellence that group could unlock together. Mine was. But neither of us will ever see that.
Grant that, in the upcoming season, DeMarcus Cousins will return from the serious Achilles injury that ended his 2017-18 season and reduced him from an obvious max-contract superstar to accepting a cheap one-year deal. Grant, even, the much shakier proposition that when he does return, he will return as some recognizable version of himself: The outrageously gifted seven-footer who, at his best and prior to the injury, somehow fit Tracy McGrady’s and Charles Barkley’s skill-sets more-or-less comfortably into Shaquille O’Neal’s body. Grant that he will return ready and eager to fit in, to play the Warriors’ smart, creative, decentralized ball, to pass and cut and screen and score from inside and outside and use his fouls smartly and keep his head screwed on tight. You still won’t get to see The Dubs Plus Boogie Cousins for more than maybe a few minutes. Ever.
With apologies to the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers, and their fans, the biggest challenge the Warriors have faced over the past two seasons has been figuring out, over the course of the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs, which combinations of their best players to hold back (or out), and in what order, and for how long—in order to ensure they enter the Finals not only infinitely better but also fresher than their last opponent of the season, yeah, but also because letting the air out of their own tires is the only way they can trick themselves into fleeting engagement with the sport anymore. Even this past season, when they, uh, only had Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green on the roster, they willingly gave away home-court advantage in the conference finals to the most loaded challenger they’ve ever faced, because they knew full well that the only things capable of stopping them were their own injuries and indifference.
They won games with multiple All-Stars resting on the bench. They lost more games to boredom than to worthy competition. They deliberately spurned their own most effective actions, Curry-Durant screen-and-roll pairings, out of nothing more than ideological distaste, for all but a handful of minutes all season. They were still sleepwalking through first halves, going into halftime visibly disinterested and down double-figures, and then winning by blowout anyway... in the conference finals and the Finals. You can count on one hand the number of times they needed as many as three of their starters to play their best all at the same time. (In fact, did it ever happen? I kind of don’t think it did!) That was before they added DeMarcus Cousins.
So even the best-case scenario, here, is that Boogie returns to something like his pre-injury form—conservatively, let’s hope for Super-Duper-Ultra-Mega-Turbo Upgraded David West—and Steve Kerr comes up with a set of rotation gimmicks that ensures as many as three of his five All-Stars will have to pay active attention to what’s happening on the court around them for more than 45 seconds at a time. None of the other 29 teams can assemble a five-man group that can dream of squeezing more than that out of them. I doubt the Eastern Conference’s All-Star starting lineup could do it, now that LeBron James is in Los Angeles. That kinda sucks.
The thing is, none of the principals did anything wrong, here. (This leaves aside cop-ass Kevin Durant, who gave the Warriors’ ownership a needless discount on his own contract not so they could afford Boogie Cousins, but so they’d take a smaller and more comfortable luxury-tax hit for affording him, and thereby weakened his own union’s position in the next round of collective bargaining.) Whether you believe Cousins had no other legitimate contract offers or not—I’m a little skeptical, personally—he made a terrific decision, opting not only for the league’s best, most fun, and most functional team, but for the one team that needs him least, and can therefore offer him the most time and space to recover from just about the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer shy of decapitation. The Warriors, for their part, would have to have been world-historic morons to pass up this chance. In broad terms, this is good: A player found a great situation, a well-managed organization seized a rare opportunity.
But still. Even if, like me, you are not all that disposed to care about “competitive balance” as a broad, league-wide concern—a thing you get used to as, say, as Washington Wizards fan, is not needing to feel as though the home team has a shot at a ring in order to find an NBA season interesting—this is, well, wack. It’s wack. It’s wack in a familiar way the Warriors were already wack, from the moment Kevin Durant joined a 73-win team: An ever larger portion of the league’s absolute top tier of players escaping to an environment in which the biggest and most demanding challenge they’ll have to face is winning too easily to stay interested. It was a problem already, and even the most injury-depleted version of Cousins can’t return this team to more than fleeting vulnerability. At a simple, sensory level, the five minutes of perfunctory third-quarter trying that suffice to carry the Warriors past all but maybe one or two other teams just aren’t as entertaining or rewarding as watching these same players actually forced to extend themselves and break a sweat night after night. The All-Star Game sucks for a reason. The Warriors will play at least 83 of them.
More depressingly, though, is this: The Cousins signing is now something like the third or fourth round of permutations of a unique circumstance the other 29 franchises cannot even hope to replicate. The Warriors became a revolutionary phenomenon in the first place via the type of team-building stuff to which every team has at least theoretical access: They picked really, really goddamn well up near the top of the draft (and farther back, in Draymond Green’s case) for a couple of years, invested in and developed the players they had, made a brilliant and well-timed coaching switch, and got a lucky break when Curry’s health and contract length conspired to make him, suddenly, the best bargain in the history of the sport. Your team will not do that. But your team could do that.
But then Durant, the second-best player in the sport and one of its best scorers of all time, happened to hit free-agency in July of 2016, at the exact same moment that the salary cap, fueled by the league’s mammoth TV deal, took an anomalous and insanely huge spike that—not least because of what happened next—will never, ever, ever repeat itself. A 73-win juggernaut that already had three of the NBA’s best young players on it suddenly could add Kevin freaking Durant, thanks to a one-time opening in the league’s system. Nothing even a little bit like that had been possible before in the salary cap era, and in literal, technical terms, it is not possible now; the salary cap has leveled off, and the league’s other 29 owners will shut it down for whole multiple seasons before they will even consider agreeing to another spike like that one. Your team will not do what the Warriors did in the summer of 2016, and can’t. Ever.
And so, even as it’s true that the Warriors did lots of genuinely good and smart stuff to make this good fortune for themselves, and aren’t really villains in this story, it’s also true that they’ve in effect been operating in a profoundly different and increasingly irreconcilable context from everybody else since Durant came aboard. Even the other super-teams forming now with the goal of supplanting them simply have no hope of making the kind of move the Warriors made two Julys ago, adding an elite player to an already loaded team through straight-up free-agency, or of reaping the kind of knock-on benefits that it produced—like the ability to restock continually through the draft and avoid a thin, top-heavy rotation, because they didn’t have to part with a decade’s worth of assets to acquire Durant in an arcane six-team sign-and-trade. Or like the ability to offer an injured superstar like Cousins a pressure-free season to recuperate in ideal circumstances, because they know they can win the title even if he doesn’t play at all and anything he gives them is pure surplus.
All of which has the effect of making the broader NBA seem awfully stupid and broken, right now. There never has not been at least a few different kinds of futility inherent to granting, say, the Wizards, or the Nets, or the Kings your attention and support. But you could watch the Spurs or Rockets—or pre-Durant Warriors—annihilate your bozo-ass home team and take the result as a meaningful gauge of at least theoretically resolvable differences between the two rooting interests. Because both teams existed in the same context, the losing margin indexed the shittiness of your team, your best players, your coach, your front office and ownership; the good team—damn them!—illuminated the path for your bad one.
But there is no path right now—not to where the Warriors are, anyway. Any optimistic track you can imagine for your team peters out in the woods well short of them, of what they did in 2016 and what it allows them to do now. Bad teams have always needed luck to beat, and to become, good ones; that’s nothing new. But the summer of 2016 spun the Golden State Warriors out into something just fundamentally different from even the Rockets or the Thunder or whatever monstrosity LeBron eventually accumulates around him in Los Angeles; when they play the rest of the NBA, the result measures something that already happened, whole years ago, and won’t happen again. And the thing is, that’s pretty corny, and awfully boring.