The Fundamentals: DeMarcus Cousins pushing Kings into playoff bubble
The Sacramento Kings have declared their NBA relevance on one basic assertion: No one in the league can stop DeMarcus Cousins, save for the man himself. That premise seems more or less inarguable. Cousins, now healthy, is dominating any opponent put in front of him. Indiana tried everything it could to slow Cousins in a game over the weekend and still caught 48 points on 29 shots. Charlotte, in the very next game, managed an overtime win but suffered the full brunt of Cousins’s 56 points on 30 shots. Those showings provided punctuation on what has been a declarative January; Cousins has scored 30 points or more in nine of Sacramento’s 13 games this month, distinguishing himself in a league where only a handful of players have had nine such games all season.
It’s on the strength of Cousins’s play that the Kings have pushed themselves into the playoff bubble. The postseason threshold in the West looks to be oddly accommodating this year, with five teams—all under .500—now within range of the eighth seed. The other four contenders would take playoff qualification as a sign of developmental progress. For Sacramento, which made its competitive intentions clear in targeting veteran free agents exclusively last summer, it would come as a tremendous relief. A decade has passed since the Kings last took part in the postseason. Any team barred from meaningful basketball for that long would find 82 a tiresome number.
There is something strange about singing the praises of a weirdly managed team on pace to win just 36 games this season, yet the Kings’ standing seems to warrant it. Sacramento hired George Karl, one of the five winningest coaches in NBA history, last season to correct course. It shuffled its front office yet again and made questionable moves under general manager Vlade Divac. It brought in ill-fitting players and difficult personalities, which triggered rumors of locker room friction almost immediately.
The Kings stuck it out. There has been enough internal weirdness to preclude Sacramento from being just another NBA team, though the process of the regular season has brought them closer to nondescript than they’ve been at any point in recent memory. The roster is still undeniably odd. There isn’t much room or reason to project long-term improvement. Divac still has plenty to sort out in handling this team’s basketball operations while owner Vivek Ranadivé looms, his finger always hovering above the panic button. Yet for this precious moment, the Kings are notable for their play alone—a basketball team deserving of attention for purely basketball reasons.
Sacramento plays a somewhat discordant style, all too appropriate given its roster’s construction. They have a dominant post player and operate at what is essentially the league’s fastest pace. Their defense is middling at best and yet the Kings find opportunity to push the break as often as the stop-and-go Warriors. Their lineups have teetered between giant (a front line of Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Willie Cauley-Stein) and stretchy (with Omri Casspi in place of Cauley-Stein) with mixed results. At the center of it all, Cousins has just enough support and spacing to anchor a relatively effective offense—one supplemented with a healthy supply of fast-break points. Sacramento's mixed system and interior emphasis leaves Cousins (27.3 PPG) as the one center in the game capable of leading the league in scoring.
With time, the Kings have grown more effective at reconciling these various aspects of their identity. For instance: Sacramento seems to be finding Cousins earlier in the clock, in part because the 25-year-old big man is healthier and in improving (though still far from ideal) shape. The catches on the perimeter that would have resulted in a tired jumper in previous months instead trigger a Cousins drive, bringing him within an all the more dangerous proximity. Maintaining that kind of attack mentality works as a smokescreen; playing with pace can help disguise the fact that the Kings might only have one reliable three-point shooter on the floor at a given time, giving the offense some much-needed room to breathe.
Overall, Sacramento ranks as one of the least-efficient half-court offenses in the league. It simply gets enough from Cousins and in transition to stay viable—particularly when Cousins thrives as he has this month. The margin of victory still isn’t good enough to give the Kings much room for error, though for the first time this season they’re scoring at a high enough rate (106.7 points 100 possessions in January, a top-five equivalent) to keep their heads above water.
Rondo deserves some credit. It’s been quite some time since Rondo, who was hampered by injuries, skill limitations, and his own quirks over the past few seasons, was actually a net positive to his team’s offense. In Sacramento he appears to have found the productive side of that ledger with the way he leads the break and establishes Cousins with post entry. The fact that Rondo can at least give Cousins the ball when and where he needs it without compromising his post position is a great help, particularly for a team that struggles to consistently space the floor. Rondo is, of course, a contributor to that problem in the same way that he’s a part of its attempted solution.
Cousins overcomes it regardless, at least to the point of granting the Kings their January solvency. For weeks he has frustrated opponents with power moves and nimble spins, a combination which makes him even more destructive than his height and touch would suggest. Defenders, desperate and exasperated, turn to violence. Cousins isn’t exactly speedy, though he’s enough of an imposing presence on his rolls to the rim that opponents will chop and slap at him as he goes by:
Then, when Cousins ends up on the block, he gets the kinds of shoves and pulls emblematic of a defender with few other options:
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The yield of that contact has been a ridiculous 10.2 personal fouls drawn per game this month—not free throws, but fouls. Cousins’s work as a magnet for contact was on full display against the Hornets earlier this week, when his bruising moves systematically fouled out three of Charlotte’s big men. The whistles he’s been getting of late have pushed Cousins’s free throw rate for the season into ridiculous territory. Only James Harden can match his proportionate free throw attempts among high-usage scorers, which helps to explain why Cousins has totaled more free throws this season than his next three teammates combined.
