Why DeMarcus Cousins Is NBA's Most Polarizing Player

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Why DeMarcus Cousins Is NBA's Most Polarizing Player
Steve Yeater/Associated Press

Bring up the MVP race between Kevin Durant and LeBron James if you want to start a fight among NBA fans. But if it's all-out nuclear war you're after, offer up an opinion—any opinion—on DeMarcus Cousins.

The center's supreme physical talents are exceeded only by his ability to create a rift between supporters and detractors. With Cousins, there's no middle ground. He's either a criminally underrated superstar or a hopeless cancer.

Everyone's beliefs are passionate, supported by evidence and deeply, deeply entrenched. Nobody lacks an opinion.

Stepping back for a moment, isn't that kind of odd?

Analyzing why Cousins is such a divisive figure in NBA circles tells us plenty about him, but it might reveal even more about the way fans and analysts think.

 

Long Live DeMarcus!

Those who stand with Cousins point to his otherworldly mixture of size and skill. There aren't many big men capable of snatching a steal, turning up the floor and navigating through traffic on the fly.

Cousins does things like that routinely.

That's some prime Chris Webber stuff—if C-Webb had been three inches taller and 50 pounds heavier.

The raw talent has always been there, but Cousins has enjoyed real, tangible growth this season. His usage rate is exceptionally high for a big man, he's attacking the rim with more force than ever and his statistical profile puts him among the NBA's elite.

Cousins' Statistical Leap
Career 2013-14 NBA Rank
Usage Rate 29.0 32.9 1
Rebound Rate 18.8 20.3 5
PER 19.9 26.4 5
PPG 17.3 22.6 10
RPG 10.0 11.6 5

Basketball-Reference.com

Cousins' on-court improvement helped him earn an invitation to the 28-player USA Men's National Team pool. Concerns about his attitude would have made such an honor unfathomable just a few months ago, but it appears word is getting out about how much he's changed.

The maturation many of Cousins' supporters cite is real. He's not perfect by a long shot, but the routine blowups at officials and bouts of pouting have diminished. To date, Cousins also hasn't aggressively confronted any TV commentators this season.

I'd call that progress.

For his part, Cousins isn't as committed to the narrative that he's suddenly changed. But he did make a good point about his overall conduct to Grantland's Jonathan Abrams:

I believe I've been mature, but that's the title I got stuck with. I got drafted at 19. I've got millions of dollars in my pocket, I could have lost my damn mind. I don't see how you could consider me immature. You think about yourself at 19, having millions in your pocket.

That, folks, is a hard point to argue.

The statistical improvement, the general maturity and the undeniable talent make it easy to see why so many fans are willing to go to bat for Cousins. He's a player worth defending.

 

Down with DeMarcus!

STEVE YEATER/Associated Press

Then again, there's some real substance to many of the anti-Cousins sentiments, too.

If anything, the narrative that he's now a different, better player has only fueled the fire of his adamant critics. Because for all of his many improvements, there's still a very defensible school of thought that posits his limitations as a leader and defender make him little more than fool's gold.

For one thing, Cousins hasn't completely left his defensive lapses, victim's mentality or sour expressions behind.

Per Grantland's Zach Lowe:

A lot of talent evaluators with access say Boogie has morphed into a plus on defense this season, and one publicly available advanced plus/minus system agrees.

I'm not sold. Cousins still goes through bouts of lurching laziness, and his endless whining is a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Sacramento's transition defense. Teams shoot better in the restricted area when Cousins is on the floor, and they've hit 54 percent of their close shots when Cousins is near the rim, per SportVU — a poor number. He's still a below-average defender overall.

That might not seem like an especially damning analysis, but a high-usage, high-minute big man who doesn't defend the rim is just about the biggest deterrent to success as there is in the NBA. As proof of that theory, just look at the Sacramento Kings' status as cellar dwellers in the West. That's a position they've occupied for most of Cousins' career.

Those who don't believe Cousins is a very good player—despite his individual numbers—aren't crazy for pointing to his defensive indifference, lingering immaturity and terrible body language as troubling signs for a guy who's supposed to be a franchise cornerstone.

And his unwillingness to acknowledge the problems with his attitude in the past is also a red flag. It's true that Cousins has reduced his outbursts this year, but because he's been so consistent in downplaying his mistakes, he isn't inspiring much confidence in his ability to avoid repeating them.

We've all read about the locker-room explosions and seen the low blows on the court. Pretending they were no big deal, or worse, that the league is singling him out, is a little ridiculous.

As was the case with Cousins' backers, his attackers have some sound evidence to lean on.

 

High Stakes

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

There's a good amount of support for both sides of the Cousins argument, but that might not be the real reason he's such a polarizing figure.

It's not clear how or why it happened, but everyone seems to be using Cousins as a tool to convey their most deeply held basketball beliefs.

Old-school thinkers use him as an example of the team-killing effects bad body language can have. The next-level analytics crowd uses him to highlight the importance of rim protection and attention to detail on defense.

Casual fans use him to assert their belief in conventional statistics. In today's world of NBA discourse, defending things like points and rebounds per game can feel like shouting into an onrushing tsunami. That's a tough position to be in for many fans who aren't interested in digging deeper into the numbers, so it's no wonder they cling so tightly to the value of Cousins' stats.

Cousins just happens to be the perfect mix of complicated personality, unparalleled talent and unmet potential that allows such disparate schools of thought to appropriate him as a symbol for their various agendas.

It turns out that Cousins isn't necessarily a polarizing figure because of anything he does. He's a polarizing figure because everyone assigns so much meaning to those things.

It doesn't have to be this way. Our feelings about players—even one as complicated and interesting as Cousins—don't have to double as some kind of treatise on the broader underpinnings of basketball as an institution.

The truth is, Cousins started his career as a childish figure who was hurting his team in a number of ways. Eventually, he may move completely beyond that phase and develop into a dominant, mature player.

He's somewhere in the middle of that journey now, and he seems to be making progress.

It'd be nice if we could stop the conversation there. But because DMC has come to represent so many different things to so many people, he'll always be an intensely polarizing figure.

 

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