Nuggets found the backup center they needed in DeMarcus Cousins

Feb 27, 2022; Portland, Oregon, USA; Denver Nuggets center DeMarcus Cousins (4) attempts to score as Portland Trail Blazers power forward Greg Brown III (4) defends during the first half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When the Denver Nuggets signed DeMarcus Cousins for the rest of the year, the impact may have been overlooked by some.

Yes, he was without a home and relying on 10-day contracts to keep hopping around the league. Additionally, Cousins’ on-court production has been dramatically lessened after the injuries he has sustained. Despite those facts and his limited mobility, the Nuggets are 10-0 when Boogie plays and a good-sized portion of the credit goes to Cousins and his impact on the Nuggets bench unit.

“He is always going to look like he has cement blocks on his feet and I can say that because I love him,” Nuggets head coach Michale Malone joked after the game during his postgame media availability.

“I am proud of DeMarcus,” Malone said later in the interview knowing it has been a tough few years for Cousins. “It has not been an easy journey as we have talked about plenty of times, but when he goes out and gets a chance to play — he did it in Milwaukee this year and now he is doing it for us — he is a load and he is a talent.”

So far, Cousins is averaging 7.7 points and 6.6 rebounds for the Nuggets on just 37.3% shooting from the field. That stat line is barely even pedestrian if taken at face value, but Cousins has provided structure to an otherwise dazed and confused group of reserves. Without a big man with the set of skills Cousins possesses, the Nuggets could only move the ball side to side on the perimeter hoping to find an advantage that rarely appeared. Now, with Cousins still able to score and create in so many ways, Denver’s bench lineups can fall back on running screen and roll with Boogie. Simply having an offensive set that can be relied on is a luxury Denver’s reserves never enjoyed until Cousins was brought in.

What is the reason such a simple action can make such a large difference despite Cousins still not playing particularly well according to the stat sheet? Think of it this way. When the Nuggets call for Boogie to set a screen, he presents multiple issues regardless of which player will be utilizing his screen. Even during the slower and less nimble portion of his career, his sheer size and touch around the rim make him a threatening rim roller which means the opposing big man who is defending him cannot prioritize walling off the Nuggets initiator such as Bones Hyland, Facu Campazzo, Bryn Forbes or Austin Rivers; none of whom are threatening slashers. Now, instead of seeing multiple bodies after using a screen, the Nuggets guards are coming off clean with room to operate as evidenced by the many jump shots Forbes and others have been able to create off screens from Cousins.

If the defense does a good job of limiting the initial action of the pick and roll, Cousins has the skills to create for his teammates off the short roll as well which makes him significantly more threatening creator and well-rounded on offense. Being able to catch the ball while rolling to the rim, attract an additional defender because of his size, and then kick to an open shooter or streaking cutter is hyper-important because it unlocks the Nuggets playbook and creates more options. Now, knowing that they have a player who can make those kind of plays, Denver can diversify their off-ball actions knowing they have the personnel to do so. That extra creation allows Denver’s previously stagnant and predictable bench unit to evolve into a much-more dynamic group.

“I think what you are seeing with (Cousins) is him being more and more comfortable,” Malone explained from his point of view. “Signing him for the rest of the year, knowing, ‘hey, they believe in me and I am here for the long haul — the rest of the season — and I can just relax and play my game’.”

That confidence manifested on Sunday night in his best game as a member of the Nuggets. On the second night of a back-to-back, he helped lead Denver’s bench unit to 76 points and a division win on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers. In that game, Cousins had 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists in just 17 minutes of action on 7-10 shooting and 2-3 from 3-point range. Ultimately, the Nuggets outscored Portland by 27 points in the minutes Cousins played.

“He also is getting really comfortable with that second unit,” Malone stated. “You can see that unit is really establishing an identity and getting some chemistry and continuity.”

“Tonight, I thought they were the difference maker,” Malone said, referring to the bench unit. “Our starters have been great and tonight our bench was ready to play first half and second half.”

So what is that identity Malone is speaking about? How does it relate to Cousins? How does it unlock the bench?

“It starts with the intangibles; the intangibles being toughness, physicality and edge,” Malone explained when asked that very question. “I think you can never have enough of that. You have to remember, my father was an assistant coach on Chuck Daly’s staff with the Bad Boys. I love that. I love physical play and guys who are willing to do the dirty work.”

“For me, first and foremost, it is the edge, the physicality and the toughness,” Malone reiterated. “I think you need that to win in this league and win at a high level.”

Obviously, Cousins provides all three of edge, physicality and toughness every time he enters onto the court. Never in his career has Cousins ever lacked those exact traits and they are making a big impact on the Nuggets. Before, their bench unit was undersized, struggled to rebound, and did not have an interior presence before which led to them getting bullied by stronger reserve units.

The days of being at the whim of stronger and bigger bench units are now gone with the inclusion of Boogie; especially when the Nuggets pair Cousins with JaMychal Green, who is having a resurgence after playing much worse basketball to begin the season.

Green also had one of his best games of the season abasing Portland as he finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds on 7 of 8 shooting, but he did so while providing the same toughness, edge and physicality that Cousins brings to the table which completely overwhelmed the Trail Blazers backups.

“Both of those guys, Alabama guys, they hit it off, they know each other, and they bring a real identity to that group,” Malone said.

While toughness is an important skill — in Malone’s opinion, the most important skill — the pairing between Cousins and Green also schematically makes sense.

“Both can make 3’s, score in the post, they can rebound, they can set screens, they can defend,” Malone explained before getting back to, in his eyes, what is most important. “I think also, it gives that second unit a real edge toughness-wise and I love it.”

Even with all of these important aspects of Cousins’ impact on the Nuggets and the unblemished 10-0 record when he plays, there are still concerning signs. Cousins is not shooting well from anywhere on the floor which is not ideal. Also, Denver only has a couple good wins over the 10 victories when Boogie plays. So far, the Nuggets beat the Detroit Pistons twice, the Brooklyn Nets twice (with only Kyrie Irving playing in one game and no stars playing in the other), the New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, and Trail Blazers. Of those games, only two were anything more than beating up on bad teams; Denver’s win in Toronto and its win on the road against the Warriors.

So how much of all of this is noise and how much is meaningful? That answer will only become clear with time, but there are obvious indicators that Cousins has a very real positive impact on the Nuggets chances of winning now and potentially in the playoffs. Is he perfect? Of course not, but sometimes the difference between a first-round exit and a trip to the Western Conference Finals — of which Denver currently has the fourth-best odds at +1400 according to FanDuel Sportsbook — is having a backup center to rely on. Denver found its guy in Cousins.

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