With DeMarcus Cousins set for his Warriors debut, has the gap been closed on Golden State?

DeMarcus Cousins is set to make his Golden State Warriors debut on Friday against the Clippers, and one has to wonder if he has gone from a luxury to a necessity for the two-time defending champs. Yes, at their best, the Warriors remain the best team in the league with or without Cousins, as evidenced by their statement thrashing of the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. But the margin for error has almost irrefutably shrunk. Cousins could be the changeup a bored Warriors team needs to feel invested in the regular season. 

He may need to be more than that. 

Entering Thursday, the Warriors are outscoring opponents by an average of 6.1 points per 100 possessions. At this point last season, they were plus-8.9. Less than three points per 100 possessions may not sound like much, but it is, like tenths of a second on a 100-yard dash -- and even that plus-6.1 number is being propped up by some recent blowouts of the truly awful Bulls, Knicks and Suns. Through December, Golden State was only plus-4.5. The offense is better than it was at this point last season, at least statistically. The defense is significantly worse. If numbers are your thing, there are indicators that either the Warriors aren't quite the same team, or everyone else is better, or both. 

"The Warriors have some issues for sure," a league GM told CBS Sports in late December. "But I don't think from a talent standpoint the gap has closed. It will be interesting to see if they can all get back on the same page, and how they mix Cousins in." 

The Warriors have certainly gotten on the same page in January. Again, they throttled Denver, which was leading the West at the time, a position they have since ceded to Golden State. Stephen Curry is on a nuclear shooting tear, even by his standards. Kevin Durant is playing brilliantly. Klay Thompson has found his stroke. Point-Draymond has been re-released; Green has a combined 27 assists over his last two games and hasn't recorded fewer than six assists in a game since Christmas. Andre Iguodala looked like playoff-Iggy against New Orleans.

In the past, the Warriors had to be off their game, usually with sloppy turnovers and a general case of apathy, to lose or let an inferior team push them to the limit. This season, even when they've played pretty well, they've had trouble shaking loose from even average teams. Last Sunday, Curry and Durant had to combine for 76 points to beat Dallas by five. Wednesday night, they needed 71 points from Curry and Durant, along with a franchise-record 24 made 3-pointers, to beat the Pelicans by seven. Those are both lottery teams -- if only by record, not talent. This has been a recurring theme all season, even if the final scores don't always reflect the struggle to separate through most of the game. 

To that point, perhaps this isn't even really about the Warriors, but more so how much better the league has gotten as a whole. We'll save conference abolishment for another day, but as the current format stands, if the playoffs were to start today, teams being led by Anthony Davis and LeBron James, two of the four best players in the world, would be in the lottery. In the Western Conference, aside from Phoenix, you can't find an easy game on anyone's schedule. That's a grind of a regular-season road for a team being targeted every night while being generally disinterested in games that don't matter as much to them. 

"Personally, I just think [the Warriors] are getting through this period of the season," a Western Conference exec told CBS Sports. "I think playing all the way to June constantly wears on your psyche maybe even more than your body. I don't think a coach can ever create urgency, especially with such seasoned professionals. You have to sincerely feel it. [The Warriors'] greatness will emerge when real urgency sets in."

Perhaps this is true. But even if the Warriors' greatness ultimately emerges, it is largely because of that greatness that upper-tier teams across the league have aggressively upgraded their rosters. The Warriors aren't as deep as they've been in the past, and oddly enough, they lack shooting outside Curry, Durant and Thompson, but if the gap has indeed been closed, it's probably less about them and more about the competition at the top. 

"You also have to remember, the gap maybe wasn't as big as everyone thought last year," a league scout told CBS Sports. "Houston probably would've won that [conference finals] series if a few things had broken different. They made Golden State uncomfortable. I guess the question is, who can be this year's Rockets?"

When this question was posed, the Rockets were in the doldrums. Now they're soaring on the strength of a James Harden scoring binge that defies all things logical. Assuming they can get healthy by the playoffs (that might be a reckless assumption), they could very well be Golden State's biggest threat again, at least in the West. If the Lakers make the playoffs, any team with LeBron is scary to Golden State. The Thunder are probably the team best equipped, from a defensive standpoint, to pose the same kind of problem for the Warriors that Houston did last year. 

Even if the Warriors get out of the West, the top of the East is a whole other problem. No matter who the Warriors might match up with in a potential NBA Finals -- Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia -- you're talking about a significantly better team than last year's Cavs, who were basically a red carpet to the title once Golden State got through Houston. Just look at the roster upgrades the top teams made in pursuit of Golden State: Toronto added Kawhi Leonard, Philly added Jimmy Butler, the Bucks added Brook Lopez and are an entirely different team, OKC added Dennis Schroder and subtracted Carmelo Anthony, the Lakers added LeBron, Boston adds Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. 

It only stands to reason that if the Warriors stay the same and everyone else gets significantly better, the gap has closed. This is where Cousins comes in. If he makes it back to the player he was before the Achilles injury, he wipes out any ground anyone has gained on the Warriors and then some. If he's even 70 percent of his old self, he at least provides depth and gives the Warriors the impact center they've lacked in the past, which could be huge in a potential Finals matchup with a team like Toronto, with Jonas Valanciunas, or Philly with Joel Embiid

Conditioning and integration into the Warriors high-tempo offense will be Cousins' biggest challenges. Steve Kerr has said they won't slow down for Cousins. In theory, he gives them a post option, and surely they'll prioritize plenty of those over the next few months to get Cousins in a rhythm. But when push comes to shove, how is he going to handle not getting a feature touch for five or six straight possessions while Curry, Klay and Durant launch away before Cousins has even had time to cross half court? One would assume he'll be fine with it from an attitude standpoint -- he stands to gain a lot financially this summer by proving he can be a good teammate and he's healthy enough to deserve something close to a max contract. 

Whether he can actually be impactful in this kind of system is another story. At worst, he might end up like Shaq on that old Suns team (Remember, Kerr was the Phoenix GM that brought Shaq in) that had to slow down everything they did to accommodate the big fella. At best, Cousins will be a matchup nightmare for teams going small and will punish the switches that gave Golden State trouble last season. 

In the end, it's very possible that we had this right all along: The Warriors are still better than everyone else when they turn up the volume, and Cousins is still gravy. Stan Van Gundy said something very poignant on ESPN Wednesday night: "I've always thought the regular season was about how consistently you can get near your best. The playoffs are about what's your top level, because everybody is going to be ready to play every night." That is so true, and indeed the Warriors' top level is still better than everyone else's. But by how much? That is very much the question. In the end, it might be Cousins who provides the answer. 

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