Going off solely their 20-39 win-loss record, the Sacramento Kings would have a pretty bleak future. Yet, the team actually has quite a few players who could be on the roster when things finally turn around. There's Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore. But the one player with the most upside is center DeMarcus Cousins.
Of course, how you'd answer the question depends on your definition of upside. If you determine upside simply as the player who has the most improvement to make, then Cousins probably wouldn't be the pick. It'd probably be McLemore.
Yet, upside in this sense is the player with the highest overall ceiling, regardless of how much or how little he has to improve. Going off that interpretation, Cousins is the only suitable answer. As good as McLemore may become, it'd be hard to match DMC's current status in the game.
That's because Cousins has already established himself as one of the game's elite big men. What's more, at 23 years old, the center is still relatively young and could continue to get better.
If there's one player worth building around, it's Cousins.
Cousins has already established himself as one of the top centers in the NBA. In fact, in his latest positional rankings, Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal ranked Cousins as the top center in the league.
According to ESPN.com's positional stats, Cousins leads all centers in scoring at 22.6 points per game. He's also fourth in rebounding, second in free-throw attempts per game, fifth in assists, first in steals and third in double-doubles.
What's more, the only player consistently close to Cousins in these rankings who's also younger is Andre Drummond. So not only is DMC one of the best centers right now, but it figures to be that way for a long time.
Beyond just the raw statistics, which paint a picture of dominance from Cousins, the center also passes the eye test. There aren't many centers who possess his versatility, quickness, ball-handling ability and range. As Marc Spears of Yahoo! points out, DMC is the most offensively gifted center the league has to offer.
The only other Kings player who can even come close to Cousins, in terms of status among their respective position, is point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Among point guards, Thomas is fifth in scoring, fifth in free-throw attempts per game, 15th in assists, 15th in steals and tied for 31st in assist-to-turnover ratio. In short, Thomas is a very good point guard, upper echelon even, but his status among floor generals is nowhere close to Cousins' status among centers.
Thomas will likely continue to improve as he gains more experience guiding the ship, but it's hard to imagine him ever becoming a top-three point guard, even in his prime. Cousins is still years from his physical prime, and he's already a top-three center.
No matter how you cut it, Cousins has been the most valuable player on the Kings.
Among players who have logged more than 100 minutes with the team, Cousins is the leader in win shares per 48 minutes. In other words, what DMC does while he's on the court contributes more to a win than what any other player provides when they're on the court.
Cousins is also second in total win shares, trailing only Thomas. Yet, the center has played in 50 games compared to Thomas' 59. Overall, IT has played an additional 416 minutes than Cousins. In comparable playing time, DMC would provide more value. In fact, their respective win shares per 48 minutes tells us as much.
|Team Leaders in Win Shares, WS 48 Minutes|
|Offensive win shares||Defensive win shares||Total win shares||Win shares per 48 minutes|
Perhaps most striking of Cousins' value to the Kings is what happens when the center doesn't play. In the nine games he has missed, Sacramento is 0-9. In contests in which he starts, the team is 20-30.
Obviously, the Kings aren't great even when he plays. They still have a lot of room for improvement there. Yet, the team is awful when Cousins doesn't play.
For example, according to NBA.com, Sacramento has a plus/minus of plus-0.3 when he's on the court. Among players who've played more than 200 minutes on the season, he's the only one to have a plus plus/minus rating.
When you judge his overall performance—offense and defense—against the opponent, Cousins fares better than any other current Kings player. According to 82games.com, DMC has a 10.2 net rating in terms of player efficiency rating (27.8) and opponent PER (17.7). Gay is second on the team, with a PER net rating of 7.1. That's a pretty big gap between Cousins and second best on the team.
Cousins Plays Both Ends of the Court
Nobody would mistake Cousins for an elite defender. That said, he's one of the better defenders the Kings have. Considering defense is Sacramento's Achilles' heel, that's noteworthy.
Going off of defensive win shares, nobody on the team is close to Cousins. He's provided 2.5 of them. The next-closest player is Jason Thompson, who has 1.0 defensive win shares.
The same can be said of DMC's defensive rating of 102. Only Reggie Evans has a lower one, but Evans has only logged 64 total minutes with the Kings. That's way too small of a sample size to provide conclusive data.
Even if we're to assume Evans keeps that up, that still makes Cousins the team's second-best defender. Among its best offensive players—Thomas and Gay—none of them provides close to the same value on defense.
Going back to the net ratings from NBA.com, it's also clear the team's defensive rating is better when Cousins is on the court. In fact, its defensive rating of 104.5 is only slightly better when Travis Outlaw is on the court (104.3). Other than that, no other current King has a better on-court defensive rating.
He also disrupts a lot of plays. As was mentioned earlier, he leads all centers in steals per game. His 1.3 blocks per game, while not elite, are also a career best for the center.
As a team, the Kings are 25th in defensive rating. There's obviously a lot of improvement that can be made. But it helps if your best offensive player is also a competent defender. That's true of Cousins.
When the Kings inked Cousins to a four-year max extension prior to the season, they were basically staking their future to the center. A team isn't going to give a max extension to a player unless it thinks it's someone worth building around, and Cousins is worth building around.
For all the headaches he may cause with his fiery temper, his talent and productivity are undeniable. Based on that alone, there are only a handful of players who are better franchise cornerstones going forward.
As good as McLemore is, it's hard to imagine him ever rising to Cousins' level in prominence. He'll need a lot of improvement to even reach DMC's current status. Let alone, while the rookie is young, it's not like Cousins is old. He still has plenty of time before he even reaches his prime.
He may not be perfect—in fact, he definitely isn't. But then again, who is? Ultimately that's neither here nor there. What matters most is Cousins is Sacramento's best player now and into the future.
For better or worse, the Kings have tied their fortunes with Cousins. Frankly, that's not a bad thing.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
If you want to talk Kings, hit me up on Twitter @SimRisso.