If everyone knew DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t a star, maybe he wouldn’t bother his coaches

Dave Berri our esteemed General Manager decided to comment on DeMarcus Cousins’ recent actions. He was kind enough to post them over at the Huffington Post as well.

DeMarcus Cousins has demanded a trade from the Sacramento Kings. Or maybe he didn’t demand a trade. Certainly he has made his employers somewhat unhappy with his behavior, behavior that people argue goes back to high school.

Before I offer some thoughts on Cousins’ behavior, let me note that his behavior reminds me of the actions of another group of people I come into contact with on a regular basis.

Of course, I refer to academics. No, most academics don’t often wow a person with their physical skills (although you can be wowed by their lack of physical grace). Academics, though, can exhibit the same attitude issues. To be fair, I am not talking about all academics. But certainly some people in the academy can exhibit attitudes. And this comes about for the same reason athletes exhibit this kind of behavior. When you are the best in your group (i.e. star player on the team, smartest kid in class), you tend to act… well, like you’re the best in your group.

In general, when I come across a fellow academic who is very accomplished, I tend to be okay with the attitude that can come with these accomplishments. What can be annoying — at least to me — are people whose attitudes are not aligned with their level of accomplishments. Yes, some academics can have attitudes without actually doing much (i.e. they have not published much, are not great teachers, etc…). And that can be a problem. At least, such behavior in other people bothers me (if I did something like this… well, I wouldn’t be as bothered).

The lack of alignment between attitude and accomplishment reminds me very much of the Cousins case. It seems clear that Cousins thinks he is a star. And perhaps he has some reason to reach this conclusion. After all…

And this season — after just five games — Cousins is averaging 11.2 points per game and leads the Kings with 10.6 rebounds per game (see Basketball-Reference.com for all of these box score numbers). These numbers suggest Cousins is a star.
But if we delve deeper into the numbers it becomes very clear: Cousins ain’t a star in the NBA.

To see this point, let’s look at some more numbers.

DeMarcus Cousins vs. an Average NBA Power Forward
Below average numbers in red
2011-12 numbers as of January 4, 2012
Statistics Average Power Forward 2010-11 2011-12
Points 19.5 23.8 20.5
Adjusted Field Goal Percentage 49.0% 43.2% 31.0%
Free Throw Percentage 72.3% 68.7% 74.1%
Field Goal Attempts 15.9 20.9 21.3
Free Throw Attempts 5.4 8.4 9.9
Offensive Rebounds 3.5 4.5 10.6
Defensive Rebounds 7.7 10.0 8.8
Steals 1.4 1.8 2.2
Turnovers 2.7 5.6 4.8
Assists 2.8 4.2 1.8
Blocked Shots 1.3 1.4 2.6
Personal Fouls 4.9 6.9 8.1
Wins Produced per 48  minutes 0.100 -0.064 0.018

The table above indicates that Cousins is above average — for an NBA power forward — on the boards. He is also good at getting steals and blocked shots. And during his rookie season, he could get assists. All of this is good.

But the numbers in red are where Cousins has problems. We can start with the issue of turnovers. Cousins — relative to an average player at his position — is almost twice as likely in his career to turn the ball over. So Cousins clearly has a problem hanging on to the ball.

When he does hang on to the ball, though, we see a much bigger problem. Cousins is well below average with respect to shooting efficiency. Simply put, Cousins can’t shoot very well. This is a very big problem because Cousins is very fond of shooting the ball. As a rookie he led the Kings in shot attempts from the field. And this season, no player on the Kings who has logged at least 50 minutes takes more field goal attempts per minute than Cousins.

This would be fine if Cousins was an efficient scorer. But only three players on the Kings in 2010-11 were less effective scorers (in terms of adjusted field goal percentage). And all three of these players didn’t shoot much last season (relative to Cousins) and all three are not employed in the NBA this season.

This season Cousins is very much employed (despite the attitude problems) and has gotten much worse. No player in the NBA who has taken 50 shots from the field this season is shooting worse than Cousins.

To see how much worse, let’s talk about wins. All of the above numbers are used to calculate the number of wins Cousins has produced as an NBA player. When we take that step, we see that Cousins’ negatives overwhelm his positives. In 2010-11 — when most coaches thought Cousins was one of the best rookies — Cousins only produced -3.1 wins (yes, that is a negative number). Only one player in the NBA was less productive last season. So Cousins was not really one of the best rookies in 2010-11.

This season Cousins is better. Well, at least he is no longer in the negative range. But with only 0.05 Wins Produced this season, he is still well below average. Yes, he has improved dramatically with respect to rebounding. But because Cousins likes to shoot and so far can’t shoot — he is simply not a productive NBA player. In sum, he is not a star.

One should note, that Cousins probably likes to shoot because the NBA rewards this behavior. Studies have shown the coaches’ voting for the All-Rookie team is primarily determined by points scored. Points scored also historically get a player paid. So Cousins — despite being a poor shooter — has an incentive to take as many shots as he can. More shots lead to more points, and more points cause people to think a player is a “star.”

But when we look past scoring totals and focus on efficiency, it’s very clear that Cousins is not a very good NBA player. And if this was understood by Cousins and the Kings coaching staff, one suspect Cousins would behave very differently.

To see this point, let’s talk briefly about baseball. Can one imagine a baseball player who was one of the least productive players in the game demanding a trade? Or causing his coaches problems day after day? Such behavior from poor players is discouraged because

  1. Performance in baseball is well understood
  2. Bad performance can easily get you sent off the roster (i.e. to the minors)

In basketball, though, performance is too often evaluated in terms of totals, and not in terms of efficiency. Consequently, players know that the more they shoot — even if they don’t shoot very well — the better they will be seen. Cousins seems to be taking advantage of this issue with respect to player evaluation in the NBA. And as a result, it is hard for his coaches to discourage his bad behavior. The coaches think Cousins is a “star,” and therefore they are reluctant to simply sit Cousins until he learns how to

  1. Shoot the ball efficiently
  2. Stop turning the ball over
  3. Behave himself

Let me close by noting that if Cousins did (1) and (2), then he probably wouldn’t have to do (3). Again, people tend to be somewhat tolerant when a “star” has an attitude. What shouldn’t be tolerated is people who are clearly not good at what they do acting like they really are a “star.” At least, I have a hard time tolerating such behavior (again, in other people).


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