In a league getting smaller by the year, there aren’t many teams left trying to build around the center position. That’s what made Wednesday night’s game between the Sacramento Kings and the Detroit Pistons so intriguing, as it featured an individual match-up between DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, two guys who should be competing for spots on the All-NBA team for the next decade. Neither fits the mold of a traditional back to the basket big man and they represent different paths the position could take in the modern NBA.
The first thing that stands out above both is how huge they are. Drummond checks in at 6’11, 280 with a 7’6 wingspan while Cousins is right behind him at 6’11, 270 with a 7’6 wingspan. There are plenty of centers who are long and lean and capable of getting up and down the court but few who have the size and strength to bang with either guy around the rim. If they had been a little shorter, they both have the physicality to have been great NFL linemen on either side of the ball. They come into most games with a huge physical advantage over their opponents.
Drummond’s advantage comes from his freakish combination of size, speed and leaping ability. He moves like a much smaller player and he can change ends as fast as any big man in the league. Detroit mainly uses him as a roll-man in the two-man game, as he attracts so much attention around the rim that it opens up the game for everyone else. If you don’t send help on Drummond in the paint, there’s no one who can prevent him from catching the ball above the rim or clearing out room and getting position on the offensive glass.
Cousins is a more skilled and cerebral player. He’s incredibly shifty with the ball in his hands and he knows how to contort his body to slip through cracks in the defense or lower his shoulder and create them himself. While he doesn’t always have control of his emotions on the court, he knows what he is doing when is out there and he can think the game at a pretty high level. There’s pretty much no way to guard him 1-on-1, whether he is in the post, facing up on the perimeter or rolling to the rim.
It didn’t take long for Cousins to show off the full extent of his game on Wednesday. In the first few minutes, he blocked a shot on the perimeter, corralled the rebound and then took the ball coast-to-coast before finishing in traffic and scoring a reverse lay-up between two defenders. It was the type of move you would expect a point guard to make, not a center. He took Drummond out on the perimeter and started burying 3’s, daring him to guard out on the three-point line, something which he isn’t very comfortable doing.
On the other side of the floor, Cousins had the strength to push Drummond out of the paint and force him to post-up outside of his comfort zone. Drummond isn’t a great post scorer in a best-case scenario so forcing him to create with his back-to-the-basket at 10+ feet isn’t a recipe for very efficient offense. He predetermines what he wants to do and a lot of times he is getting into his move and shooting the hook shot before he even looks at the basket.
What makes Drummond so dangerous in Detroit is that it doesn’t really matter how effective he is as a 1-on-1 scorer. The Pistons play him in max space with three shooters and a ball-handler around him so his mere presence in the lane creates a gravitational effect that creates openings for everyone else on the floor. Run enough pick-and-rolls in enough space for someone with Drummond’s size and athleticism and he is going to find his way into stats almost in spite of himself.
It’s pretty much the exact opposite of the situation in Sacramento. Cousins is typically paired with another non-spacing center (Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein) alongside a PG who struggles to shoot and score (Rajon Rondo) and a ball-dominant wing who doesn’t do a great job of spacing the floor (Rudy Gay). The Kings are constantly playing in tight quarters and Cousins doesn’t have the advantage of playing in anywhere near as much space as Drummond.
Under Stan Van Gundy, there’s a pretty clear plan in Detroit and everyone on the roster has been acquired with complementing Drummond’s skill-set in mind. Under Vivek Ranadive, Sacramento has been burning through coaches and GM’s at a rate that would make Al Davis blush. There’s a lot of ill-fitting pieces and even if there was a plan in Sacramento it has changed so many times that it’s hard to discern what it is from a distance.
In the second half of the game on Wednesday, the Pistons moved Drummond off Cousins and put their smaller frontcourt players on him in order to counter his perimeter game. From there, the obvious move for the Kings was to put Cousins in the post but the problem was the Pistons could pack the paint and force him to be a passer to a bunch of guys who couldn’t shoot. The Kings went 9-for-16 from 3 on Thursday but Cousins made four of those shots himself.
If there’s one thing that’s been clear in the way that Van Gundy has built Detroit it’s that any team with a dominant big man in the modern NBA has to have a ton of shooting. That’s why he got rid of Josh Smith and Greg Monroe for nothing - no matter how talented they were, their inability to space the floor made them a poor fit next to Drummond. Divac, in contrast, drafted Cauley-Stein and signed Koufos in the offseason under the idea that Sacramento would overwhelm teams with size at the point of attack and that Cousins was skilled enough to make up the difference.
Of the two big men, Cousins is the older, more experienced and more versatile player. The difference is that Detroit has the perfect pieces next to Drummond while Sacramento is still trying to figure out how to build around Cousins in Year 7 of his time with the franchise. It was hard to watch that game on Wednesday and not think that Cousins is the better player but none of that is going to matter if the Kings can’t put the right pieces around him.
After so many years of losing with the Kings and ruffling feathers on and off the court, the obvious criticism with Cousins is that he doesn’t have the mentality to lead a winning franchise. The difficult part about that is that it’s a completely unknowable hypothetical, given the personnel that has been around him in Sacramento. For as dominant as a player like Cousins or Drummond can be in the right situation, so much of a big man’s ability to succeed depends on the type of players you put around him.
Just look at how much better Drummond is playing in max space this season as opposed to the start of last season, when he was playing in suffocatingly small spaces next to Smith and Monroe. Or go back to his NCAA days at UConn, where a poorly constructed team around him caused him to fall all the way to the No. 9 spot in the draft. There were a lot of questions about whether Drummond even loved the game and whether he would amount to anything at a next level - how could a guy with his physical gifts not dominate such inferior competition?
As it turns out, the biggest thing holding Drummond back was his teammates. Whether or not he had the mentality to succeed didn’t matter as much as whether or not he had the proper floor spacing around him and the guards who could get him the ball in the right spots. From there, it’s just a matter of gravity and leverage and height and weight. He’s just bigger than everyone else on the floor and when he’s allowed to play like the biggest man on the floor, it’s hard to stop him.
That is, on most nights. When Drummond goes up against DeMarcus Cousins, he is facing someone whom he can’t push around and whom can dictate the action to him on both sides of the ball. Cousins can score out of the post, shoot the ball from the perimeter, put the ball on the floor, draw double teams and find open guys on the move, rebound as well as any player in the league, push guys out of the post on defense and protect the rim. He may not be the nicest or most well-adjusted guy in the world but who cares when he can do all those other things?
As Drummond rampages his way through the NBA in Van Gundy’s system, it’s hard not to think of what Cousins could do in a similar situation. In seven seasons in Sacramento, Cousins has never been paired with a high-level pick-and-roll guard and a stretch PF, the two prerequisites for getting the most out of a 7’0 in the pace-and-space era. Even if Cousins is never as effective in the two-man game as Drummond, his ability to do so many other things on offense could make him even more dangerous when playing in max space. If the Kings ever decide to start over, Cousins is the wild card who could change the balance of power in the league if he winds up on the right team.