DeMarcus Cousins is an exceptional player. He’s arguably the most skilled big man in the NBA. His handles are impressive, his defense is underrated and he’s highly productive. And while the Sacramento Kings may let him run roughshod over his coach and some team will offer a King’s ransom to acquire his services, count me out. He is not a franchise player.
Understand, I’m not saying that he’s a “bad” player; I’m arguing here that he’s an exceptional but not franchise player. And that’s an important distinction. One can be the former without being the latter. In fact, there are only a bit more than a handful of true franchise players in the league: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. If you want to be generous, maybe Kawhi Leonard and Blake Griffin are joining that company.
These are the elite whose very existence on your team makes you, at minimum a playoff caliber team, and with sufficient help, an NBA champion. DeMarcus Cousins is in the next level of players who are highly productive, but whose presence doesn’t assure postseason competitiveness. These are players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Andre Drummond. This list isn’t exclusive. There are easily another dozen players who can join it. They might be the best player on the team, and the team may be a playoff contender, but they aren’t elite players.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to articulate arguments for each of these players, so I’ll focus more on Cousins. He produces a lot. That’s what earns him his placement a tier below the elite. In fact, just based on box score stats, he’s the second-most productive player in the league since the start of last season:
However, that’s just volume. It says nothing about how efficiently those stats were obtained or how much they contribute to team success. What’s interesting is if you look at his production results in win shares compared with the rest of the league.
In this next chart, the box score totals are on the vertical axis, while win shares per game is represented by the horizontal axis. Notice that Cousins’s big numbers don’t translate into wins the way elite players do:
See Davis, Harden, Curry, Harden and James grouped up in the top right? Cousins is also at the top of the chart, but he’s closer to the center, indicating his “numbers” are less likely to result in wins.
So, is that an accident of the stats? The bad fortune of playing on a horribly managed team? Or is there something about Cousins’s play that produces numbers that seem bigger than they really are?
First, let’s look at his scoring. This next chart shows how many points a player has scored along with how many possessions he uses (derived by FGA+FTA*.44+TO). Cousins scores a lot of points, but only Westbrook uses more possessions than Cousins:
The color indicates the level of the player’s efficiency, with red being negative and green being positive. Note that Cousins (.909 points per possession) is in a league with Aaron Brooks (.912) and Andrew Wiggins (.907) more than guys like Curry (1.11) and Davis (1.09) or Harden (1.02). Even Westbrook (.92), who’s labeled a chucker and ball hog, has more favorable efficiency than Cousins.
So, while Cousins is producing points, a lot of that is just high usage more than being highly effective. He settles for too many mid-range shots and long twos, and that results in lower efficiency. Look at his shot chart:
compared with Blake Griffin’s:
And Anthony Davis’s:
If we’re going to call him an elite big man, shouldn’t he be able to score at the rim like an elite big man?
What about shot creating? He’s better at putting the ball on the floor than most bigs, but that comes with a caveat too. Last year, he had 238 unassisted field goals, per Basketball-Reference.com, but that was coupled with 254 turnovers, 151 of the ball-handling variety. What he does off the bounce brings back a high volume of bad results as well as good.
Cousins is a solid scorer, but let’s not overlook his shortcomings, which involve middling shooting percentages for a big, a tendency to settle for bad shots and too many turnovers.
But what about his rebounding. He’s averaging 12.5 boards per contest since last season, which is an impressive number, but that’s also a bit inflated by opportunity.
There are different “levels” of rebounds. There are those of the contested variety and those of the uncontested. Becuase of the SportVU data at NBA.com, we can now view the difference.
There are also times a player could go for a rebound but instead defers to his teammate. Adjusting for that parameter, NBA.com calculates “Adjusted Reb. Chance %” that’s essentially the percentage of the rebounds a player hauls in after you dismiss those which he deferred.
By deducting the number of uncontested rebounds (assuming that the percentage of times a player isn’t going to get an uncontested rebound is statistically insignificant) and the deferred rebounds chances from the total rebound chances, we can deduce that the remaining chances were contested rebound chances. From there we can determine what percentage of the time a player “wins” the rebounding battle (contested rebounds/contest rebound chances):
Here are the top 50 rebounders in the league, the percentage of rebounds they grab that are contested and their winning percentage on contested chances. The color indicates the number of rebounds (green meaning they grab more). As you can see, Cousins is more or less in the middle of the chart. He’s good, but a long way from elite. Andre Drummond sets the standard for elite here. Goodness gracious!
But also take, for example, Kristaps Porzingis, who snares in almost two fewer boards, but contests for a higher percentage of his and is more likely to win the battle. The main difference between the two is that Porzingis gets 14.8 chances per game and Cousins gets 19.0.
Point being, that, just as with his scoring numbers, Cousins’s production here is as much a result of volume as it is a skill.
THE OTHER STUFF
Cousins is a fantastic passer for a big man, but he doesn’t really distinguish himself from big men like Blake Griffin, the Gasol brothers or Joakim Noah in that regard.
He’s a superb and very much underrated defender, notching a 4.71 Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season. But he’s not able to translate that defense into making the Kings a good defensive team. We can “It’s not his fault” this all we want, but an elite defender can make that kind of difference. Just ask Rudy Gobert.
That doesn’t mean I’m saying he’s a “bad defender” or that I’m blaming him for the Kings’ woes. There’s nuance here. I just mean that there’s a different tier defensively that he’s not on.
And this brings up the last argument I have here. The Cousins apologists dismiss any negative with the argument that he’s in a horrendous (actually not the word they use, but hey, we’re keeping this G-rated) organization.
And yes, he is in a horrendous organization. But this isn’t Kevin Garnett with the Minnesota Timberwolves where the problem isn’t being able to get to the Finals. It’s not even not being able to get to the playoffs. Cousins has never even won 30 games. He’s never even led a slightly competitive team:
Heck, this isn’t even Kevin Love in Minnesota. Love had 47.0 Win Shares to Cousins’s 23.9 playing in just nine more games. And as awful as some of those teams were, and as horribly as it was run while he was there, at least he dragged the Timberpups to 40 wins in his last year there.
Point being: It may not be fair to judge elite players based on postseason success, but it’s hard to make a case that you’re an elite player if you can’t even haul a team to 30 wins. There’s a balance here, and while you can’t put all the chaos on Cousins, it’s not like he doesn’t bear any of the blame either.
Look, he just cussed out his head coach in front of the entire team. Sure, there might be some other things that other people did wrong, but that doesn’t vindicate him or make what he did right. It doesn’t help the team win games. Some of this stuff has to matter at some point.
And as illustrated above, being on that crappy team has some benefits too. If he has better teammates, his cumulative numbers aren’t quite as prodigious because he’s not getting the same volume of opportunities.
Cousins is a highly productive player (as evidenced by his 40 and 13 on Friday night), but some of that is stat padding. And on the right team, he might be the difference between a contender and a champion, but he’s a piece, not a cornerstone. Give me another player to build my franchise around.
Charts based on games played through Nov. 12.