(Originially posted at BballBreakdown)
Few teams have had as encouraging of a first three weeks of the season than the Sacramento Kings. Their 6-5 record is not necessarily among the league’s best, but for a franchise that has not won more than 28 games for six years, these last 24 days have been a beacon of hope for the fanbase. As BBALLBREAKDOWN colleague John Daigle analyzed last Wednesday, several things stand out about the Kings’ severe improvement against high level competition; namely, Darren Collison, free throws, pick-and-roll defense and rebounding. Yet while all of those factors have contributed mightily to the team’s great start, DeMarcus Cousins’s performance as one of the league’s five or seven best players has been the most impressive.
In today’s league of multiple high pick-and-rolls per possession and increased emphasis on three-point shooting, Cousins is a throwback. He does most of his scoring out of straight post-ups, and at this moment might be the league’s very best doing so. Cousins uses his 6’11, 270-pound frame to set excellent position with his back to the basket – opponents struggle to challenge the post entry because of his wide body, and I have yet to see an opponent consistently front him with success. He is a diverse scorer thanks to the combination of his polished footwork, strength to absorb contact, ball skills, and patience to finish through traffic.
Cousins has a running jump hook, a turnaround fadeaway and a step-back jump-shot in his post arsenal. However, his preferred moves are done when facing up, drives off a jab step when he catches the ball in the mid-post area, and spinning into his right shoulder after he feels the defender when the ball is passed to him closer to the hoop. He is not as explosive putting the ball on the floor as Dwight Howard used to be in Orlando, perhaps, but Cousins has far above average immediate quickness for someone his size with long strides (able to go from just inside the top of the arc to the rim in a dribble and two steps), and his dribble penetration cannot be contained through contact, even by other behemoths such as Robin Lopez, Timofey Mozgov, Jusuf Nurkic, Alex Len and Marc Gasol. Cousins shot 81% on 63 driving layup attempts last season and has started this one 12 for 14.
With his back-to-the-basket, Cousins does not play with pure force as often as he uses his power on face-up drives, instead more often preferring to rely on his high skill level. However, once he has created some space, his strength then becomes a virtue – his up-and-under move is quite effective, and he is then able to use his strength to finish through contact. Cousins averaged 9.3 foul shots per 36 minutes last season, a total of 595 free throws attempted on the year, of which roughly 14% (79) were and-1s. And this season, he has upped that number further to 9.7. When he does not opt for the combination of a spin move and an up-and-under, Cousins is also effective by elevating his elbows to create separation and finish over the top of the contest, shooting 55% on 5.3 attempts per game with a defender within two feet of him this season after he shot 50% on the same volume of attempts in 2013-2014. As a result of his effectiveness even when well guarded, Cousins ranks third in the league in shots per game made within five feet of the basket.
Cousins’s other elite skill on offense is his passing, something none of his coaches have managed to maximize at this point. Mike Malone has tried the most, installing some sets that call for high-low action, with Cousins catching the ball around the foul line and then entering it into another post-up by Rudy Gay or Jason Thompson. There are also cuts by Gay or Ben McLemore when Cousins post ups around the elbow area, and it is a decent effort to incorporate his passing – Cousins’s 17.8% assist percentage ranked third among centers last season. But to maximize this aspect of his game, he needs more help from his team. Every time Cousins tries to flash his playmaking skills, it is noticeable the way that the rest of the Kings (whenever Cousins is not posting up) should work harder to integrate his passing, the way the Bulls did with Joakim Noah’s last season and the Warriors are doing with Andrew Bogut’s this season. Cousins is an excellent face-up passer, not just for a big men but in general – the coaches need to utilise it more, and the other players need to move more.
To fully incorporate Cousins’s passing game would require a well spaced floor and a balanced offensive attack. As of right now, however, the Kings are too reliant on one dimension. Sacramento is playing in many close games (nine of their 11 contests have been decided by fewer than 10 points) by virtue of shooting a lot of free throws. The Kings lead the league in foul shots and scoring off them, averaging 34.5 and 27.0 per game respectively due to the physical nature of their style of play on offense (often looking to post up Cousins, Gay and Carl Landry). But these averages should not continue this high. The Rockets led the league in free throws shot and free throws made last season, at 31.1 and 28.1 per game, while in 2012-2013, the Lakers led the league in free throws shot at 27.1.
