The Kings added a bunch of solid if unspectacular role players in the offseason, with the hope of being a decent team instead of a laughingstock as they prepare to move to a new arena. Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli and Caron Butler were added to the perimeter rotation, while Kosta Koufos was brought in to provide some size. The latter move was surprising since Vlade Divac had gone big in the draft, selecting Willie Cauley-Stein.
With George Karl looking to run and space the floor and DeMarcus Cousins being an absolute monster in the paint, the feeling was there was no need for two bigs without range on the roster. During preseason it’s becoming clear that moving Cousins to power forward is the plan for next season. It’s a big gamble, but the positives might outweigh the negatives.
Cousins has improved by leaps and bounds as a defender after a rocky start to his career. When he’s actually trying he can take up space inside and alter shots, while his size allows him to be a decent post defender. At this point, Cousins can be considered a positive on that end, but he’s not the true defensive cornerstone any good team needs. Playing Cauley-Stein or Koufos next to him is supposed to give the Kings the defensive anchor they need.
Koufos is an underrated defender due to being under Marc Gasol’s shadow in Memphis. He allowed a very low 46.9 percent on shots he contested at the rim and the Grizzlies only allowed 94.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, per NBA.com. Koufos was an integral part of one of the league’s best defenses.
Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, is a special defensive prospect. In his time at Kentucky he showed the mobility to guard perimeter players and the length and athleticism to protect the rim. He’s in the Tyson Chandler mold, someone who can help and recover, switch to guards and use his long arms to bother shots in the post.
Obviously four preseason games aren’t a big enough sample size to judge how good a defense is, but the Kings have allowed opponents a ridiculously low 51.9 percent on shots close to the basket. It looks like going big has allowed Sacramento to mend one of its biggest weaknesses from last season: interior defense. The downside is it creates a different, albeit not as concerning problem: Cousins can’t defend perimeter oriented bigs, which means allowing open mid-range jumpers and some three-pointers:
After years of battling inside, Cousins seems to instinctively move close to the basket when he’s defending off the ball and to commit to stopping the ball handler at the expense of leaving his man open when he’s on the ball.
On the aggregate the trade-off is absolutely worth it, as long twos aren’t as efficient as shots at the rim and even allowing some three-pointers might not be a killer as long as guarding shooting bigs allows Cousins to avoid foul trouble. On a game-to-game basis, however, some opponents will know how to exploit this newfound weakness to hurt the Kings at key moments. Sacramento’s team defense will likely improve as a result of adding another interior defender, but Cousins will face some new challenges.
The same applies to offense, where the presence of a non-shooting big forces Cousins out of the paint at times. In four preseason games he’s taken 10 three-pointers already, more than he took in the last two seasons, while only connecting on one of them. It’s possible he’s just trying it out and will cut them down now that it’s clear he can’t make shot from beyond the arc. His shot distribution, however, will be affected even if he stops taking threes:
The shot charts show a clear shift towards outside shots at the expense of point-blank finishes. Even if those threes turn to mid-range looks, the trend will likely continue as not only is Cousins forced to operate away from the basket more often now, but even when he makes his way inside there will be a help defender ready to meet him at the rim:
It’s very likely that if he spends time next to Koufos and Cauley-Stein next season, Cousins’s field goal percentage and free throw attempts will take a dip despite him being an elite offensive player. The gamble Karl is making here is that an improved interior defense and the easy points the Kings will get by pushing the ball and attacking before the opponent’s defense is settled will make up at a team level for Cousins’s decline in offensive efficiency.
It might be hard to convince Cousins to continue playing a new position and a new style if the results aren’t good in the win/loss column, but for now, it seems this is the direction the Kings are going. With more familiarity between everyone involved and clever lineup management that gives the All-Star center enough playing time next to a stretch 4 — be it Rudy Gay sliding up or using Omri Casspi — it could definitely work.
The Kings have a plan for this season. It’s not perfect but it’s worth a try. Hopefully this time there will be more patience to see it through, from the ownership group down to the players.