The list of the 10 NBA players whose shots have been blocked most often this season includes many of the aggressive, diminutive guys you might expect: Isaiah Thomas. Kemba Walker. Derrick Rose. Damian Lillard. DeMarcus Cousins.
Yep: Cousins, the 6-foot-11 star who was just traded from the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans, isn’t just on that list, he leads it. The Pelicans have acquired one of the best players in the NBA — and the most blocked.
Cousins’s shots get blocked 1.6 times per game, which represents a slight decrease from the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, when opponents stuffed Cousins 1.8 times per contest. (He was the most-blocked player in those seasons, too.1) All of which is surprising, considering the 26-year-old’s clear advantages in height, strength and skill.
So what’s going on? Cousins is a volume shooter (more than 20 attempts per game), which means he inherently risks getting blocked more often than your average player does. Yet that doesn’t solve the mystery. Nearly 40 percent of his attempts are from 16 feet out or more, where shots almost never get blocked. (He’s up to a career-high five 3-point tries per night.) And while it’s fair to think that referees might not exactly be best friends with Cousins — who has a league-high 19 technical fouls already — blown calls wouldn’t completely explain his blocked-shot rate, either. According to Synergy Sports, Cousins draws shooting fouls on 8.5 percent of his plays around the basket, tied for the highest rate in the NBA.
Still, he has a number of tendencies that make him susceptible to the swat.
He’s predictable, for one. Cousins holds the basketball longer per touch than any other NBA center — an average of 2.34 seconds — giving teams an opportunity to size him up once he’s gotten the ball in scoring territory. Clubs also know that he’s generally more comfortable from the left block, where he carries out about 70 percent of his post-ups.
This isn’t to suggest that teams can simply bumrush Cousins and not get burned. The big man — averaging almost five assists per night, second among NBA centers — is more than capable of kicking the ball out to shooters.
But teams appear to have learned that they can often use a second defender to attack him from certain angles when he holds the ball too long. Opponents have sent hard double-teams at Cousins an NBA-high 2.9 times per game this season, according to Synergy. That’s not a new phenomenon: Teams sent a league-high 2.5 hard doubles at Cousins in 2015-16, too, giving clubs at least two players in good position to redirect his shot attempts.
For all Cousins’s strength, he isn’t very springy, and the league has gotten smaller and more athletic in recent years. One way to see this trend is to look at how his leap stacks up against that of younger players: Cousins posted a max vertical jump of just 27.5 inches during the 2010 NBA Combine. Since that year’s draft, just two players — Nikola Vucevic in 2011 and Dakari Johnson in 2015 — have been selected despite getting so little liftoff at their combines.
Before he was traded, I asked Cousins why he gets blocked so much, and he said that I didn’t have to search for a complicated explanation. “It’s because I can’t jump,” he said. “It’s really as simple as that.”