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The Kings' Real Problem

Ever since the Sacramento Kings gave DeMarcus Cousins an “indefinite” suspension in late December that lasted all of two games, the enigmatic big man has been a constant in trade rumors. Concerns about his attitude and maturity caused Cousins to slip in the draft three years ago, before a Sacramento franchise with nothing to lose grabbed him at No. 5. And while a change of scenery might do wonders for his career, the Kings can scarcely afford to trade one of their only assets for pennies on the dollar.

Cousins has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential, but his uneven development is as much his organization’s fault as his own. Not only do the Kings have one of the least talented rosters in the NBA, the talent on hand doesn’t maximize the strengths or minimize the weaknesses of their franchise player. Sacramento hasn’t made much progress since selecting Cousins three years ago, dealing him now would only re-set a rebuilding process that’s already years away from completion.

Building a team around Cousins would be difficult even if he was a model citizen. A 6’11 270 low-post scorer without much lift in his legs, he’s one of the NBA’s more unique young players. In a league becoming smaller and more perimeter-oriented by the year, Cousins is a throwback, a wide-bodied big man with great footwork and an advanced low-post game. As a result, many of the young players coming into the NBA aren’t a great fit with his game.

A low-post scorer, particularly one who plays below the rim like Cousins, needs room to operate in the paint. Ideally, his frontcourt partner would be a “stretch 4”, a big man who can drag his man out to the perimeter.

Robert Horry is remembered for his clutch shooting, but as a 6’10 240 forward with a 34% career three-point shooting percentage, he was the perfect complement to Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.

However, while all three Hall of Fame big men averaged at least 2.3 blocks a game in their career, Cousins is only at 1.1. His positioning and defensive awareness will undoubtedly improve as he gets older, but he’s never going to have the jumping ability to protect the rim at an elite level. That’s why he takes so many charges, commits so many fouls and hasn’t been able to improve Sacramento’s defense, which has been a bottom-3 unit since 2008.

These flaws aren’t insurmountable, they just mean Cousins needs to be paired with a very specific type of big man: a shotblocker who can consistently step out and hit a 15-20 foot jumper, if not a three-pointer. Someone like Serge Ibaka, Kevin Garnett or LaMarcus Aldridge.  Of course, finding a player like that is easier said than done, but there’s no better place to look than the top of the lottery.

Sacramento has already missed several chances to put the correct pieces around Cousins. 2011 was one of the weaker drafts in recent memory, but there were better players on the board at No. 10 than Jimmer Fredette, including Isaiah Thomas, whom they took at No. 60. Fredette has rebounded from a disastrous rookie season, but he’s still a 6’2 190 scorer who can’t run a team or play acceptable NBA defense. Unless he can be paired with a big point guard who can defend both backcourt positions, like Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse, he’s still a sixth man, at best, on a good team.

Thomas Robinson, whom they took at No. 5 this year, has been one of the most disappointing rookies in the NBA. He could still become an excellent player, but he’ll never justify being picked in the Top 5, especially not in Sacramento.  A hyper-athletic 6’9 240 power forward who can’t block shots or shoot from the perimeter, Robinson is the worst possible complement to Cousins. He should be in an uptempo pick-and-roll system that allows him to attack the rim and run the floor, not playing in a half-court offense built around a low-post scorer.

Rather than making each other better, the two young big men make each other worse. Neither is very effective outside of the paint: Robinson has an effective field goal percentage of 24% on jumpers, Cousins is at 29%. Robinson’s man can double Cousins with impunity in the post while Cousins’ man can sit in the paint and prevent Robinson from rolling to the rim. And the very last thing Sacramento should be doing is encouraging Cousins to move his game away from the basket.

On the court, the biggest thing holding Cousins back from stardom is his abysmal field goal percentage. He’s shooting 41% from the field, which would be an unacceptable number for a guard, much less a center. That comes primarily from his quixotic desire to become a face-up big man who shoots mid-range jumpers and takes guys off the bounce. However, since Robinson, Jason Thompson and Chuck Hayes aren’t great jump-shooters, Cousins doesn’t have the room he needs to operate in the post anyway.

Sacramento, a bad small-market team with shaky ownership, has little chance of attracting quality free agents. As a result, a front office that can’t draft is a recipe for mediocrity. That’s why none of the rationales for dealing Cousins make sense: no team is going to give them a foundation piece in return and there’s no guarantee they get another anywhere else. Dealing him wouldn’t improve their lottery position much either: at 12-20 and with a -4.8 point differential, they’re already in line for a Top 7 pick in a draft without a clear-cut No. 1 player.

Nor does Cousins have much leverage, despite hiring Dan Fegan, an agent who specializes in player extraction. Cousins won’t be a restricted free agent until the summer of 2014, which means his first chance to leave Sacramento won’t come until 2015. And that can only happen if he turns down a long-term contract for two more seasons, which guys coming off rookie deals never do. In the modern NBA, young stars don’t leave until their second long-term contract unless their team doesn’t want to pay them. The Maloofs may not have much money, but they have to pay someone over the next few years, if just to reach the salary floor.

For all his flaws, Cousins is a 22-year old center with a 19.7 PER. Odds are he’ll be more mature at 28 than at 22; the Kings just have to surround him with more talent by then. Rather than dealing their best player or firing yet another coach, the Maloofs should start looking at whose been in charge of their roster. Cousins and Sacramento was always a relationship of convenience, not love; it’s an arranged marriage both sides need to make work.

 

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