Despite getting a ton of scoring close in – in addition to leading the league in free throws, they rank seventh in field goals within five feet – the Kings rank only 18th in offensive efficiency. This is the case because they have little in the way of outside shooting. The Kings beat the Spurs on Saturday despite shooting zero-for-12 from three-point range, but that does not happen often. McLemore has been decent, hitting 37.8% on 4.1 attempts per game, but he is short of company – draftee shooter Nik Stauskas has barely been a rotation player thus far and has struggled badly, while Omri Casspi has just one three point make all season. As a result, the Kings rank a lowly 26th in effective field goal shooting.It would be very smart to start utilizing Cousins as a playmaking hub to elevate the performance of these shooters, especially Stauskas, before it becomes a problem.
Cousins was a decent pick-and-roll player last season. Although he did not garner the reputation of a Tyson Chandler or a Brandan Wright, Cousins was productive due his soft hands to catch the ball on the move and patience and power to finish in traffic. He even flashed the ability to play above the rim as a target for lobs. But more often than not, Cousins pops into the long two-point area after screening for the ball-handler, and it is hard to argue with the results. Cousins shot 46.1% on 191 catch-and-shoot attempts last season, including 42.3% from 16-to-23 feet away. Only nine players who took as many long two-pointers shot a higher percentage; David West, Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry, Serge Ibaka, Luis Scola, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, Avery Bradley and Dion Waiters.
Because of the nature of his 29.5% career usage rate, Cousins has been an average offensive rebounder in the pros. It is hard to go after the miss when you are the one taking the shot, especially with almost a third of them coming 10 feet or more away from the basket, as was the case last season. Whenever he is below the rim, though, Cousins is capable of generating second chances. He is a difficult player for opponents to box out due to his size and strength, one who does not mind getting physical (sometimes to a fault) and who can rebound outside his area due to his 7’5 wingspan. He does not play with as much activity when tracking the ball off the rim as he does on the defensive end, though, where he is elite. Protecting his end, Cousins currently ranks third in defensive rebounding rate among players with a minimum of 100 minutes, the same as he did last season.
In other areas of defensive play, Cousins has also led the Kings’ improvement into average performance. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann detailed in this post from January, Cousins previously was a below average defender, even in a system that attempted to leverage his size by having him guard the pick-and-roll flat. A big part of the issue was Cousins’s lackadaisical approach, often standing flat-footed four feet away from the strong side action as if the scheme gave him permission to just take a break during live ball action. Things got better toward the end of the season, however, as the Kings played league average defense in February and March, and Cousins’s rim protection numbers were in line with those of DeAndre Jordan, Marcin Gortat, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol and Jonas Valanciunas.
That commitment has carried over to this season. As John detailed in last week’s post, part of the Kings’ improvement is attributed to the fact that Collison and Ramon Sessions have done a considerably better job than Isaiah Thomas did in keeping the opponent from getting to the middle of the floor. Cousins is still too casual with his stance, which is a bit infuriating, but with better play from those in front of him, he has done incredibly well. Among players who have logged a minimum of 28 minutes per game and defended five shots at the rim, he ranks third in opponent shooting, holding them to 41.6% shooting on 8.1 attempts per game through these first 11 games.
This is particularly impressive considering that Cousins, while capable, is not a volume shot blocker. Rotating off the weak-side and elevating in a pinch does not seem like a chore for him, but he also does not have the perfect body type for it either. And yet despite this, his interior defense is markedly improved. Sacramento’s defense has allowed 15 more points per 100 possessions when Cousins hits the bench this season, a number particularly problematic because Cousins is fouling a lot more. He is currently averaging 5.9 fouls per 36 minutes, after averaging 4.2 last season. It is great to see that Cousins is a lot more engaged in protecting the rim, but the next step of his development is doing so while keeping himself in the game. He plays with very active hands defending the post, but while those generate strips at times, they also put him in a higher risk of getting whistled. The Kings do not hide from anyone that they have high ambitions for this season, and they will need Cousins to start logging more than 30 minutes per game to attempt achieving them.
Nevertheless, despite the high foul rates it yields, Cousins’s renewed defensive focus coincides with his continued offensive improvement to make him a phenomenal player. As he entered his fifth season, no one really doubted Cousins’s talent, but there was skepticism regarding how much of his production could be translated into wins. While most understood Sacramento never really provided the right environment for him to lead them away from the bottom of the West, Cousins’s attitude rubbed many people the wrong way. But with Cousins appearing to have turned the corner into legit superstardom, there is finally real reason for optimism for this franchise, something missing the past decade. In Cousins, they have one of the best big men in the game, and with that comes a future.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.