HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — In voting for seven reserves for next month’s All-Star Game, Western Conference coaches have some very difficult decisions to make.
The most interesting dilemma is what to make of DeMarcus Cousins, who is averaging 22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks … for a team that’s 15-26.
My man Jeff Caplan did not pick Cousins among his seven reserves. Neither did Charles Barkley, Grant Hill or Kenny Smith. Shaquille O’Neal did, but it should be noted that he’s a minority owner of the Kings.
The biggest reason the Kings are 11 games under .500 is their defense. Through Thursday, they rank 28th in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s the third straight season they’ve ranked in the bottom three.
The question is how responsible is Cousins for the poor defense and if that basically negates a lot of his offensive production. What good is scoring 31 points (like Cousins did against the league’s best defense last week) if you’re helping your opponent (a below-average offensive team) put up 116?
Cousins’ basic defensive numbers look great. Only *five players (who have played at least 20 games) average more steals plus blocks per game than Cousins’ 2.98, but steals and blocks don’t always equate to good defense.
* The five are Anthony Davis (4.53), DeAndre Jordan (3.50), Andre Drummond (3.21), Michael Carter-Williams (3.03) and Roy Hibbert (3.02). Three of them also play for below-average defense teams.
The Kings have been better defensively with Cousins on the floor (allowing 105.6 points per possessions) than they’ve been with him on the bench (107.6). But that mark of 105.6 would still put them in the bottom six of the league defensively.
With Cousins on the floor, the Kings rebound and force turnovers at above-average rates. But the best thing you can do as a defense is defend shots, and they haven’t done that very well.
Kings defense with Cousins on and off the floor
|Cousins on/off||OppeFG%||Rk||DREB%||Rk||OppTOV%||Rk||OppFTA Rate||Rk|
OppeFG% = Opp. (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA/FGA
Kings opponents have shot 66.4 percent in the restricted area with him on the floor, a mark well above the league average of 60.2 percent. According to SportVU, opponents have shot 53.7 at the rim when Cousins is there defending it, a mark that ranks 48th among 59 players who have defended at least five shots per game over 20 games.
Some of the discrepancy between the 66.4 percent and 53.7 percent can be attributed to transition defense, where Cousins is more than a little lacking. In that game in Indiana in which Cousins scored 31 points, the Pacers shot 18-for-24 in the restricted area, 12-for-14 with Cousins on the floor, and had 25 fast-break points.
Here are a couple of examples where Cousins didn’t necessarily have a chance to stop the break, but could made a much better effort than he did…
In the halfcourt, Synergy Sports ranks Cousins as a “good” pick-and-roll defender. Of late, he’ been sagging in the paint when his man sets a high screen. Here’s Greg Stiemsma setting a screen on Isaiah Thomas with Cousins nowhere in the vicinity, giving Brian Roberts plenty of open space to work with.
This is basically the same strategy that the Pacers employ with Defensive Player of the Year favorite Roy Hibbert, though Hibbert puts a lot more effort into using his length to keep the ball-handler out of the paint while also staying attached to his man. Cousins obviously isn’t on Hibbert’s level in regard to protecting the rim without fouling.
But the sagging strategy can force your opponent into mid-range shots, which is a good thing. With Cousins on the floor, Kings opponents have shot more from mid-range, but have also shot better from there.
One issue is that the Kings’ guards don’t stay attached to their man nearly as well as the Pacers’ guards do. Thomas is having a terrific season offensively, but he’s a little (pizza) guy who can get smushed on screens. Combine that with Cousins’ tendency to stay out of the picture, and opponents are going to have success if they have a guard who can shoot off the dribble.
Against Kevin Durant last week, there was more of an effort to get up on high screens, but overall, Cousins does a lot of standing up straight on defense. He does have terrific hands though, and that can partially make up for his inconsistent effort and lack of fundamentals…
And if you engage him defensively, Cousins has the ability to be a strong defender. On this play in Oklahoma City, Reggie Jackson attacks Cousins, who stays with him and contests his step-back jumper. In the second video above, we saw him strip Glen Davis in the post, and Synergy ranks him as an “excellent” post defender. Again, if he’s engaged, he has the size to block your path and the quickness to react to your counter moves.
The skills are there. The commitment is not. The Kings have worse defenders on their team, but none of them were signed to a max extension last summer.
If Cousins isn’t a plus on both ends of the floor, is he really a max player? If his team ranks 28th in defensive efficiency, is he really one of the best centers in the league?
Is DeMarcus Cousins an All-Star? We’ll find out next Thursday.