Thursday November 13th, 2014

DeMarcus Cousins is rewriting the fate of the Kings.

What was not long ago a team drowning in misery is now off to its best start in years: Five wins in its first eight games. Kings teams in the past have have started off similarly only to collapse in due time, Eric Mussellman’s 2006-07 outfit (which started 5-2 before winning 33 games) and Paul Westphal’s 2009-10 squad (which began 5-4 en route to just 25 wins) are most emblematic of all. It’s in Cousins that the current Kings find their point of differentiation. We’ll know in due time whether Sacramento’s turn is real in the scope of an 82-game season. Through Cousins’ outstanding start, however, we can already find the Kings’ improvement to be real enough – a marker of something, if not yet consistent, winning basketball and playoff candidacy.

It has long been believed that Cousins, a 6-foot-11 center with a wide variety of offensive skills, is one of the most talented players in the NBA. He’s a forceful player with a soft touch. A giant with finely tuned body control. He works the post in high usage, but thrives there with an offbeat rhythm and offhand style. Already Cousins has trampled the Clippers, overwhelmed the Trail Blazers, squelched the Suns and crushed the poor Nuggets. Even his lesser performances are striking; while fighting consistent foul trouble and frustration against the Mavs on Tuesday, for example, Cousins put up 16 points, 11 rebounds and five assists for the evening. He bludgeoned his way into scoring position and in doing so drew a hard, consistent double team. This is, for many teams, the only way to really deal with Cousins. If left alone on the block he could well go for 30. Instead opposing teams issue Cousins a challenge: To give the ball up when necessary and make the right feed at the right time.

So far Cousins has managed that responsibility well by feeling out the help and making responsible passes out of pressure. Cousins wants to score, first and foremost, and can with amazing ease. Yet it’s clear he also wants to find the open man when the situation allows and relishes the opportunity if the defense plays him a certain way. Twice already this season Cousins has registered five assists, a tie (with Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and Andrew Bogut) for the most at his position according to Basketball-Reference. Playmaking is among the headlining skills of those other three centers, right at the core of their offensive value. For Cousins, though, facilitation is a side project — it’s a workaround for those nights when opponents swarm him inside and a gesture to the notion of a wider Kings offense.

Make no mistake: Cousins is the Kings’ offense. Rudy Gay has been brilliant in support this season, but it’s through Cousins that Sacramento funnels its possessions and orients itself strategically. A team without many options for shot creation defaults to Cousins on the block, even while knowing full well that there may not be enough shooting on the roster to sustain a post-centric offense. With so few other choices, Sacramento plows head-first into the clutter. Cousins makes it work. He bullies, he bulldozes and he draws fouls with increasing frequency (10.4 attempts per 36 minutes). 

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Sacramento doesn’t just rank first in the league in free throw rate, but does so while outpacing the 29 other teams by a ridiculous margin. None — not the Rockets, not the Raptors, Cavaliers — come even remotely close. Or, to put things in perspective a different way: The Cousins-led Kings get to the free throw line at literally double the rate of three NBA teams (Milwaukee, Boston, New York). Historically that does not happen, and necessary disclaimers regarding sample size suggest that these figures will be reined in over the course of the season. Cousins, though, has been so good at putting himself in positions to draw contact as to leave some shred of doubt. This isn’t a guard going out of his way to bump or flail or rake his arms into those of another player. Cousins is one of the most physically imposing entities in the league, and the contact that earns his trips to the line is both well earned and common to most possessions.

That consistent source of offense is essential for Sacramento, which otherwise underwhelms in terms of efficiency. Such is the fundamental limitation of a team short on shooting with just so-so playmakers: The Kings have only so many avenues through which to create offense, which in turn forces Cousins and Gay to put up shots they otherwise might pass on. That deliberate imbalance has worked out reasonably well thus far in part because Cousins is among the best in the game at following his own shot. Play in the post always has an element of chess to it, whereby the player with the ball tries to throw off his opponent with slips of timing and feigned intentions. Cousins is no different, only he uses the shot itself as part of his gambit. Getting the ball on the rim is often just the first step for Cousins, who follows his own misses obsessively and has the size to plow his way to the ball. It’s through those efforts (amplified by the offensive rebounding of Reggie Evans and Carl Landry) that the Kings subsist while operating without the pieces necessary to run a modern, well-spaced offense.

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​​​It all works fairly well until Cousins checks out of the game – a relatively new trend that accents the 24-year-old’s heightened value. Last season, for example, Sacramento was only marginally better offensively (and slightly worse defensively) with Cousins on the floor. Through eight games this season, both of those offensive and defensive margins have taken a sharp turn for the better (or, in the Kings’ case, a turn toward complete dependence). The defensive implications therein cannot be ignored. For years Cousins has been foul-prone and imprecise on that end of things, more likely to take a standstill swipe at a ball handler’s dribble than to shuffle into proper position. He’s learning, though, and one can track steady improvement in terms of his technique and focus over the last year. The lazy swipes and bad fouls are still there. They just come a touch less often, and don’t much get in the way of the fact that Cousins is making more of a defensive difference than he ever had previously.

Yet as is inevitably the case with Cousins, he’s done so on his terms. Fundamentally speaking, Cousins is a mess — he lags in recovery when he’s dragged out to the perimeter, he often stands casually rather than in a defensive crouch and there are times when he’s taken out of a play due to his angle or positioning. Cousins, though, doesn’t have to be perfect. All he has to do is make opponents nervous, and he seems to be finding that it doesn’t take much for a 6-11 with quick hands and disruptive instincts to do so. Playing back more often (though not exclusively) in the pick-and-roll helps matters, as Cousins is able to size up his opponents and anchor his defensive positioning in the lane. He’s not the kind of shot blocker that normally benefits from such an approach, but Cousins uses his body to get in the way of things and does a fine job of setting his body in line to take charges. Opponents who try to slither around Cousins are met by a huge center light on his feet. Those who try to challenge Cousins at the rim or draw contact are met with the possibility of an offensive foul and potential turnover.

More will be expected of Cousins eventually, but for now this is enough. On one side of the ball he’s a problem for every opponent he matches up against. On the other he’s become a genuine presence — one who at the very least helps to shape and influence opponent shot quality on a more consistent basis. In between, Cousins regulates the glass with the single best rebounding rate in the NBA. His reach is that of a superstar, making it high time to drop the talk of Cousins' potential as if he hasn't already arrived.

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