DeMarcus Cousins Should Be in the NBA MVP Conversation

Sim Risso@@SimRissoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2015

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JANUARY 4:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings goes up for a shot against the Detroit Pistons on January 4, 2015 at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

DeMarcus Cousins has gone from a player who should be in the All-Star conversation to one who should be in the MVP consideration. The Sacramento Kings center has been that good in 2014-15. 

Admittedly, that statement is a difficult one to wrap your mind around, especially since Cousins' name isn't prevalent in such conversations. But that's more of a factor of the big man's presence on the cellar-dwelling Kings than it is a reflection of his production. 

Because while the narrative says one thing, the numbers say something different. They say Cousins has been one of the NBA's most valuable players.

The Case for Cousins

Since these things are up for interpretation, we first have to come up with a running definition of what constitutes an MVP candidate. In this case, "Most Valuable Player" is a reflection of how valuable a player is to his team. 

As far as that's concerned, Cousins is near the top of the league.

Have you ever watched the Kings in games when Cousins doesn't play? They're a completely different team on both sides of the court. 

On offense, the ball movement stagnates. Instead of setting screens, working the rock side to side or cutting to the hoop, there's an awful lot of dribbling. 

In fact, Sacramento's assist percentage increases with Cousins on the court, this despite him not being a facilitator or a player who relies on assists to score (only 17.9 percent of his field goals are assisted). What he does do, though, is finish the assist opportunities his teammates give him, as well as drawing the opposition's attention, which allows other Kings players cleaner looks to do the same.

Kings offense with Cousins on/off the court
AST%FG%FTAORtg
With Cousins off52.743.728.699.7
With Cousins on56.348.932.6108.5
NBA.com/stats

On defense, there's no inside presence. Opponents can attack the hoop and get an uncontested shot at the rack or kick out to an open shooter when the double-team comes.  

As a consequence, both the opposition's field-goal percentage and three-point percentage increase when Cousins sits. And since he also happens to be one of the team's best rebounders, opponents are getting more second-chance opportunities with him on the pine. 

Kings defense with Cousins on/off the court
Opponent FG%Opponent 3P%Opponent REBSac DRtg
With Cousins off46.531.040.3110.6
With Cousins on43.234.737.1101.3
NBA.com/stats

Of course, how the Kings perform with and without Cousins only tells us about how Sac fares. Another factor worth considering is how Sacramento does when its best player is on and off the court compared to some of the league's best players and their respective teams. 

The short answer: pretty favorably.

That FATS (factor adjusted team similarities) metric you see listed is one created by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal. It uses historical comparisons to project a team's win-loss record with and without a respective player in the game. You can find a more thorough explanation of the metric and how it's derived here

Using Adam's FATS statistic, we're able to compare Cousins and the Kings' performance with the best players in the league and how their teams would perform with and without them. 

FATS projection for top NBA players
W-L onW-L offDifference
DeMarcus Cousins5820+38
Anthony Davis4619+27
LeBron James4622+24
Kevin Durant5539+16
Stephen Curry6043+17
James Harden4629+17
Kyle Lowry47470
John Wall5030+20
Marc Gasol4648-2
Adam Fromal

Two things stand out here. Most notably, especially for our purposes, is the difference for Cousins and the Kings is the greatest of the players on the list. It's also crazy to think the Memphis Grizzlies might actually be worse with Marc Gasol on the court.

Another metric with similar aims is ESPN's Real Plus-Minus. It estimates a player's impact on team performance, taking into account a player's teammates and opponents. 

Cousins also stacks up pretty well there, coming in ninth

Of course, we also have a real indication of what Cousins means to the Kings when he's out of the lineup. Just look at what happened with the team before he got viral meningitis and while he was out with it.

Getting sick caused him to miss 11 games, during which the Kings went 2-9. In the games he's actually been in the lineup, though, the Kings are 13-11.

The Case Against Cousins

The case against Cousins is pretty straight-forward. It relies on historical context and how voters usually determine the MVP—by awarding it to the league's best player on a contending team. 

The MVP award goes all the way back to the 1955-56 season, when Bob Pettit won the inaugural iteration. During that time, only twice has an MVP winner been on a team with a losing record: Pettit in '55-56 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in '75-76. Not surprisingly they're also the only MVPs to play on non-playoff teams.

With the Kings sitting at 14-20 and 5.5 games out of the playoff picture, it's highly unlikely they make the postseason. That means Cousins likely won't garner much consideration even in light of how much he means to the Kings.

Essentially he's the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. In other words, the difference he makes in this context is negligible.

There's also the fact that while very good, Cousins' individual resume doesn't stack up with other elite players. He's toward the top in many categories but isn't No. 1 in any of them.

Cousins' statistical resume (where he ranks in the league)
PPGRPGPERWS48WS
23.5 (6)12.1 (3)26.5 (4).181 (17)2.8 (53)
Basketball-Reference.com

It's an uphill battle. Because, as ESPN's Henry Abbott wrote when examining 20 recent MVP winners, it takes an excellent resume to win the award, especially if you're not on a top team as Cousins isn't:

If you're not winning a hell of a lot of games, you'd better have some really special story to sway voters at the polls -- just as Steve Nash was once the Pied Piper of an entirely new, eye-catching brand of basketball.

  • Fifteen of the past 20 MVPs ranked first overall in one of more out of points per game, regular-season wins or PER.
  • Every MVP not named Steve Nash was top-three in at least one of those categories, and Nash led the league in assists.
  • Michael Jordan (in 1991-92) and Shaquille O'Neal (in 1999-2000) were the only two MVPs in the past two decades to finish the regular season first in points per game, wins and PER. However, eight of the past 20 finished first in two or more of those categories.

It's worth mentioning that Abbott wrote the article during the 2010-11 season, so it doesn't perfectly reflect the past 20 MVP winners. But the past four winners of Derrick Rose, LeBron James (twice) and Kevin Durant all came from top teams.

The Outcome

The outcome on this one depends on the argument. If the argument were, "DeMarcus Cousins will be in the MVP conversation," then it's false. But in this case, the argument is that Cousins should be in the conversation for the NBA MVP. That's a valid conclusion.

Cousins is one of the best players in the NBA. All one has to do to make that determination is watch him play on a consistent basis. There isn't a player in the league who can guard him one-on-one.

Against Marc Gasol, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13, Cousins dropped 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds on Nov. 13. Opposing Joakim Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he put up 22 points and 14 rebounds on Nov. 20.

While the win-loss record is no longer in his favor, the Kings were making headway with Cousins in the lineup prior to firing then-head coach Michael Malone. They were 9-5 through 14 games before the center went down with viral meningitis, and that was on top of playing one of the league's toughest schedules to that point. 

Of course, that ship set sail long ago. With it went any realistic shot of Cousins actually earning serious consideration for MVP. But that's largely a factor of the way the award is voted on and not how well he's playing or how valuable he is to the Kings. 

And in a world where the Most Valuable Player is awarded to the player who's just the most valuable to his team—DeMarcus Cousins should be in the MVP conversation. 

Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and accurate through games played on Jan. 6.

Do you think Cousins should be in the MVP conversation? Let me know on Twitter @SimRisso.

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