Full disclosure: I’m predisposed to liking DeMarcus Cousins. As a native of Mobile, Alabama, where the basketball ain't football and the hoops are hard to come by, I’ve got a soft spot for the Sacramento big man. He represents the most prominent active representative of my state in the world of professional basketball (sorry, Eric Bledsoe). That means something. I attended high school down the street from the guy, at the same time he did. I’d love to tell some illuminating story about our relationship before we made it big, but I never once met him. I never even saw him play. To be honest, I never heard of him until he played for Kentucky. Like I said, Alabama -- and particularly the high school I grew up at -- is the land of college, high-school, and professional football. In that order. The next Michael Jordan could’ve played for my own high school team and I probably wouldn’t have known it. But hindsight is 20/20, and knowing what I know about Cousins now, my affinity remains as strong.
Of course, it’s not just that Cousins is from my hometown that piques my interest. You could say I like the idea of Boogie Cousins. I’m the biggest Charles Barkley fan on planet Earth (self-appointed), and though I believe Chuck resents the comparisons (and let’s face it, Cousins is no Charles Barkley in game or in wit), there’s something intriguing and familiar about a volatile big man ascending from my neck of the woods and into the heights of basketball. His game an amalgam of oddly-fitting talents with a penchant for snarling at referees and snatching down offensive rebounds. I think that I see in Cousins some of the same qualities that led me to idolize Barkley the basketball player as a child. Maybe that’s why I so often find myself defending Cousins, and hear phrases coming out of my mouth like “That Sacramento franchise has been toxic, it would stunt anyone’s development,” or “He’s still really young, give him time.” Maybe it’s why I nod my head enthusiastically when I hear anyone from Shaquille O’Neal to an anonymous forum poster say that Cousins could be the best big man in basketball.
I see his athleticism, his diverse offensive skill-set, and his skill on the boards. I see what anyone else who’s watched the Kings fumble their way through an allegedly professional basketball game has seen: potential. And as often happens with hoops fans and analysts alike, I conflate potential with certainty. But those aren’t the same thing. The world is filled with walking monuments to unfulfilled potential. The NBA especially. Could DeMarcus Cousins ever really be the best big man in the NBA, or is it the pipe dream to end all pipe dreams? Anything’s possible, of course, given that a 37-year-old Tim Duncan just made a strong argument for the post. But is a beautiful Cousins redemption even remotely likely, at any point in his career? I’m not so sure.
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Cousins isn’t just the NBA’s most prominent bipedal manifestation of unrealized potential. He’s also the quintessential rookie, even as we prepare for his fourth year in the league. He stands a generous 6’11, 270 lbs, with a near 7’6 wingspan. Looking at him in uniform and seeing him use his immense strength to bully his way to a post position, then catching the ball and powering it down over and through opposing centers, it’s easy to see the promise. If you happened to catch the rare game where Cousins consistently commits to this style of play, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was already one of the most unstoppable offensive centers in the league. But like many young players, he either doesn’t recognize his skillset or lacks the discipline to properly apply it.
The big man's shot selection isn't just bad -- it's abysmal. Last season a whole 53% of his attempted shots were jumpers, which he converted only 31% of (credit to 82games.com). That 31% is bad for any player, but it’s especially bad for a big man who presumably should only be taking those shots off either wide-open spot-up opportunities or to keep outmatched post defenses trying to pack the paint honest. Cousins converted 64% of his inside shots over the season, yet only 47% of his attempted shots were in the paint. I was going to say that those attempt rates should be reversed, but Cousins would be remiss for taking even that many jump shots. The man has excellent touch around the basket, but he simply isn’t a great jump shooter. His poor shot selection (plus the general chaos of Sacramento's so-called offense) only exacerbates his problem.
Cousins is still young. His shot selection could well improve with the addition of a competent coaching staff and a roster more coherently assembled around him. Even without that, his passing and offensive rebounding is exceptional. Perhaps more than Shaquille O'Neal pipe-dreams of looping drop-steps and thunderous dunks, these elements comprise Cousins’ most tantalizing dimension on the offensive end. Unfortunately, his defense is straight-up appalling. Check out Zach Lowe’s excellent piece on the subject. He shows all the lack of discipline typical to a young player on the offensive end, paired with a foul rate that borders on tragicomedy. Only three players in the NBA fouled more than Cousins did last season. One was Dwight Howard (both a superior offensive and defensive threat), one was Roy Hibbert (an elite defender in the paint), and the other was Amir Johnson (who plays for the Toronto Raptors). For a team that doesn’t have much more going for it, Cousins has somehow been a statistical net negative on both ends of the floor for the Sacramento Kings, with the team a -1.7 points scored on offense and a +2.0 points allowed on defense (see 82games.com for this grim tableau). That’s pretty bad.
