THE VISITORS LOCKER room inside Staples Center is almost empty. An hour has passed since the Golden State Warriors defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, in the second game of the season for DeMarcus Cousins. The center, who missed nearly a year because of a ruptured left Achilles tendon, makes his way out of the shower on this January night, as Kevin Durant gets dressed at a nearby locker. Members of the Warriors' public relations staff are wrapping up while a couple of locker room attendants make their way from stall to stall, cleaning out the remnants of a joyous occasion for a group that was excited to add Cousins to an already talented lineup.
Cousins had listened as fans, both online and in person, told him he had hurt the game of basketball by signing a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors, and channeled that criticism into his work to get back on the court.
Durant and the rest of Cousins' new teammates watched as the 6-foot-11, 270-pound center grinded through a difficult rehab process. They were proud of the work and time he invested into becoming an All-Star-caliber player again.
Seven months after signing that contract, Cousins is talking about legacy and perception as he sits in that quiet Staples Center locker room. He doesn't hold back about the unlikely series of events that had to unfold to bring this group together. The big man points at Stephen Curry's empty locker stall for emphasis.
"Who the hell would have ever known he had to take a pay cut early on in his career because of his health?" Cousins tells ESPN. "Who could have ever planned that? You think they planned, 'You know what? We're going to give him a pay cut because his ankles are bad.'"
"We're going to wait for Kevin Durant to come around," Cousins continues. "Klay's going to turn into one of the greatest shooters of all time. How can you plan for that? Draymond Green was a bench player when he came into [the league]. He was barely drafted. He was barely drafted! Who the f--- knew he was going to turn into the Defensive Player of the Year?"
Cousins' voice starts to rise with a mix of excitement and frustration. He knows how special this group is. But he also understands circumstance, a fact that was never lost on him. He appeared to be on the verge of signing a max extension with the New Orleans Pelicans after last season -- and then, in an instant, that dream was over.
"Who knew I was blowing my Achilles?" Cousins says. "I never in a million years would have thought I would end up with Golden State. Never. And if you seen my past and the way I play, I was one of the main guys that wanted to bring their s--- down. I never in a million years thought I would be here."
But he was. And while he never expected to end up with the Warriors -- especially not this way -- he was thrilled with his teammates, his setting and his role on the court. For someone who'd never played postseason basketball, the ability to be an important part of a team favored to win a third consecutive NBA title made everything that came before it worth it.
THE WARRIORS AFFECTIONATELY called it "Boogie Season."
Starting in late November 2018 and carrying through Cousins' return in mid-January, Cousins played in several 5-on-5, full-court contact games to ease him back to action. For Cousins and the Warriors players, this was the highlight of the rehab program, designed by Warriors director of sports medicine and performance Dr. Rick Celebrini, that would allow Cousins to adapt to game-specific needs while exceeding its demands in a controlled, calculated environment. Strength, power, balance, core, agility and movement were all a focus with constant monitoring and strengthening of Cousins' tendon, soft tissue work and nutrition.
Three times, Cousins was actually forced to sit down and put pen to paper, taking hybrid variations of the "Injury-Psychological Readiness to Return to Sport Scale" aptitude tests, in which he answered six questions, providing a score between 0-to-100 on where his confidence level was regarding his surgically repaired Achilles.
While all that was happening, the brooding center played in these 5-on-5 pickup games one to three times a week, depending on when and where the Warriors could fit in these scrimmages.
Typically they came after the Warriors had a practice or shootaround. Cousins would take the floor and start running full court with a motley crew of volunteers, including assistant coaches, staff members, some of the younger Warriors prospects, video coordinators and even Thompson's older brother Mykee, who played briefly with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012.
It became a popular hangout for the rest of the Warriors' players. For many, this was their first glimpse of Cousins on the court.
"Them guys were playing pickup like every other day," Green says. "[I remember] watching DeMarcus go crazy on everybody, but yet out there working. It was good to watch his improvements from when he first started to obviously the end when he was ready to get back on the floor."
Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.6 blocks in his final season with the Pelicans, earning his fourth consecutive All-Star selection before he went down with the Achilles injury. However, during his 5-on-5 scrimmages, Cousins was delivered a stinging dose of reality that let him know just how far away he was from returning to that form.
In one of his first pickup games over the winter, Cousins tried his go-to move in the post: spinning right on the baseline and going up for a power dunk. It's a move he has executed hundreds of times before, but never with this result.
