This Kings season has had more downs than ups but there is one exceedingly bright spot and that is the ever improving play of DeMarcus Cousins.
Back in June, I wrote an article exploring whether or not Cousins was worth a max extension. In the poll attached to the article, 60% of almost 2000 voters said that they did not think he was. I myself never voted in the poll because I was too conflicted. On the one hand, Cousins talent is obvious and doesn't come along very often. On the other, his play hadn't yet warranted a max extension yet. I didn't particularly care about the attitude issues and all that other baggage; I was more worried by the fact that he was an inefficient, volume shooter who forced a lot of shots and didn't play much defense.
This year though, Cousins has blossomed. He and new coach Michael Malone seem to get along well, and Malone has put him in a position to take advantage of his strengths. Cousins, for his part, is making the most of his opportunities. He's scoring at a relatively efficient rate (for someone who doesn't shoot threes), rebounding like crazy and passing like the Kings big men of old.
The biggest change for Cousins is where he's getting his shots. Malone is featuring Cousins in the low post, and it's resulting in better opportunities, which means a better chance of scoring. Here's Cousins shot distribution chart for 2013-14:
This year, almost 69% of his shots are coming at the rim, compared to 62.5% last year. That's coming at the expense of 16-23 footers, something Cousins can hit but is far less likely to go in than an attempt at the rim. Rim attempts also equal more potential fouls and free throw attempts. His Free Throw rate has jumped a full 10% from last year, from 40.8% to 51.2%. That means that for every two field goals Cousins shoots, he shoots just over 1 free throw.
NBA.com's SportsVU also lets us know that Cousins is among the best per possession scorers in the league. Currently, he's averaging 35.44 points per 100 team possessions, which is good enough for 2nd best to Kevin Durant's 35.86. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George round out the top 5. That's good company.
MySynergySports shows us that Cousins is scoring best when he's posting up. Post-Ups account for almost 37.8% of his possessions, and he's scoring about 0.92 points per possession on post-ups, good for 26th in the league. He's also done well on Pick & Rolls (0.95 PPP or 54th in the league), offensive put-backs (1.12 PPP or 21st in the league) and Cuts (1.26 PPP or 40th in the league).
Cousins' defense has also improved, at least on an individual level (his team defense, along with almost the entire Kings roster, leaves a lot to be desired). In one-on-one situations, Cousins is more than holding his own. MySynergySports has Cousins allowing just 0.79 points per possession overall, good for 69th. Just like on offense, he's particularly good against Post-ups, which he sees about 45.4% of the time. Against post-ups, Cousins is allowing a paltry 0.68 PPP, and 41% from the field. That's good enough for 14th overall.
Cousins has also upped his defensive rebounding, grabbing 30.2% of all available defensive boards when he's in the game, good for 3rd in the league. His offensive rebounding has slipped a little bit (just a little, 10.3% from 10.9%), but I think that there's a small correlation between that and the fact that he's hitting more of his shots. In the past it seemed that quite a few of his offensive boards were off his own misses.
Cousins is quickly becoming one of the best passing big men in the league as well, with an assist rate of 20.2%, a jump from 15.3% last year. Only Josh McRoberts (23.3%) and Kevin Love (20.8%) can boast higher assist rates among big men (Marc Gasol would make the list at 21.4% but he has played just 13 games). Cousins is doing a phenomenal job of finding the open man or cutter when he gets doubled, and that should even increase as the team gets more chemistry with eachother.
By all statistical measures, DeMarcus Cousins is playing at an All-Star level. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.6 is currently good enough for 6th in the league. Only 28 players in the league's history have attained that high of a PER. The only ones among them that did not make the All-Star game were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978 (broken hand kept him out most of the first part of the season) and Shaquille O'Neal in 1999 (no All-Star game due to lockout). Even when dropping the benchmark to 24.9, you only add Karl Malone and David Robinson, also in 1999 where there was no All-Star game.
Should Cousins keep playing at this rate, he should merit All-Star attention, but I can't help but think that both his reputation and the fact that the Kings are a bad team will keep him off of it. 12 players get named to the team and there are almost that many who will be locks in the West: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Dirk Nowitzki. Barring injury, that would leave Cousins with just two chances to make the team, battling the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Anthony Davis.
Regardless of whether or not Cousins make the All-Star game though, Kings fans should be very happy with the progress he has made this season as a player, especially considering the fact that he's just 23 with his prime a few years away. Cousins has become a legitimate franchise big man, and faster than I expected. There's still a lot he can improve upon, which is frankly quite scary considering how good he already is.
Keep up the good work, big fella.
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