Analyzing DeMarcus Cousins' Case for Best Center in the NBA

Benjy Egel@@BenjyEgelCorrespondent IIMarch 17, 2015

Cousins has elevated all facets of his game in his fifth pro season.
Cousins has elevated all facets of his game in his fifth pro season.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

DeMarcus Cousins' talent has never been in question. He only slipped to No. 5 in the 2010 NBA draft because scouts questioned his maturity, which proved problematic in his first couple of seasons. But after making his first All-Star Game in 2014-15 and helping lead Team USA to gold in the FIBA World Cup, he has a legitimate argument as the best center in the league.

Cousins is averaging career highs in points per game (23.7), rebounds per game (12.3) and assists per game (3.2) this year, all of which rank fourth or better among qualified full-time centers (as determined by ESPN). He also records 1.4 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game, second and ninth among centers, respectively.

The big man is the Sacramento Kings' clear leader, which isn't saying much considering the team is 22-43, though the record has more to do with bewildering front office moves and a sloppy supporting cast than Cousins' performance. 

Not everything has been perfect. Cousins is also turning the ball over 4.2 times a game, an uncomfortably high number for someone with his skilled hands, even though he has mostly stopped trying to bring the ball up the court as a sort of point center.

Some aspects of Cousins' game still need some work, like his ability to hold onto the ball.
Some aspects of Cousins' game still need some work, like his ability to hold onto the ball.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press

He's also been slightly less efficient as a scorer than last season, when he shot 49.6 percent from the field compared to 46.9 percent in 2014-15. His mid-range jumper has suffered as the Kings have forced him to become more of a true center, and he's shooting just 21.4 percent from the high post, according to Vorped.

But look at other star 5s around the league. Guys like Nikola Vucevic and Al Horford are shooting more efficiently, but no other full-time center is even scoring 20 points per game this year. Cousins' field-goal percentage has suffered because his teammates, with the exception of Rudy Gay and Darren Collison, range from average to atrocious on offense.

Vucevic needs to beef up his interior defense before he can be considered a real superstar.
Vucevic needs to beef up his interior defense before he can be considered a real superstar.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press/Associated Press

Like Cousins, Vucevic is having a great year and has broken out as an impact player in his own right. But he's also a graduate of the Kevin Love School of Rim Protecting, with just 0.7 blocks per game, tied for 33rd among centers.

Horford is a very good player and a key cog in the Hawks' well-oiled machine. He's not as invaluable as Cousins, though, and shares the load with capable teammates like Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap.

DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah are all averaging under 12 points per game. Dwight Howard has been out with a knee injury since January. Andre Drummond's offensive tools are negated by his 38.3 free-throw percentage. Hassan Whiteside has come up huge for the Miami Heat but doesn't have the track record to suggest he's anything but this year's Jeremy Lin.

The only centers really in Cousins' class are Marc Gasol and Al Jefferson, two solid veterans whose teams would fall apart without them.

Jefferson is averaging 17.2 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game, while Gasol is putting up 17.9/7.9/1.7. Gasol is a better ball distributor, with 3.8 assists per game, and a superior free-throw shooter.

Gasol (left) has faced off against Cousins twice in the 2014-15 season.
Gasol (left) has faced off against Cousins twice in the 2014-15 season.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Given that Gasol is statistically superior to Jefferson in most categories, including win shares and Value Over Replacement Player (per Basketball-Reference.com) we'll use him to test Cousins' claim as the best center in the NBA.

Gasol's clear edge over Cousins comes on defense, where the Spaniard has proven himself capable of shutting down even the most talented opponents. He won the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year and fouls opponents less often than Cousins, who leads all players regardless of position with 4.1 per game.

Advanced stats don't provide much more clarity on who the better player is. Cousins' 24.99 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is second among all qualified centers behind Whiteside, who used to back him up in Sacramento. But Gasol's 3.8 Defensive win shares rank fourth out of all players, and his 4.7 offensive win shares are two above Cousins' season total, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Part of the blame for Cousins' low win shares can be attributed to his bout with viral meningitis, which cost him 10 games and derailed the Kings' early success. Still, time spent on the sidelines is time he couldn't help his team.

In two matchups against Gasol this season, Cousins has averaged 19.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 blocks per game on 46.7 percent shooting. Gasol averaged 17.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.5 blocks on 39.1 percent shooting in the two Grizzlies-Kings games Cousins played in.

Cousins is a superior scorer and rebounder to Gasol, who has him beat on D. Statistically, they're pretty much split, but I'd give Gasol a slight edge because he has to share the paint with Zach Randolph while Cousins plays alongside the lesser Jason Thompson.

Randolph steals touches and rebounds from Gasol, while Thompson doesn't take much away from Cousins' stat line. If Gasol didn't have someone averaging 16.4 ppg and 11.2 rpg next to him, he might have more gaudy numbers. Instead, he has a team with the second-best record in the Western Conference.

Only players listed as centers on ESPN.com were considered. Players like Anthony Davis, Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan did not qualify, even though they occasionally play center.

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