Maximizing the offense of a matchup nightmare who can create and exploit contact has been fruitful for the Kings, but this kind of approach isn’t made to last. Cousins looks exhausted on a nightly basis, yet the marathon continues. His space in the lane can be eaten up quickly by opponents who play the Kings’ perimeter players (Casspi excluded) for the inconsistent shooters they are. Playing small saps Cousins even more defensively, while playing alongside Cauley-Stein puts another body in Cousins’s immediate vicinity on offense. Perhaps the eventual return of Rudy Gay, who suffered a corneal abrasion on Monday after missing the two games prior with another injury, will help help ease Cousins’s responsibilities to a more reasonable level, though that alone won’t likely be solution enough.
Maintaining this recent pace seems impossible for Cousins both due to the natural ebb and flow of a season (what human could keep up averages of 33.1 points, 13 rebounds, and 49.8% shooting from the field?) and the inherent constraints of Sacramento’s roster. The offense will eventually dip and the Kings’ record with it. The balance of the season rests on the team’s ability to adapt from there—to build on Cousins’s success by using it to facilitate a more robust half-court offense or a more reliable defense.
A playoff berth would likely come in the wake of that development. Anything less may confirm the unfortunate subtext of this blistering January: The best basketball of Cousins’s career has been good enough only to earn the Kings some needed wins by slim, unconvincing margins.
While You Weren’t Watching
A spotlight on the little moments in the frenzied NBA slate that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.
Every modern NBA defense relies on zone principles of some sort, but nothing seems to flummox a bad team quite like a rare encounter with a true zone. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle put the Lakers to the test this week down the stretch of a closely contested game, and Byron Scott’s team flubbed their way to meet every expectation:
Los Angeles followed up this possession by feeding Julius Randle in the high post on the next…and then deserting him.
Not a single Laker cut or screened for another; all just stood and watched as the shot clock frittered away, burning another possession in a rare, winnable game. The Lakers never quite figured out how to create any offense at all against the zone, though Byron Scott solved the real problem by yanking D’Angelo Russell out of the game for playing confidently.
• A thoughtful, detailed look at the future of the Grizzlies’ roster and the options available to Memphis moving forward.
• Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus used SportVU data to illustrate the infrequency of Hassan Whiteside’s passing. Even in knowing that Whiteside’s role and skill set don’t exactly lend themselves to ball movement, his career assist total is nothing short of shocking.
• Shabazz Muhammad—a third-year wing somehow adjacent to the Wolves’ youth movement—has a curious place in Minnesota’s rotation. Britt Robson clarifies it at length here in conjunction with the role of Zach LaVine.
• The eternally overrated and underrated Jae Crowder.
• Very much enjoyed this examination of Justise Winslow through the lenses of Ron Artest, Jamal Mashburn, and Caron Butler.
• Tyson Chandler really does seem to be moving a bit better of late, which should come as a relief to Suns fans. Father time hasn’t come for Chandler just yet. Nagging injuries have a way of negating his game, but he can still can be a very effective player when his body allows.
• There’s a real, tangible difference in the way the Cavs are playing under Ty Lue. Mention of the team looking to run, it appears, was more than just standard lip service. We’ll have to see if the trend lasts (especially as Cleveland’s schedule pits them against better, more tiring opponents), though in these early days the Cavs do seem to be making an effort to launch into transition more consistently. (Also worth clarifying: Playing fast in this case does not mean playing well.)
• A curiosity: Utah and Atlanta, teams that clearly understand the value of the corner three in their own offensive constructions, have allowed their opponents the second and fourth-highest shooting percentage on corner threes this season.
• Every time I see Nikola Jokic play he looks more and more like a real NBA player. It’s still tricky to pin down what his trajectory might be, but good on Jokic for solidifying his game this season for the Nuggets.
• Gary Washburn of The Washington Globe reported that Avery Bradley is less than pleased with his current contract, in part due to the booming market for free agent wings. He won’t be the last player to find displeasure in the way money is being doled out under the rising salary cap, though those sentiments make me wonder if NBA players gave any real thought to the league’s cap-smoothing proposal.
• In case you needed confirmation that Stephen Curry is playing a different game from everyone else: Curry has both shot and made nearly 100 more three-pointers than every non-Warrior in the league.
• Your periodic, marginal Sixers update: Rookie forward Richaun Holmes has some game. That he’s so raw at this point isn’t exactly a comfort (Holmes is already 22), but the fact that Holmes is a natural when it comes to filling space and finding creases in the offense as a big man gives Philly something to work with.
• Everything that’s happened in Cleveland this season only makes me all the more impressed by Chris Bosh. Even those of us who lauded Bosh for his offensive and defensive flexibility might have undersold how valuable he really is.