After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?
The more things change in Sacramento, the more things stay the same. The Kings have a brand-new stadium, a new coach, and a handful of new young players, but there’s still only one reason to watch the team. DeMarcus Cousins has spent six seasons with the franchise in what has been an exercise in futility that would make Sisyphus wince. In that time, everything around him has turned over — players, coaching staff, front-office executives, and ownership — but the Kings are still no closer to making the playoffs than they were before his arrival. The closest they came was last season, when they finished eight games out with a 33–49 record, their best record since the 2007–08 season. The team’s decade of failure is enough to test even the most patient man, and Cousins is not a man known for his patience.
Coach Dave Joerger’s arrival in Sacramento is the biggest change for the Kings this season, coming over after a successful stint in Memphis with the Grizzlies. The parallels between the two teams are obvious. The Kings have been zigging over the last few years — adding big man after big man to complement Cousins — while the rest of the league has zagged. They signed Kosta Koufos away from the Grizzlies before the start of last season, and they used lottery picks on Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis, and another first-rounder on Skal Labissiere. They have five centers on the roster and the only way to play them all is to use supersized lineups with two traditional big men similar to the ones Joerger used in Memphis.
For that plan to work, though, they would need to play much slower. The Grizzlies were 27th in the league in pace last season, while the Kings played at the fastest rate in the league. Owner Vivek Ranadivé has a case of Warriors envy, bringing in George Karl to replace Mike Malone two seasons ago because he wanted his team to play faster, even though it didn’t have the personnel to do it. The Kings had a size advantage over most teams they faced, but instead of trying to take advantage of that, they tried to run their opponents off the floor. In most cases, they ran themselves off the floor. Big men need time to get up and down the floor, and they need time to establish position in the post. The first question Joerger will need to answer this season is what type of team he wants to be.
Joerger didn’t have a choice in Memphis. The Grizzlies had already established an identity under Lionel Hollins, and there’s only one way a team can play with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and be successful. Cousins is different. He’s as big and as skilled as the Memphis big men, but he’s also younger and more athletic, and has quietly become one of the most versatile big men in the NBA. He made a jump last season when he started taking (and making) 3s. He shot 33.3 percent from beyond the arc on 3.2 attempts a game, which is not a great percentage, but it was enough to force defenders to pay attention to him on the perimeter and also create opportunities for him to take them off the dribble.
The issue is whether the Kings’ other big men are good enough to justify having Cousins play that far away from the basket. Koufos is a solid NBA center, but he’s never been a great scorer, and most teams will live with leaving a smaller defender on him. Cauley-Stein isn’t comfortable playing in the post, and he’s more effective rolling to the rim in smaller lineups that spread the floor. Papagiannis and Labissiere are raw projects, and a team with playoff aspirations probably shouldn’t be giving either player much court time at this stage in their careers. Modern NBA teams should play big lineups only if they have two really good big men whose talents necessitate them being on the floor. The Kings might be one short.
The team’s most productive two-man pairing involving Cousins last season was when he played alongside stretch-4 Omri Casspi. The Kings had a net rating of plus-5.4 in the 965 minutes the two played together last season, and no other pairing on the roster that included Cousins had a net rating of higher than plus-2.9. When Cousins played with Koufos, they had a minus-3.6 net rating, and when Cousins played with Cauley-Stein, they were at minus-2.9. The Kings signed Anthony Tolliver and Matt Barnes in the offseason, so they have enough perimeter-oriented forwards to space the floor around Cousins for most of the game. They could play a four-out lineup and use him as a post player or a rim runner, or they can play a five-out lineup with Cousins at the 3-point line and create a ton of space at the rim for players like Rudy Gay and Darren Collison to attack.
Cousins’s biggest improvement over the last few years has come on the defensive end. He’s capable of anchoring a defense without another traditional big man in the lineup, as he’s become much better at reading the floor from the help side and anticipating what the other team is going to do. He’s still an inconsistent defender and will never be a premier rim protector, but he’s much better on that end of the floor than his reputation suggests. The proof is in the numbers. The Kings have never been a good defensive team with Cousins, but they have become much better when he is on the floor than when he isn’t.
Like all big men, Cousins is at a disadvantage in the pick-and-roll because he can’t switch screens and guard smaller players, so he has to concede something, whether it’s dropping back and giving up an open midrange jumper, or hedging the screen and counting on his teammates behind him to rotate over. That’s why the league has been moving toward smaller and more mobile defenders upfront — especially in the playoffs, in which Draymond Green, at 6-foot-7, and Tristan Thompson, at 6-foot-9, each logged prominent minutes at center in the NBA Finals. However, that mismatch goes both ways. A bigger player can use his size to take advantage of a smaller defender in the paint, and there isn’t a big man in the league who is better at creating his own shot than Cousins. There’s a battle between size and speed at the center position, and speed has been winning in the last few postseasons. Cousins could change that, but he has to get to the postseason first.
The issue with Cousins has never been about what he does on the court. It’s about everything else. He slipped in the draft in 2010 because of concerns about his character and attitude, and he hasn’t done much to address those concerns in the last six seasons. Cousins has clashed with every single coach he has ever played for except Malone, and he and Karl were reportedly at each other’s throats from the very beginning. His demeanor has not won him many friends with the referees, and he has led the league in technical fouls three times in his career. If the NBA had not started suspending players for technicals, Cousins might have been able to challenge Rasheed Wallace’s record of 41 in a season.
Winning covers up a lot of flaws, and Cousins has never been on a team good enough to win. He has never been on a team in which he was not the undisputed best player and the coaching staff could afford to alienate him to set an example. He has been allowed to develop a lot of bad habits because the Kings have had no choice but to indulge him. He couldn’t have come into a worse situation in the NBA, and it’s impossible to know how he would look if he had played for a more stable organization. The history of the league is full of talented big men who needed a while to get their heads on straight. Rasheed is one example, and Zach Randolph is another. When Z-Bo was bouncing around the NBA in his 20s, few would have guessed he would become a beloved figure and a culture-setter in the locker room in his 30s. When Keith Smart took over as the Kings head coach in 2012, he figured Cousins’s maturation process would take five years. Cousins was 21 at the time. He’s 26 now.
The clock is ticking in Sacramento. The Kings were never going to trade him before they opened their new stadium. That’s not the time to begin a full-fledged rebuilding job. However, if they get off to a slow start this season, they will have to consider it. If they try to trade him next offseason, with only one year left on his contract, they won’t get nearly as much in return unless he agrees to an extension with the acquiring team. If they try to move him at the deadline, though, he will almost certainly be the best player on the market, and he would be the one guy who could impact the balance of power around the league.
The Warriors are overwhelming favorites in the West, and the Cavs are the overwhelming favorites in the East. No team in their respective conferences can match up with them when they play small, and there aren’t many big men in the NBA who can force either team to stay big. Cousins is one of the only players in the league who might be able to force the Cavs and Warriors to adjust to him, and he has spent his entire career locked out of the playoffs. Hidden on a perpetually disappointing team, he is one of the few players in the league capable of changing the landscape of the game. That’s going to change soon — whether that means Sacramento getting markedly better or a trade is on the horizon. Is Cousins ready for that, and is the league ready for him?