If the playoffs started today, the Kings would be the Western Conference ninth seed. Regardless, this comes off a recent road trip and back-to-backs. Prior to two back-to-back losses, the Kings were the eighth seed, and thus would have the opportunity to try and stop the Warriors’ nearly unstoppable offense. But, what is more interesting than the Kings’ turnaround, which I’ve written about previously, is how Sacramento utilizes their strong interior players in a high-paced system to win games. This system is classic George Karl, though perhaps, with the best interior talent he has ever had.
First, it is necessary to talk about DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. Boogie has faced significant criticism regarding attitude throughout his NBA career. Most of it is justified. Cousins is an incredibly emotional and filterless big man. Early in his career, this interfered with his desire to win. This season, however, that has changed. Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders contends the change has to do with Rajon Rondo. Nonetheless, Boogie’s rhetoric was noticeably different in his SLAM interview from earlier this season, and that has translated to victories on the court.
The turnaround for the Kings has occurred over the past month. I’ll get into one big reason why later, but for now, it is clear to see the Kings’ teamwork is finally starting to kick in. Steve Kyler is correct, and that SLAM article has a sentence that shows it. In reference to watching gametape, Boogie explained Rondo’s influence his own approach, he stated: “I’m actually leaning that way now. The biggest influence in that has been Rondo. He’s big on film—big on film. You know, we sit by each other on the plane so it’s just constant.” The benefit of said film study can be seen in a recent game against Minnesota, where Boogie reads the Timberwolves standard switch off an interior cut to find the open man.
All of this is to say that Boogie’s improved play has come with his increased maturity. In fact, this past month, Cousins has averaged 34.4 points per game and 13.6 rebounds per game. To understand how historically great that is, we utilized StatMuse’s NBA data, looked at what player’s, over the course of one month, averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds. Afterwards, we compiled it into a chart that you can interact with below:
Figure 2 Stats via SportVU Player Tracking
Essentially, those figures have happened 25 times over the past 33 years. But more impressively, when you examine those statistics, Boogie is one of two players since 1985 to have averaged 33 points and 12 rebounds over the course of one month (the other being Shaquille O’Neal). Effectively, this month, DeMarcus Cousins has laid claim to the title “best big man in the NBA.”
So, outside of extra film sessions paying off, what has caused Boogie to have such a strong month? The answer is the return of his rookie frontcourt partner: Willie “Trill” Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein was injured early in the season, causing him to miss significant time. Nonetheless, since his return, the Kings are 8-5.
Tony Xypteras of SB Nation recently wrote a masterful qualitative analysis for why Trill’s return has benefited the Kings. From a more quantitative angle, though, the Kings’ improvement in the face of Cauley-Stein’s return is primarily due to the former Kentucky star’s defense. Let’s examine how opponents shoot against Trill in the paint when he is the primary defender and compare it to the other rookies in his class:
Figure 2 Stats via SportVU Player Tracking
What Figure 2 shows is that Willie is vastly superior to every rookie big man, outside of Myles Turner, at defending inside the painted area. Not only is Cauley-Stein the best interior defensive big man in his class, but moreover, he ranks 14th in that same metric throughout the entire NBA.
The reason Cauley-Stein’s presence has benefited Boogie, and thus the entire Kings’ team, is that the former allows the latter to focus primarily on the offensive end. Hence, this is the first year of Cousins’ career where he does not need to be the Kings’ rim protector. The benefit is evidenced by the fact that, in only 141 minutes together, Boogie and Trill have a +11.8 net rating. NBA.com’s stats page does not consider the two players to have enough playing time together to rank, however, if you extrapolate the data they would be the 29th best combo in the NBA and 3rd best amongst two big-men.
One of the criticisms many have made about playing two bigs together at the same time is that it clogs the floor. Thankfully for Kings fans, Boogie has developed a three-point shot, shooting nearly 35% from beyond the arc this season. This leads to a unique combination of big men, unlike anything the NBA has previously seen. Boogie is a dominant post player, however due to his newly discovered three-point shot, he can step out and still maintain his threatening presence on offense. On the other hand, Cauley-Stein can step out and score on cuts to the basket, where he has a 61.2% conversion rate.
Considering the offensive and defensive fits of Cousins and Cauley-Stein, the Kings are developing a historically unique, modern system centered around two big-men. They abuse the interior like many teams from a decade ago, however the bigs are also talented enough to space the floor, which is a fairly contemporary phenomenon. Additionally, it is rare that an offensively dominant interior force — perhaps the most dominant in the NBA — is paired with a forceful rim protector, while neither clog the floor.
Paradoxically enough, it is Cauley-Stein’s near savantish rim protection that allows Cousins to focus primarily on the offensive end, where the latter abuses his opponents. As the two interior presences continue to play together, all NBA fans should be interested in their development, as the Kings, Karl, Cousins, and Cauley-Stein may be the new mavericks of the association.