"Jordan Bell grabbed the ball out of midair and just, like, snatched it," Cousins recalls. "And I was like, 'This has never happened to me in my life.' I was like, 'Damn, I went up for the dunk and he just took it away from me like I wasn't s---.'"
Cousins was a 27-year-old star in his prime, recording a triple-double in the game he tore his Achilles. Suddenly he was getting stuffed at the rim by a second-round draft pick with barely a season's worth of experience. As the moments of frustration with his slow process piled up, the Warriors had to make sure Cousins remained patient. Even if that was the last thing he wanted to hear, Cousins bought in.
"This poor guy went from being an All-Star and looking at a free-agent contract of $100-plus million to all of the sudden a free agent with a torn Achilles and his options were limited," Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. "It was really sad for me to see him so frustrated, so down.
"Once he came back for the first game, he was an entirely different guy because he was playing again."
DESPITE ALL THE work Cousins put in, when "Boogie Season" ended and his NBA season began, he didn't exactly hit the ground running. Though the Warriors won the first five games he played, he averaged just 15.2 points on 49 percent shooting. Things got worse in late February and early March, when Cousins was made to be a scapegoat by fans and media after an inconsistent stretch in which he struggled to find his rhythm defensively and the Warriors lost some games they never would have lost in seasons past -- including a 33-point home defeat against the Boston Celtics.
Despite the criticism, Cousins' teammates and coaches stood by him both publicly and privately, offering words of encouragement. Kerr repeatedly called Cousins "a joy" to coach after many within the organization had reservations on how his personality would mesh within the championship group on and off the floor. But in a season meant to rebuild his image on the way back to what he hoped would eventually be a huge payday this summer, the harsh words from the outside stung Cousins, who went several weeks without speaking to the media. The key for the Warriors was that the criticism also motivated him, as he started to play some of his best basketball of the season.
From his debut on Jan. 18 to the end of February, the Warriors' starting five of Cousins, Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green had an offensive rating of 115.5 and a defensive rating of 116.5 for a net rating of -0.9 when they shared the court. Opponents shot 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range against that group, which had been touted by outsiders as "unfair" when it was assembled last summer.
But from March 1 through the end of the regular season, those numbers changed dramatically as Cousins began to find his stride. The Warriors' starting five maintained a 115.8 offensive rating while posting a stingy 85.7 defensive rating, for a net rating of +30.2. Opponents shot 35 percent from the field and just 23 percent from 3-point range -- almost a 31-point per 100 possession improvement, entirely on defense.
After Cousins finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Indiana on March 21, Green said opponents were getting a preview of things to come in the playoffs.
"They're starting to figure out," Green says when asked what element Cousins will add to the Warriors' championship mix.
When asked if it's not good for the rest of the NBA, Green replies, "Not at all."
That enthusiasm was dampened Monday night. The mood in the Warriors' locker room was somber, and not just because of the stunning Game 2 meltdown in which the Clippers came back from a 31-point third-quarter deficit. The loss was bad, but not as bad as the fact that both players and coaches knew Cousins was probably done for the playoffs, after suffering a torn left quad just four minutes into his second career postseason game.
Cousins' latest setback is another reminder of just how fragile the margins are in the postseason, even for the Warriors. Without Cousins, the Warriors must rely on young big man Kevon Looney and veteran Andrew Bogut, who re-signed with the team in March after playing in Australia this season. Bogut himself is familiar with the fickle nature of the postseason, having suffered a left knee injury that cost him the final two games of the 2016 NBA Finals, the only playoff series the Warriors have lost since 2015.
The Warriors remain confident they can withstand the loss of Cousins and still raise a banner when they open the Chase Center next season. But no matter what happens, Cousins won't be able to have the storybook ending on the floor that both he and the organization were hoping for when he signed.
When the series resumes Thursday night for Game 3, it will be at Staples Center, and the Warriors will be in the same locker room where Cousins so enthusiastically pointed out everything that had brought that group together. However, he won't be part of the group, at least on the court for the foreseeable future. Still, the goal remains the same as it was when Cousins laid it out in January.
"At the end of the day you can say what you want, you can hate it as much as you want," he says. "You can call us every name in the book. You can say whatever you want about them, you can call it whatever you want, but you're going to have to add champion at the end of it. And that's all that matters."