In Defense of DeMarcus Cousins, Who Should Still Give Sacramento Kings Fans Hope

DeMarcus Cousins may look like he's having a truly awful season. But put in context, there's still a reason for Kings fans to maintain hope.

The forecast on DeMarcus Cousins was, from its earliest stages, binary in the extreme. Either he’ll get his head right, analysts claimed, and become an excellent NBA player, or he won’t and fizzle out. That’s not to say Cousins’ game was flawless coming out of Kentucky; every prospect has his warts. But questions about his mental state dwarfed concerns about his ability. In its pre-draft analysis, the respected draft website DraftExpress listed "activity level," "focus," "maturity," "intelligence," "intangibles" and "mental toughness" among his weaknesses.

Almost 70 games into his professional career, Cousins has certainly flashed some of his infamous immaturity. There was his "choke" gesture against the Golden State Warriors, his altercation with teammate Donte Greene, and the Kings even considered sending him to the D-League in late December for off-court issues. Fortunately for Cousins, none of those incidents kept him off the floor for significant periods; unfortunately, in his nearly 2,000 NBA minutes, Cousins has been -- for lack of a better word -- awful.

It’s important to analyze Cousins in the appropriate context of course. With Tyreke Evans in and out of Sacramento’s lineup, Cousins has used possessions in bulk; he leads the 2011 rookie class in field goals attempted per minute, outpacing Blake Griffin comfortably. The following graphic charts the efficiencies of a selection of high-usage players at age 20 (virtually all of whom, like Cousins, were rookies at the time).

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At first glance, it does appear rather bleak. Cousins is currently posting one of the least efficient seasons in the history of 20-year-olds in the NBA. His PER has been artificially held afloat by his high shots per minute figures and rebounding, but there’s really no way around the fact that Cousins has been one of the worst players in basketball this season. It’s surely visuals like the above that have  prompted critiques of Cousins such as John Krolik’s. Ultimately though, such criticisms miss the bigger picture.

Age

Anyone who snickered at the above phrase -- "one of the least efficient seasons in the history of 20-year-olds" -- would have been entirely justified in doing so. Consider: very few players in the history of this game have received significant playing time at age 20. Those that have tend towards long-term success more often than long-term failure. The above graph shows a selection of 20-year-olds that received frequent playing time; you can run through the players on this more exhaustive list at your own leisure.

The bottom line is that simply playing 2,000 minutes as a 20-year-old is remarkable in and of itself. Cousins hasn’t been granted his playing time and shot attempts simply because Sacramento is a terrible team; while that does factor in, his touches are primarily a function of the talent he showed in college. Such a sentiment is ridiculously obvious, but it needs to be included in any serious discussion of Cousins’ future. To compare him to other, older high-usage, low-efficiency rookies is to do him a disservice.

The Usage-Efficiency Tradeoff

In much the same way Cousins’ age must be emphasized, so too must his usage rate. No 20-year-old has ever posted higher usage (27.9 percent) than Cousins. In fact, only three players 20 or younger have ever exceeded that mark -- LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2004 and Kevin Durant in 2008.

The usage-efficiency discussion is a central one to basketball analytics; put extremely simply, efficiency drops off as usage increases for the average player. Many of Cousins’ 20-year-old comparisons – Ron Artest, Rudy Gay, Nene Hilario, Amar'e Stoudemire, Lamar Odom – posted low efficiencies as 20-year-olds. None had usage rates higher than 25 percent. It’s a rather safe bet that any of those players’ efficiencies would have approached Cousins’ terrible rates had they been given larger offensive burdens. The converse is true as well; if Cousins was responsible for fewer possessions, he very likely would regress to the middle of the pack.

Shot Selection

Sacramento DeMarcus Cousins has been markedly different from Kentucky DeMarcus Cousins. Joe Treutlin noted for DraftExpress in February that Cousins attempted 24 jump shots during the entirety of his 2009-2010 season at Kentucky. With the Kings, he’s attempted an absurd 313 shots from outside 10 feet. The jump shot is an aspect of his game Cousins will either need to improve or remove altogether; as of now, it plays a massive role in his overall inefficiency. Cousins’ well-documented turnover problems are also connected to his proclivity to shoot from range. Cousins frequently catches the ball in deep positions on the court, and either puts the ball on the floor (decent odds for a turnover) or puts up a jumper (decent odds for a missed shot).

Meanwhile, his field goal percentage at the rim has remained a strong 64 percent, and Cousins attempts a robust 6.5 free throws per 36 minutes. Importantly, there are NBA-quality facets to Cousins’ game. He just needs to go to them with more regularity. His 11 percent offensive rebound rate and 25 percent defensive rebound rate should be cited here as well. Siphoning his used possessions to areas of the floor where he can be more productive will be an important part of Cousins’ development, and it is something that will come with time and coaching.

Teammates

The Kings’ inefficient deployment of Cousins was alluded to earlier, in terms of his deep catches. That goes hand in hand with another negative stylistic trait: Cousins’ tendency to play isolation basketball. Sacramento’s guards simply do not set up Cousins for baskets often enough. Via HoopData, power forwards and centers, ordered in terms of how often their converted field goals are assisted:

Player

% FGM Assisted

DeMarcus Cousins

34.7

Andrew Bogut

47.7

Michael Beasley

48.4

Carl Landry

49.6

Zach Randolph

49.9

Darko Milicic

50.0

 

Cousins’ %Assisted number is so low, it borders on the ridiculous. Point guards typically have the lowest percentage of their field goals assisted, a sentiment borne out in the fact that the top 15 lowest percentage assisted figures belong to lead guards. That said, eleven starting point guards in the NBA are assisted on their shots more often than Cousins. No big -- or for that matter, small forward or shooting guard, save LeBron James -- in the NBA comes close to matching Cousins’ low rate. There’s an argument to be made that Cousins gets fewer "easy" shots than any other big in the league.

Star-divide Star-divide Star-divide

It’s been a terrible year to be a Sacramento fan. Tyreke Evans’ meteoric rise has been stalled by injury issues. The franchise, rather stunningly, may be on the verge of relocation. At least superficially, DeMarcus Cousins appears to belong on that list of disappointments. But a closer look suggests that, as bad as it looks now, there’s still very much hope for the future. 

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