Boogie Cousins' Real Feud Is With Math

Sacramento seems destined to choose between feuding coach George Karl and big man DeMarcus Cousins. Do numbers support the notion of backing the Kings' "star" player?

Nov 19 2015, 5:25pm

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Are George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins finally getting along? Maybe. Maybe not. What we do know is this: Over the past week and a half, the Sacramento Kings have gone 3-1 with Cousins averaging 33.3 points per game

Additionally–and perhaps more importantly for Karl–Cousins recently told the Kings' owners that he doesn't want his coach fired. This counts as news! To understand why, let's go back in time.

Last February, the Kings signed Karl to a four-year deal. A few months later, Karl reportedly wanted to wanted to trade Cousins, only team ownership wouldn't let that happen. Then, after a 1-7 start this year, Cousins reportedly cursed Karl out. Following the alleged outburst, Kings general manager Vlade Divac reportedly asked the team if he should fire Karl. Meanwhile, Karl wanted to suspend Cousins and was then told that he couldn't.

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All of the above suggests two things: (a) if Karl and Cousins have somehow managed to get on the same page, it probably won't last; (b) sooner or later, Sacramento may be forced to choose between coach and player.

If that sort of impasse comes to pass, who should the Kings send packing?

In the NBA, conventional wisdom holds that while skilled coaches are valuable, star players are all-but-irreplaceable. So when in doubt, the coach is out. Or at least stripped of some clout. Case in point: who can forget Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James actually overruling head coach David Blatt and calling for the shot at the end of a playoff game last May?

James appeared to have more pull within the Cavaliers organization than Blatt. Given who matters more to the team's success, that shouldn't be surprising. James has played for five different NBA head coaches, and generally speaking, all of those coaches have won with him. Because James is just that good. You can't win in the NBA without the very best players, and as such, it makes perfect sense to keep them happy, even if that means throwing the occasional coach under the bus.

So, the real question for Sacramento is simple: is Cousins one of the NBA's very best players? Or at least good enough to make Karl expendable?

It's not me, it's you. –Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Some numbers suggest that's possible. Last season, Cousins averaged 24.1 points per game (No. 5 in the NBA) and grabbed 12.7 rebounds per game (No. 3). He also appeared in All-Star game and was voted to the All-NBA second team.

On the other hand, deeper analysis suggests Cousins isn't really among the league's best players. Years ago, Dean Oliver, author of Basketball on Paper and a basketball analytics pioneer, identified the four factors that determine success in basketball: shooting efficiency from the field, turnovers, rebounds, and free throws. Missing from that list? Points scored.

(It is worth noting here that the Kings briefly employed Oliver—he started with the team in October, 2014 and was fired in July. If they wanted to listen to him, they certainly had their opportunity)

Obviously, points are important, because the team with the most points at the end of a game wins. Yet when evaluating individual players, points can be deceptive. A player can pile up more of them just by taking more shots. And "taking" is the key word, because basketball players literally take shots from their teammates.

Consider last year's Kings. Cousins attempted 18.1 field goals per game, the highest number on a team that averaged 80.7 field goal attempts per game. Cousins also missed 23 games, in which Sacramento averaged 79.9 field goal attempts. When a player is removed from a roster, all the shots that player was taking don't vanish. They just get taken by someone else.

This is why scoring totals are a poor player evaluation tool, and why shooting efficiency is so important. Is a star player actually better at scoring than the guys who otherwise would be taking his shots? If not, he isn't much of a "star."

Historically, the average player at Cousins' position posts an effective field goal percentage of 49.2 percent. Yet for his career, Cousins has only had an effective field goal percentage of 46.4 percent. He's scoring points, but using the shots he's taking from his teammates inefficiently. That's not helping the Kings!

Moreover, the average player at Cousins' position turns the ball over 2.9 times per 48 minutes, while Cousins turns the ball over 5.2 times per the same span. So although Cousins is very good at rebounding and getting to the free throw line, he has significant deficiencies when it comes to two of Oliver's Four Factors.

TFW you're below average at something, but so what? –Photo by Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

This matters. The Wins Produced measure of player performance puts all of these factors– and everything else in the box score–into one number that summarizes a player's contribution to victories. An average player produces 0.100 wins per 48 minutes (which makes sense, since an average team wins 0.500 games per 48 minutes).

For much of his career, Cousins has actually been below average in terms of Wins Produced. Despite all the points. Despite all the rebounds. In fact, Cousins has only finished one season with more wins produced than an average NBA player–and that was in 2013-14, when he not coincidentally posted an above average effective field goal percentage for the first and only time in his professional career.

So, back to our big question: if the push-pull between Karl and Cousins comes to shove, should the Kings do whatever it takes to build around their "star" player? Probably not. Sacramento has failed to win 30 games in any single season Cousins has been with the franchise, and unlike Anthony Davis, he generally has been part of the reason his team has struggled.

Yes, Cousins can have games where he shoots efficiently, limits his turnovers and helps his team win. And yes, he has obvious skills to go with his considerable physical gifts. But when we look carefully at the more than 350 NBA games he has played in, we see a supposed franchise cornerstone who cannot consistently hit his shots and has trouble avoiding turnovers. And those things add up to losses.

Fortunately for Sacramento, people around the NBA still see Cousins as a positive difference-maker. Perhaps Divac can take advantage of that misperception and use Cousins to acquire a collection of players who shoot efficiently, avoid turnovers and do the things that lead to consistent winning. Sure, the Kings could end up firing Karl. But the numbers suggest they would be better off listening to him.