Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings have been swimming in a quagmire of controversy and sadness since he was drafted. He’s been there while the team was sold, while it nearly got shipped off, and while it was salvaged with a new arena.
He’s been a lightning rod of controversy himself, at times the poster boy of No Self Control and at other times the most sympathetic player in the league as one mismanaged disaster after another seems to derail any chance of him ever having success.
Now, with Dave Joerger on board as head coach, they actually have a coach who can manage Cousins and be competent, giving hope to the remaining Kings faithful that they can finally make a playoff push. Can Cousins work with the new skipper to make that happen? In many ways, it’s a make or break year for him, depending on how that question gets answered.
Over the last three years, he’s averaged 24.5 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Those numbers should have him as not just a top-10 player, but as a top-five player.
In fact, when you look at how he stacks up with the rest of the league in total stats, you could argue he should be in the top three:
Only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had better total stats than Cousins. So why is he only ranked 14th? And what can he do to move up to top-five status?
One of the aspects of ranking players is balancing production with winning. That’s not always easy to do as there are different forces at work. While it’s true that great play should lead to winning, and in order to win you need great players, it’s also true that no one man can win alone.
Win Shares attempt to reconcile this to a degree by estimating how many “wins” a player would contribute on a neutral team. You can argue whether it’s effective in that, but it is possible for a player on a horrible team to produce big Win Shares. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Kevin Love was fourth in Win Shares per 48 minutes his last three seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example. By that same measure, Cousins is 55th over the last three years while he’s been putting up those preposterous numbers.
He has somehow avoided the label of stat-stuffer. Certainly, the Sacramento Kings’ generally disastrous approach to team building hasn’t helped. On the other hand, not all of his teams have been utterly devoid of help. He should at least be able to take the Kings out of bottom-10 team territory, which is where they’ve been every season of his six-year career. He needs to get the team into playoff contention at a minimum to be regarded as a top-10 player.
While team success may limit his ceiling, you can’t fully disregard his numbers, either. And there is no reason to expect those to go down. He’s still the centerpiece of the Kings’ offense, and he’s still productive on the defensive end as well. The worst Cousins is going to be is what he was last season. It’s hard, absent injury, to see him falling below 15th. He’s essentially already at his floor. On the plus side, that means there’s nowhere to go but up. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee he has to move.
Let’s address why Cousins produces such massive numbers but doesn’t affect the win-loss column in a big way.
Over the last three seasons, he’s notched 4,783 points on 3,589 shots and 1,799 free throws — a total of 4,381 true shooting attempts. He’s missed 1,899 shots and 468 free throws. Let’s assume that half of those free throws came on the final attempt. The Kings own an offensive rebound rate of 26.1 percent over the last three years, meaning that roughly 557 of the 2,133 shots he missed were recovered by his team. If you account for the missed shots, his 4,783 points used 3,824 possessions. When you factor in his 754 turnovers, he used 4,478 possessions, meaning he scored 104.4 points every 100 possessions he used.
Whew. Sorry for all the math, but we had to break that down.
Over that same time frame, the Kings had an offensive rating of 105.7. That means they’re actually more effective when Cousins is not shooting the ball. Now it’s true that doesn’t factor in his offensive rebounding, but it goes a long way towards explaining why his Offensive Box Plus-Minus was just 1.4 (compared with Russell Westbrook’s 7.5 for comparison’s sake).
Cousins takes way too many mid-range shots (643 last year came between the semi-circles), and he’s not all that good at them (38.2 percent). And as mentioned, he turns the ball over a lot.
The bottom line: Cousins does a lot of great things, but he has way too many empty possessions.
While Cousins’ offensive impact might be overrated, he’s actually a bit underrated on defense. In 2014-15, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus was 4.71, which was second only to Draymond Green among players who averaged 30 minutes per game. (Note: Kawhi Leonard’s was 4.59, and a small forward’s average impact on DRPM is lower overall by more than a point, so adjusting for position he’d be higher.)
His defense fell off a bit last year, but he still boasted a 3.25 DRPM, which was good for 13th in the league. The Kings’ defensive rating was 104.4 when he was on the court and fell all the way to 108.9 when he sat, making him the most impactful defender on the roster, according to NBA.com.
He defended a robust 16.8 shots per game, holding players to 1.5 percentage points below their normal mark, including 6.0 within six feet. While it’s true three-point shooters shot 4.1 percent better, the fact that he was defending 2.9 per game while acting as the primary rim protector speaks volumes about his versatility.