In spite of all this negativity, it's not rare to see Cousins featured in comparisons to Dwight Howard who (while insufferable) has been the popular choice for best center in the NBA for quite some time now. When the Kings defeated the doomed 2012-2013 Lakers in the preseason, in those halcyon days before that dread ship had even begun its cursed voyage, Kings fans and Laker-haters alike cheered Cousins name from the rooftops (despite him not having a particularly great game). If I wasn’t among them, my heart certainly was. The season that followed that game saw Howard’s team underperform spectacularly, his individual statistics dip, and his popularity stock hit rock bottom. Meanwhile, Cousins drew about as much attention as he always does, which is to say... well, not much aside from when his ejection makes a slow day on SportsCenter. [Editor's Note: And Sean Elliot noticed him, which counts for... OK, no, that doesn't count for anything.]
Let’s pretend for a moment that the Dwightmare never happened, that Dwight’s 2012-2013 campaign wasn’t marred with any extra-curricular stigma. Let’s pretend that Dwight’s status as the best center in basketball wasn’t really in contention, and do a comparison: Cousins, the so-called-best-big-man-in-basketball-to-be, versus Howard, the best-big-man-in-basketball-that-was-and-might-be-again [Editor's Note: Why-are-we-talking-like-this-can-I-join-this-gravy-train?].
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COUSINS vs HOWARD
A lot is made about Dwight Howard's lack of offensive game, and it's almost always the central point of conversation when comparing him with Cousins. But what's overlooked is that in spite of Howard's lack of finesse on the block and recent reluctance to play the pick and roll, he's a more than solid offensive option on the block with his back to the basket. More than 70% of Dwight's offensive possessions took place inside, and he scored on them at an exceptional clip, with an eFG% of .603. Compare this to Cousins, who as mentioned earlier only took less than half of his shots inside (47%) and converted at a 64% rate. That's pretty comparable, and you'd probably give the edge to Cousins. The way I figure it, there's two ways of looking at that. On the one hand, Dwight's efficiency is probably somewhat inflated by hack-a-Dwight, a strategy that couldn't be effectively employed on Cousins in the same scenario. So there you have it, Cousins is the better inside man.
But then there's the other way of looking at it. A lot of people present Cousins as the center of the future, and point to his footwork and finesse in explaining the bountiful reach of his potential. But for all that finesse, it hasn't actually manifested in any measurable offensive advantage for Boogie. For one, Cousins seems utterly incapable of dealing with double-teams, often turning the ball over or forcing the issue too late. For a big man whose passing is their most clearly evident skill on paper, that's not a good sign. For two, he just doesn't like to play down low consistently. Though he scores much more efficiently than Dwight inside, he scores less (8.4/ppg vs. Dwight's 9.1 ppg down there) because he doesn't even take half of his shots there. Dwight hasn't looked like he possessed a clear offensive move with his back to the basket for a couple of years now, yet he's still a much more reliable option on the block than Cousins for sheer virtue of that he _believe_s he is. He goes there.
But maybe it's not all about the block. One of Cousins' claims to fame is his versatility on offense, and to see him play on the nights he's on is a surreal thing of beauty. Unfortunately, he's usually not on. His complete lack of conscience in regards to his shot selection belies his potential -- while Cousins may be less polished than Howard, he's at least a lot more versatile. And that may be the case, but it's difficult to analyze how much of Cousins' inefficiency is skill limitations, how much is the weakness of his team or organization, and how much is talent that is simply undeveloped. But if you're half of your shots are outside jumpers and you're only hitting 31% of them, it might be that you're just not a very good jump shooter. Dwight Howard isn't, and he didn't take very many jumpers last year either. He converted 52% of the ones he did take. We can lambast D12 for refusing to play to his strengths all we want (and rightfully so), but his shot selection last season was the mark of a developed player that understands their limitations and their offensive abilities, and is capable of executing on those abilities in spite of a down year. DeMarcus Cousins doesn't show any of that.
