The Case for DeMarcus Cousins as the Best Center in the NBA

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The Case for DeMarcus Cousins as the Best Center in the NBA
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Purchase stock in DeMarcus Cousins while you can.

Once known more for his temper tantrums and off-court outbursts, the Sacramento Kings big man has officially made the jump from "troubled prospect" to "possibly the NBA's best center." For real.

The thing is, very few people are talking about him. Like really talking about him. 

Although it doesn't help that the Kings are still bad—at least they're watchable, right?—Cousins simply isn't receiving enough credit for the adjustments and improvements he's undergone that have left him a viable All-Star candidate in the time it takes to escape one corrupt ownership regime.

Leading into this season, we were all questioning his max contract, his legitimacy as a cornerstone. Months later, he's answered the call to arms in resounding fashion, potentially leaving every other center to choke on the dust behind him.

 

Let's Start With...

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Defense.

It's long been one of Cousins' greatest flaws. You won't catch many arguing in favor of his defense for obvious reasons. But he's been adequate on that end this season, reading opposing offenses better than ever.

Boogie's 1.9 steals and one block per game are career bests, as is the 102 defensive rating he's notching. He and Paul Millsap are the only two players averaging at least one block and 1.5 steals, and posting a defensive rating under 103.

Like all improvements worth mentioning, Cousins has statistically held his own against the league's "elite" defensive centers as well.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Cousins is allowing 0.84 points per possession defended, down from 0.86 in 2012-13. Though that's not a mark that will earn him Defensive Player of the Year honors, it's one that stands up against those typically lauded for their defensive prowess.

Here's how his 0.84 points per possession look next to other defensively recognized centers:

Infogr.am.

First thing's first: Holy crap, Roy Hibbert!

Now that our obligatory bow-to-Hibbert reference is fulfilled, we can move on.

Cousins is allowing fewer points per possession than Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol (injured), Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. This isn't proof he's a better defender than each of them, so much as it's deserving of applause.

The 23-year-old big man has also developed into a plus defender. Sacramento is allowing fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, according to NBA.com (subscription required), one year after it was more than two points better with him on the bench. That's something we call "progress," enough to boost Cousins' status from "burgeoning tower" to "two-way behemoth."

 

Offensive Dominance

On the other end of the floor, Cousins is having one of those seasons worthy of a two syllable "daaaaamn."

Boogie is averaging 23.5 points on 49.1 percent shooting, both of which are career highs. His three assists a night and 107 offensive rating fall into the same category.

Only three other players are putting up at least 20 points and three assists while shooting better than 49 percent overall—LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. As in, no other centers.

As in wow.

Players with Cousins' offensive range who can elevate his team's play by scoring and distributing are rare commodities. And of those select few who can, even fewer have the inside-out touch Boogie possesses.

Consider that Cousins is on pace to become just the seventh center in NBA history to register at least 20 points per game and an assist percentage above 18, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Lanier, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal, all of whom are Hall of Famers—except for Shaq, who's a first-ballot lock once he's eligible.

Passing is an understated quality in bigs. Not many can find their teammates the way Cousins can. Pau and Marc Gasol and Noah come to mind, but not many others.

Infogr.am.

Separating himself as a playmaker is a huge part of Cousins' argument here. It's something that cannot be overlooked when comparing him next to other elite centers, because when you combine his passing acumen with his offensive potency, volume rebounding and improved defense, he stands any test you throw at him.

Speaking of which...

 

The D12 Argument

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Superman has become synonymous with the intangible "Best Center" award. His is the most recognized name out there, hence him checking in at second in the Western Conference's latest frontcourt All-Star voting returns.

But he doesn't have a firm grip on the title, and when you pit him against Cousins, he's not head-and-shoulders above Sactown's wunderkind.

Here's a quick look at how their 2013-14 numbers stack up:

Superman vs. Boogie Per 36 Minutes
Player PTS REBS ASTS STLS BLKS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg.
Cousins 26.2 12.8 3.4 2.1 1.1 107 102
Howard 18.9 13.7 1.9 1.0 1.9 109 100

Via Basketball-Reference

'Nuff said.

 

Simply Killin' It

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Other players belong in this conversation. Howard is one of them. Hibbert is another. But Cousins is quickly usurping them all. 

There are still instances of obvious immaturity. Boogie's reactions to certain whistles continuously border on priceless and overly animate. And he's still missing the mark of a true leader—a playoff berth.

Even so, the improvement we've seen is insane.

Cousins ranks fifth in PER (27.1) among all players logging at least 15 minutes per game, behind only Kevin Love, Chris Paul, LeBron and Durant. That's not pure happenstance. Boogie has gotten better. Much better. He's developed into the entire package, someone who will positively impact every aspect of the game. 

What other center can say that? No one. Not Howard, not Hibbert, not the injured Brook Lopez.

Not the same way Cousins can.

Oh, and the absence of postseason appearances minimally affects his standing, if it has an impact at all.

Through 32 games, Cousins is on pace for roughly 9.5 win shares, impressive for someone stuck on a Kings team that doesn't figure into the Western Conference's playoff discussion.

See for yourself (note Gasol and Lopez are excluded since they're injured):

Top Centers' Projected Win Shares
Bogut Cousins Drummond Hibbert Howard Jordan Noah
Projected Win Shares 7.9 9.5 9.6 9.1 9.6 9.9 9.1

Via Basketball-Reference.

Yes, that's impressive. Incredibly impressive. Accumulating win shares is difficult on a rebuilding team, even when you're the No. 1 option and posting a league-leading usage rate (33.9). 

Who is the NBA's best center right now?

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Scary part is, Cousins is only 23 and in his fourth season. For the same reason opposing teams should fear how high Drummond's ceiling is, they should fear Cousins more, if only because he has a better looking jump shot and can hit his free throws.

"I would say we're in the right direction," Cousins said of the Kings, per Cowbell Kingdom's Jonathan Santiago. "We still got a lot of growing to do, so I wouldn't say we're all on the same page yet."

Cousins himself has more growing to do, but he's doing it. He's evolving. Quickly. Almost quietly.

This kid is going places. He's already taken himself so many places. A checkered past warps our view of him, and understandably so, but we're at the point where we must recognize Cousins for who he really is: A deserving All-Star. Present superstar. A great center.

The league's best center.

 

*Stats used courtesy Basketball-Reference, NBA.com (subscription required) and Synergy Sports (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.

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