For much of his career he picked up technicals and silly fouls as easily as he did defensive rebounds and thunderous dunks. There was no question of his talent, only his ability to harness it.
Last season he took some dramatic strides in turning his potential into nightly production. But all his personal development couldn't keep the Kings from slogging through another miserable season. As the new season approaches there are some things Cousins still needs to work on if he's going to be carrying this franchise towards their goal of playoff competitiveness.
Any comprehensive discussion of Cousins' game should really begin with his physical presence, an asset he made much better use of this season. In January, ESPN Insider David Thorpe talked about Cousins' growing interior effectiveness (subscription required):
This season, he gets 47 percent of his shots near the rim despite being his team's best offensive player, meaning defenses are working hard to push him away from the paint and to give him as few good looks as possible in the paint. Defenders are struggling with this method, though, as Cousins is making 94 percent of his dunks and 65.6 percent of all other shots close to the rim.
His willingness to bang inside and move people out of his way, as well as his ability to finish shots, has placed him into an elite level of post scorer.
Cousins is one of the most efficient post scorers in the league and has become a destructive force in the pick-and-roll. However, from his shot chart you can see quite clearly how his efficiency on post-ups is tied to his aggressiveness:
Cousins is right-handed and prefers to work on the left block. When those post-ups drift away from the basket and he settles for jump shots or doesn't assertively work for deep post position, his efficiency suffers.
Although there are some pockets of inefficiency around the basket, you can see the hot zone just to the left of the rim, where he's able to turn into his man and launch his jump hook.
Here is a perfect example of Cousins settling on a post-up possession—facing up Gorgui Dieng and then never challenging him:
That play is in stark contrast to these two possessions from the same quarter, where he bodies Dieng up and gets himself a much better look in front of the basket:
Going back to the shot chart, you can see that Cousins' mid-range jumper is a respectable weapon. He shot 40.8 percent on mid-range jumpers last season and was legitimately dangerous around the free-throw line.
Usually you hear about how long two-pointers are the enemy of efficiency and are tied to the unraveling of the offensive skills of a big man. But when used appropriately in the right situation, they can have the opposite effect.
The NBA's SportVU Player Tracking statistics allow us to look at a player's jump shots in two different categories. Catch-and-shoot jumpers are those on which a player shot after having possessed the ball for fewer than two seconds, and without dribbling. A pull-up jumper is a shot on which a player took at least one dribble before shooting.
Both are only tabulated on shots at least 10 feet from the basket, and since Cousins doesn't shoot three-pointers, we're able to focus in on mid-range jumpers.
The table below shows what percentage of his mid-range jump shots came from each situation last season and his field goal percentage on each:
|% of Attempts||FG%|
There is a dramatic gulf in his effectiveness in each case. Although he takes far more jump shots of the beneficial catch-and-shoot variety, nearly a third of his jump shots (1.6 per game) are still pull-ups.
You'll also notice that the percentages don't add up to 100. That's because there is a third variety of jump shot which isn't included here—when Cousins shoots after having held the ball for more than two seconds but doesn't dribble.
A perfect example would be the face-up jump shot he took in the first video clip above. By process of elimination I was able to calculate that those shots made up another 14 percent of his jump-shot attempts, of which he made 34.0 percent.
Putting those two categories together, we see that non-catch-and-shoot opportunities made up nearly half of Cousins' total jump shots, and he made them at about a 34 percent clip.
By and large these kind of shots are coming in face-up isolations and passive post-ups. His catch-and-shoot opportunities are usually a result of a pick-and-roll or some other penetration by a guard.
The bottom line is that Cousins has shown the ability to be a dangerous mid-range shooter.
However, he often undermines that ability by taking those mid-range shots due to less-than-ideal situations. This is the threshold Cousins has reached, and it's what separates him from the next tier of development.
He has all of the tools in his toolbox; he now needs to figure out how to implement them in the most efficient way possible.
Defensively, Cousins was much improved last season. He was one of just four players to total 90 steals and 90 blocks, and he dramatically improved both his positioning and intensity. Unfortunately, the results were still disappointing.
While the Kings' defense was significantly better with him on the floor last season, by nearly three points per 100 possessions, they were still giving up 105.1 points per 100 possessions. That mark would have just barely gotten them out of the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency if sustained across the entire season.
The same pattern emerged with their ability to protect the rim. Although the Kings were marginally better with Cousins on the floor, they still allowed their opponents to shoot 64.7 percent in the paint while he was playing, a mark that would have ranked 29th in the league.
While they didn't pop up as often, some of the same old mistakes were there. Here, he stays to argue a call with an official instead of helping to get back on defense:
On this play he comes out of his defensive stance with a lazy swiping challenge, allowing his man to blow right past him for the dunk:
But many of those mistakes looked worse because he was playing in a defense that was fundamentally inept.
Here, he jumps out to stop a free-throw line curl. Cousins freezes for a beat too long, but none of the three players behind him rotate to stop his man as the pass is made:
On this play, he's again hedging to contain penetration and is a fraction of a second late to recover. But the dunk happens with minimal resistance because none of his teammates move to help him:
By the rim-protection statistics Seth Partnow tracks for Nylon Calculus, Cousins' interior defense saved the Kings about 0.25 points more per 36 minutes than what we'd expect from an average big man. While that narrow margin makes him out to be a positive defender, it's essentially indistinguishable from the average.
It should be noted that getting to the average as a rim protector is a big improvement for Cousins, especially since he did it while keeping down his foul rate. However, for a defense that has so many holes in other places, his performance isn't enough to really pull things together.
The problem is that Cousins has become an average defender in a system that needs him to be much more than that in order to be successful.
Nothing the Kings have done this summer really moves the needle for them defensively, meaning Cousins may need to take another giant leap defensively or else once again see his relative shortcomings take the blame for the team's collective failures.
Another giant leap is not of the question, and he could get a lot of mileage simply out of making his defensive intensity and focus consistent. However, consistency has always been his archenemy, so it may be easier said then done.
Cousins has desire on his side. Just a few days before officially making the Team USA roster he talked about how he would feel if he was left off the team (h/t Jack Winter of Dime Magazine): "I would be crushed. Everyone knows how much I want to do this. This is my third year here (two with Select Team), and I don’t run from any challenge. I would be crushed, but I’m not a quitter. I would come back and try again."
For all his basketball warts, Cousins is a player who cares deeply.
He wants to win, he wants to be a great player and he's not afraid of failure. That positive attitude and strong work ethic has brought him far.
If he continues sanding down his rough edges and refining the application of his considerable physical strength and skills, he may yet be the man to carry the Kings out of the NBA's doldrums.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.