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DeMarcus Cousins Is A Usage Monster

With a 20-26 record, compiled against the still-comparatively-tough Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings are the picture of an average NBA team. They aren’t outright bad — unlike during most of the franchise’s recent history — but the best they can hope for this season is to outduel the likes of Utah and Portland for the West’s eighth and final playoff berth and then be served up as first-round fodder for the mighty Golden State Warriors.

It isn’t an exciting fate, particularly if you subscribe to the treadmill theory, which says average is just about the worst place an NBA team can be (and which powers the dim, devolutionary logic behind long-term tank projects like the 76ers or the more insane short-term variety like the notion that the Clippers should tear down and trade Chris Paul). But despite the Kings’ collective mediocrity, there are a lot of interesting things going on in Sacramento. Leading the league’s fastest-paced offense, Rajon Rondo is having a resurgent season; Omri Casspi has morphed into one of the NBA’s top long-distance snipers, even going toe to toe with the unstoppable Steph Curry, at least for a few minutes; and Rudy Gay continues to defy advanced metrics and attract trade interest.

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Oh, and DeMarcus Cousins is thundering around the league this January, averaging 32.6 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 49.5 percent shooting, 57.6 percent true shooting and 42.9 percent from 3-point range. He’s been a monster, as you may have gathered over the last week, when he slapped up back-to-back 48- and 56-point games. Those point totals are stunning, of course, but they’re also underpinned by something even more impressive: Boogie is having damn near the highest-usage season by a big man in NBA history — even more alarming for a guy who plays one of the most violent, impactful, forearm-shiver-to-the-sternum-type styles in the league.

Cousins’s current usage percentage is 35.8 percent — practically an unheard of number for a center. Among post-merger bigs, only Jermaine O’Neal’s 36.2 mark, set in 44 games with the post-Artest 2004-05 Pacers, is higher, and that was a one-season oddity born out of necessity when injuries and suspensions left Indiana bereft of offensive firepower. (O’Neal’s next-highest seasonal usage was 30.2 percent — still sizable, but not off-the-charts.) Cousins has already played 38 games this season, and his prolific usage is actually part of a three-year trend that’s seen his scoring volume soar ever skyward:

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And Cousins’s offensive load has only gotten heavier in the 2016 calendar year. Since Jan. 1, Cousins’s usage has been a staggering 37.8 percent, including several recent stretches in which he eclipsed 40 percent usage over multiple-game stretches. As a point of historical comparison, it’s estimated that even Wilt Chamberlain barely scraped past 36 percent usage during his immortal 1961-62 season, when he famously averaged 50.4 points per game. (Thanks, inflated early-1960s pace factors!) So we may be on our way to witnessing Cousins shoulder the largest share of a team’s offense ever conducted through a big man.

Cousins does it with a skill set that scarcely resembles that of his fellow frontcourt anchors. A typical team’s best big man looks a lot like Utah’s Derrick Favors or Denver’s Kenneth Faried: solid all-around players who, first and foremost, can rebound, defend and score with efficiency. (Volume scoring and passing are nice skills too, but they aren’t as indispensable for a big to possess.) Cousins flips that formula around, particularly on offense, where his physique and thunder-dunks often draw comparisons to Shaq, who was hugely dominant but also hugely traditional by big-man standards. Unlike the Big Aristotle, Cousins’s scoring efficiency has been something more like middling while his raw volume has been off the charts, and he counterbalances some of those missed shots with the touch and willingness to set up teammates with his passing. (He doesn’t receive quite the same gushing as other passing bigs, but he’s behind only Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Al Horford in points created through assists by big men, according to SportVU.)

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Some of Cousins’s big scoring numbers are owed to the Kings’ style of play. According to data from Synergy Sports Technology, only two bigs — Boston’s Kelly Olynyk and Cousins’s teammate Willie Cauley-Stein — get a higher proportion of their offense out of the transition game than Cousins. These are easy buckets that are a byproduct of the team’s rapid-fire pace and Boogie’s ability to beat his man down the floor. (Although he’s only middle-of-the-pack in efficiency on these possessions — mainly because of adventures in ball-handling; when leading the break or attempting to finish it on the wing, Boogie turns the ball over nearly as often as he scores1 — a mediocre transition possession is still far more valuable than a pretty good half-court one.)

And some of it simply comes from old-fashioned post-ups: Cousins sees six plays per game (fourth-most in the league) and is one of the game’s more efficient finishers in the post. In that sense, Cousins is cut from the same time-worn cloth as big men from the days of yore. With the rest of the league obsessed with the pick-and-roll, Cousins has a far smaller proportion of his offense generated from the NBA’s current bread-and-butter play than his frontcourt peers. This is partly because Cousins’s point guard, Rondo, is a miserable free-throw shooter and can’t shoot from range — two important parts of keeping PNR defenders on a string. But it’s also because the Kings remain happy to dump the ball down to the post and let their big, punishing center eat up possessions. (Cousins is also great at pinning his man when he’s being fronted, allowing Rondo to toss an entry pass over the defender for an easy basket.) The philosophy isn’t limited to Cousins (see: Gay, Rudy), but it’s what lets Boogie shine in quite the way that Boogie does.

This collision course between basketball’s past and its future (Boogie is only 25 years old) is part of what makes Cousins so exciting. Amid a wave of seemingly modernized bigs like DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka and even Rudy Gobert — defensive specialists who excel at their roles, but whose narrowed archetype is built on explosive pick-and-roll finishes and weak-side cuts off action generated by somebody else — Cousins’ offensive game is different, more self-sufficient, more like the one-man-army style center that roamed the league’s frontcourts throughout the 1990s. Thirty-seven percent of Cousins’s buckets have been unassisted this season — a relatively high proportion for a big man. Rondo has certainly done his share of creating for others, but Cousins chips in there as well, with the third-highest assist rate on the Kings.

All of this might be why the box score itself has been found wanting when it comes to quantifying Cousins’s true offensive impact this season. Then again, it also isn’t clear how we should interpret a center vying for the single-season usage crown in 2016, on a fast-paced offense that’s barely more efficient than league average. Cousins could just as easily be a statistically perplexing anomaly on a statistically perplexing team as he could be the prototype for a future generation of high-scoring bigs. But one thing is certain: Cousins’s quixotic bid to surpass O’Neal, Chamberlain and Co. will be one of the more entertaining statistical subplots of the season’s second half, for no reason other than the closer Cousins comes, the more Cousins we get.

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Footnotes

  1. Twenty-five percent of his transition plays end in a turnover; 35 percent result in a score.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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