BY: Ben Wong
While I am definitely enjoying this season more than any in recent memory, watching Kings basketball can still be a very frustrating experience. It seems like for every good play the Kings make, there’s a bad play or two to counter it.
For every nifty Isaiah Thomas layup, there’s a defensive breakdown that leads to an open three. For every slick Rudy Gay finger roll, there’s a lack of spacing that leads to an easy bucket at the other end for the opponent.
For every Ben McLemore highlight dunk (and there have been plenty), the Kings miss another free throw. And another free throw. And then another.
One King in particular seems to epitomize this “good play-bad play” concept. He happens to be the Kings best player, DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is having a monster year: 22.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.2 assists per game. He is the go-to-guy on offense, and the recipient of a new 4 year, $62 million dollar contract. I consider it a privilege to watch the big fella every night, and his skill around the rim is just about unparalleled.
However, Cousins is awful at pick and roll defense. Opposing teams consistently target Cousins on defense, sending his man to set picks out on the perimeter. This is a tactic that has produced many easy buckets for Kings opponents.
Cousins gets exposed when he gets caught in “no-man’s-land.” Here, Cousins falls in the trap set by Miles Plumlee and Eric Bledsoe of the Phoenix Suns.
Plumlee sets a high pick, which should force Cousins to come out and “show” against the point guard. However, Cousins is set up deep and not near the pick. Additionally, Thomas is the guard being screened. The chances of the diminutive Thomas fighting through a Plumlee (6’11”, 255 lbs) screen is next to none.
Cousins is caught in “no-man’s-land.” He is not guarding Plumlee. He is not guarding Bledsoe. Thomas has been screened off by Plumlee with Aaron Gray-like excellence and Miles has a free lane to the hole. Cousins is standing stiff with minimal bend in his knees and his hands slump down by his sides. A youth league coach would shudder at Boogie’s posture. He is not guarding the jump shot, the driving layup, nor the pass to Plumlee, and is not in a stance where he can adjust to any of those options sufficiently.
“Big Cuz” eventually commits to Bledsoe, but by then it’s too late. A lane has developed for the Suns star guard to hit the cutting Plumlee. The stiff Cousins can only reach meekly at Bledsoe’s bounce pass.
Plumlee slams down the easy finish on his way to a 12-point and nine-rebound performance in a 9 point Suns win.
Though this is a constant scenario, it’s not all his fault. Cousins is not a great defensive player, but his teammates aren’t defensive wizards either. Sacramento is awful defensively right now, and currently rank 29th in opponent field goal percentage (47.3%), 29th in points allowed (103.3), and 29th opponent 3-pt field goal percentage (40%).
After trading Luc Mbah a Moute for Derrick Williams in late November, Sacramento became a more athletic squad, but lost their best defender. Second year reserve Quincy Acy (23 years old) is currently the best defensive King. The Kings are very young, and will hopefully grow into a more complete unit. But for now, the Kings (and Cousins) struggle mightily defensively.
Here, the weak Kings team defense is exposed by the champion Miami Heat.
Early in the third quarter, LeBron James is isolated against Williams above the left elbow. Again, there is a significant amount of space between Cousins’ man and Cousins. LeBron James and Chris Bosh are perennial All-Stars, and work at a high level in challenging conditions. Cousins is giving these two great players plenty of room to work with and is anything but challenging.
Williams doesn’t fight through the screen, and this time it is D-Thrill who is stuck in no-man’s-land. He is not sinking down to defend Bosh and he is not in front of James. This is an example of Cousins being victimized by his teammates. The depth between Cousins and Bosh again means that Cuz doesn’t “show” against the guard. Neither Williams nor Cousins defends the passing lane. Boogie again has a stiff, un-athletic posture and as a result is unprepared for a James drive, jumper, or pass.
Williams remains in no-man’s-land, the flat footed Cousins is left reaching hopelessly for an exquisite bounce pass from the King. This breakdown forces Jason Thompson (red circle) onto an island. He can either crash towards the cutting Bosh and leave the three point shooter wide open (how many times have we seen that?) or hold his position. He joins Williams and Cousins in the “stuck in between, not actually guarding anyone” category.
Thompson and weak side defender Ben McLemore don’t get there in time, and it’s an easy throwdown for Boshasaurus Rex. If Coach Michael Malone doesn’t clean this up, the Kings will continue to be easy prey for offenses all over the league. Malone should focus first on Cousins, because if we’ve learned anything this season it’s that the Kings live and die on the play of Boogie.
Ben Wong can be reached on Twitter @BenWong3