I alluded to Cousins' passing, and it really does deserve special attention, because it's (spoiler alert) the only area in which he seems to hold a clear measurable advantage over D12. But outside of that, there isn't much of a comparison. Dwight is both a more prodigious and a more efficient scorer, and in spite of his reluctance to RUN THE PICK AND ROLL WITH STEVE NASH he demonstrated an understanding of his strengths and weaknesses on offense that might as well be worlds away from anything we've seen from Cousins. On defense, I don't think anyone needs to go into it. If you're reading this, you know Dwight's pedigree, and if you're even remotely interested in Boogie Cousins you know that for him defense is a thing that you close to keep the dog in. The gap between Cousins and Dwight's crown, tarnished as it is, is as vast and seemingly insurmountable as that chasm at the end of Last Crusade.
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COUSINS vs JEFFERSON
Of course, plenty of people are fine for Cousins not to become Dwight, and aren't interested in even entertaining the comparison. Instead, they have more realistic expectations. The one I've seen recently is between Cousins and the lovable Big Al Jefferson of the soon-to-be Charlotte Hornets. Bobnets. Hornetcats.
Wow, Hornetcats sounds like a sweet name.
Anyway, this is the comparison for the learned fan. The fan who doesn't expect Cousins to ever learn defense. This fan keeps their expectations grounded, and is unshook by a world that is both uncertain and scary. This is your moment, this fan.
What's the book on Al Jefferson? Good offensive player, weird-looking hook shot, doesn't play defense, offensive black hole, nice guy, good sense of humor, just good enough to ruin the Bobcats chances at a legitimately good 2014 lottery pick? Sounds about right, yeah? So here's the thing. Al Jefferson is a one-dimensional offensive player, yes. Right now, he's a slightly more productive option than Cousins (17.8/50% vs. 17.1/47%) , but that's likely to change, especially if we're to presume Jefferson is who he is and Cousins is going to improve.
Honestly though, outside of the comparable scoring, I don't think this is a very fair comparison to Cousins. As stated, he's already right there in regards to scoring and efficiency, and he does it in a number of ways (even though he probably shouldn't) whereas Big Al is largely a one trick pony. On defense, there's simply no comparison. For all the hand-wringing over Cousins' disinterest in playing defense, it pales in comparison to what Jefferson accomplishes (or fails to accomplish) on that end of the floor. Opposing teams score 9.3 more points when Big Al's on the floor, whereas that figure with Cousins is only a +2. Part of that was Jefferson's excellent defensive backups in Favors and Kanter, but it wasn't ALL backups. Cousins blocks more shots than Al Jefferson does and fouls less. While Cousins has shown little interest in playing disciplined team defense to this point in his career, Jefferson has shown literally no capacity for playing defense whatsoever. I don't even feel like that's too mean of an assessment, Big Al would agree with me on this.
Comparing Cousins to Jefferson has a certain pleasing symmetry to it, but it isn't fair to either player. Though his growth is uncertain, there's no reason to think Cousins can't marginally improve on his defensive shortcomings. And even as bad as they are, they're already vastly superior to Jefferson's. His passing is beyond what Big Al has displayed, though whether it's that dramatic of a difference is open for debate. Cousins averages 1 more assist per game (though it's accompanied by more turnovers, yet another question mark in his future development) 82games.com gives Cousins a passing rating of 2.7, calculated from assist/turnover ratio. Jefferson has a 2.8.
Al Jefferson is a player who has maximized the use of the tools in his toolbox, and succeeded in spite of his limitations. He's also (probably) the player he's going to be for the rest of his career. Comparing what he's accomplished to the mountain of unmolded clay and unfulfilled potential that is DeMarcus Cousins is just as unfair to him as it is to Cousins.
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If you really think on it, there aren't any current players that represent particularly compelling comparisons for Cousins. He's a big angry golem of talent and potential with possibilities that stretch on forever yet uncertainties that dominate the conversation. There's no other player in the NBA of his age or experience that is in a particularly similar situation to him that permits a fair comparison. Perhaps if we were to look way back into the annals of NBA history, we might unravel the mystery.
Perhaps there was a player in their third year in the league, for whom scoring in a variety of ways and without prejudice seemed easy. For whom defense was an afterthought. Who played for a troubled franchise in a time of turmoil. A player whose skill and potential was outweighed only by their outsized confidence in their own abilities and public assurances of their own dominance. A player with a similar PER and WS/48. A player who seemed destined to either be adopted as the face of their shaky franchise or shipped out, where they would likely find themselves occupying the roster of any team willing to take a chance on them.
Oh my god.