Last November was the first month in a long time when the Sacramento Kings appeared to be heading in the right direction. Offseason acquisition Darren Collison was performing above expectation, Mike Malone had drilled his team into an above average defensive squad and DeMarcus Cousins had turned the corner into legit superstardom.
Then Cousins caught viral meningitis and missed 10 games, the team lost eight of those, Malone was stunningly fired and management clowned around by having Tyrone Corbin coach the team for 28 games before hiring George Karl to finish the season. After winning nine of its first 14 appearances, the Kings went on to lose 48 of their subsequent 68 games and another year of pure mediocrity went on the books.
Cousins, however, played well enough once he returned to earn the first All-Star selection of his career, named by Adam Silver as Kobe Bryant’s replacement.
In today’s NBA of multiple high pick-and-rolls per possession, a faster pace and increased emphasis on three-point shooting, Cousins stood out as a throwback – a post scorer who did best with his back-to-the-basket. He took a massive step forward as a defender as well, developing into a respectable rim protector – one a credible defense could be built around.
The Kings stay the Kings, though. Instead of constructing a team to leverage the strengths in Cousins’ skill-set, Sacramento put together a roster that will likely force him to play differently and should make it difficult for him to be as effective as he was last year. It also managed to do so in clumsy fashion, mishandling their assets and potentially fracturing their relationship with the biggest star they have had since Chris Webber.
HOW HE PLAYED LAST SEASON
According to Synergy Sports, Cousins finished 468 possessions out of post-ups. Only five players (Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Greg Monroe) got more opportunities to create for themselves with their backs-to-the-basket and part of it is that all of them logged more games.
He didn’t post supreme efficiency as a finisher (43.2% shooting on such instances) but was fairly effective when you consider how poorly spaced the floor was around him, how he drew shooting fouls in volume (16.5% of the time) and how well he passed out of the post.
Despite his six-foot-11, 270-pound frame, Cousins is not simply a pure power player in the low block. He is a diverse scorer thanks to the combination of his polished footwork, strength to absorb contact, ball skills and patience finishing through contact – converting 59.1% of his 44 hook attempts, according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking service.
But although his top skill is as a one-on-one scorer, Cousins is not difficult to integrate into a team context because of his passing. He has great court vision, both scanning the defense with his back-to-the-basket and facilitating offense around the elbows – assisting on a fifth of Sacramento’s scores when he was on the floor last season, per basketball-reference.
His impact on the other end was related to the fact that the team around him performed better under Malone’s guidance and often provided Cousins the opportunity to leverage his size at the basket to challenge shots from a positon of strength. He was, nonetheless, more engaged than in prior seasons and even after the team significantly dropped off with Malone gone, Cousins still finished the season as one of the league’s 30 best rim protectors by Seth Partnow’s ‘adjusted points saved per 36 minutes’ metric. He complemented his point saving by securing 30.6% of opponents’ misses, the second best mark in the league.
Sacramento allowed 103.3 points per 100 possessions with Cousins in the lineup, the equivalent of a middle-of-the-pack unit, and 109.7 when he sat, similar to the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves.
HOW HE IS GONNA PLAY THIS SEASON
Analyzing how Cousins was at his most impactful last season, there was a clear path to how the Kings should have approached this offseason. They should have added more shooting to space the floor around his post-ups and more length in the vacated spots they had on their perimeter rotation.
Sure enough, Sacramento did about the opposite. It spent the sixth pick in the draft on Willie Cauley-Stein and immediately revealed the plan is to pair him with Cousins. It went on to give up on Nik Stauskas – the best shooting prospect they had, and used the cap space cleared with the asinine trade they made with Philadelphia on Rajon Rondo, Marco Bellinelli and Kostas Koufos.
These aren’t bad players. The issue is that this isn’t a good supporting cast to be fit around Cousins, who did best as a post scorer and defending close to the rim.
It could work fine on defense. When opponents downsize against them, Cauley-Stein is perfectly able to defend in space and permit Cousins the flexibility to stay in his more natural habitat. Cousins himself has flashed the ability to do it well, if he needs to when paired with Koufos. Saturday against the Blazers, he picked up CJ McCollum on a switch, kept pace with him stride for stride and challenged him at the rim. On a subsequent possession, Cousins challenged a pull-up by McCollum out of the pick-and-roll quite well.
The problem will be on offense, where Sacramento is expected to struggle when Cousins is in the lineup together with another big and then Rondo running point. In four preseason appearances, the Kings have averaged just 95.7 points per 100 possessions.
Against the Spurs, the offense looked decent on Rondo-Cauley-Stein pick-and-rolls with Rudy Gay and Cousins spotting up beyond the arc. A so-so three-point shooter for his entire career, Gay has shot very well from the outside in the preseason and the expectation is this will finally be the season when he hits these shots at an above average clip. Cousins, meanwhile, has nailed just one of the 10 three-pointers he has taken so far in the preseason but it might be on the table for him to hit at least a third of the triples he takes this season.
Cousins has a methodical release but has proven to be a capable open-shot shooter from mid-range, which provides hope that he’ll be able to carry some of that accuracy over to the three-point line. He hit 46.1% of his 191 catch-and-shoot attempts in 2013-2014 and 42.6% of his 153 such shots last season.
Rondo-Cousins pick-and-rolls looked viable if Gay’s shooting continues to command respect or a better shooter like Bellinelli or Ben McLemore III takes his place. Cauley-Stein is always gonna be in an awkward spot around the baseline but Cousins is such a great passer and Cauley-Stein such a threat at the dunker spot that Karl could figure out a way to have Cousins alley-oop to Cauley-Stein out of the short roll, much like we saw the Rockets destroy the Mavericks last postseason. Cousins is also a decent option out of the pick-and-pop, as his catch-and-shoot numbers attest.
Having Cauley-Stein off the ball and Rondo remaining a non-threat to pull-up when the opponent goes under the screen is a very fragile arrangement, though. Gay sat out the game against the Blazers and Karl tried Rondo and Collison together in the backcourt, with Caron Butler as the wing. Portland absolutely strangled Rondo-Cousins pick-and-rolls, aggressively packing the lane with no fear of Butler and Collison as outside shooters.
The problem was much worse on Gay-Cousins pick-and-rolls or when Cousins posted up, with both Rondo and Cauley-Stein away from the ball. The Blazers had all four weak-side defenders with a foot inside the lane to prevent Cousins from trying to drive around Mason Plumlee. For someone who is such a smart passer, Cousins was incredibly stubborn and kept trying to get to the rim against all five Blazers in front of him – often losing possession.
This remains a severe gap in his game, by the way. Cousins is turnover prone. His 254 giveaways were the sixth most in the league last season. While nimble for someone his size, Cousins is not explosive and doesn’t blow by opponents. He succeeds on drives (51% shooting last season) by managing to maintain his balance and finishing through contact, but he is quite susceptible to getting the ball stripped in traffic. And he’ll face heavy traffic this season, likely logging most of his minutes with these two non-shooters.
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