Pick-and-Roll: Nikola Jokic vs. DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic


Sometimes, things are what they are. Unless they aren’t. Every shot thrown at the rim isn’t the same. A Ray Allen rhythm pull-up in space isn’t equal to Ben Wallace taking a contested fade away from the free-throw line, even if both find the bottom of the net. No matter how deep into the NBA’s atomic structure an analytically adept front office maestro looking for any slight advantage would like to dive, it’s never “all about numbers.” And no matter how hard the crusty, round shouldered legends sneer at the rise of data-driven nature of the modern NBA, the “eye test” no longer is enough.

Funny thing, it was NEVER an either-or kind of thing. The following exchange is not a reenactment. Don’t try this level of nuance at home (just kidding. Please, try to use nuance and context like this daily when you’re talking basketball).

James Holas

Hey man, I’m tired. I’m sick and tired.

I’ve tolerated smart people positing Third Team All-NBA, big-time bucket-getter DeMar DeRozan isn’t good. I’ve put up with NBA Eggheads, aka Them™, pulling VORP and RAPM and Win Shares out of their pocket protectors to verbally diagram how 20-year old Devin Booker, who scored almost 25 points per game after the All-Star break, sucks. By and large, I’ve bitten my tongue; the analytics-heavy side of fandom sees things differently (aka, wrongly), but who am I to judge?

Then I saw this confident declaration from a Pelicans blogger, my guy Mike Pelissier:

And then I saw Miami Heat-centric guy Nekias Duncan craft a well-written bag of dog poo (you my boy, Nekias!)  that came to the conclusion that, yes, Nikola Jokic IS a superior offensive player to DeMarcus Cousins.

This is the final straw. I’m fed up.

DeMarcus Cousins is fresh off of a season in which he averaged 27 points per game (tied for sixth in the league with flamethrower Dame Lillard) while shooting 36.1 percent from three (for comparison’s sake, Dame shot 37 percent from deep, and James Harden a “scorching” 34.7 percent). He operated in the suck-hole of Sacramento, where he’s had pillars of basketball mediocrity such as Rudy Gay and Darren Collison as his second and third leading scorers over the past three seasons. In his 17 games with the New Orleans Pelicans, he and Brow may not have clicked immediately, but his robust numbers (24.4 points, 12.9 rebounds, 37.5 percent from three on almost six attempts a game) in The Big Easy bodes well for the coming season.

Cousins has been an offensive engine cursed with hodgepodge rosters and crappy shooters his whole career. New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry marks his seventh coach in eight NBA seasons. Listen, Denver’s Nikola Jokic is a special passer and a precocious all-around offensive player. The kid has future star written all over him.

Don’t tell me that Jokic (16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game on 57.8 percent shooting) is a better offensive player than DeMarcus Cousins. Don’t you do it.

(You’re going to do it, aren’t you, Jesse?)

Jesse Blanchard

Fidgeting nervously in his chair, shifting his weight from one side to the next and back again, Jesse pondered the consequences of his choice. A single bead of sweat moved across his brow.

His desk cluttered with paints, sketches and San Antonio Spurs trinkets, Blanchard attempted to clear his work area and his mind. His attention settled briefly on the bookshelf and his Marvel’s Civil War hardcover. Fights have broken out with less believable plot lines than this.

“Well, you see…I love Cousins…,” he stammered. “I mean, I’ve been Team Boogie for years, and…

“Well, you see…”

“Ummm…”

“OH, F— IT. DAMMIT….THAT PASS THO

Whew. That was tough to get off my chest.

First and foremost, let’s establish one thing: I’m not a member of #Them™.

I respect the hell out of DeMar DeRozan and think his game is valuable, even in today’s NBA. The manner in which some of your proclaimed “eggheads,” dismiss anything that deviates even slightly from spreadsheet perfect efficiency is beyond me. (Though I respect the hell out of the work they put in and use a lot of it to help shape my own opinions).

But, JESUS CHRIST DID YOU SEE THAT PASS?!

My admitted bias towards passing big men (I was addicted to the Kings as led by Vlade Divac and Chris Webber, before they soured it with Mike Bibby and cursed the franchise to damnation for years) might be in the way here, but I don’t care. That’s not court vision, it’s the precognitive ability to see the court and run the play in his mind before it even happens. First, there’s the screen, which just absolutely lays out the defender. Then, reading the open space and moving into it while simultaneously positioning his body for the overhead touch pass…

Why is it so hard to consider Nikola Jokic as a possibility here?

Holas

This is a lot like the “Lonzo Ball will be elite despite other guys being more talented,” argument I see springing up. It’s easy to fall in love with court vision, and a high level passer as your offensive hub can make for some beautiful basketball. I get the love. The kid is efficient and effective.

But there’s a difference between nifty passes and timely scoring helping goose an offense that’s slathered in shooters and having to single-handedly go to war against set defenses while Kosta Koufos and Ben Mclemore dork around on the court. Cousins scored 25 or more points 46 times last season, Jokic cracked the 25-point barrier 13 times. DeMarcus made three or more three-pointers 23 times last year, Jokic did it once. I completely understand this love affair with efficiency, I do. The human mind craves order. To many, missed shots and confusion are an affront to us as a civilization.

But in the real world, cracking eggs to make omelettes and music festivals are a thing. There’s beauty in chaos and power in imperfection. If cute passes and efficient losing are your touchstones for being better, more power to you. I’ll take the guy who can shoulder a massive production load, night after night (…and lose).

And I get that winning and losing basketball takes more than one guy. Are we going to talk about how much better fitting the pieces Denver have around Jokic are than Cousins ever had in Sacramento?

Blanchard

If Ball were a quality scoring threat from all three levels of the court, I think yours might be an apt theory for Jokic.

To me, passing and quick, quality decision-making are the most valuable skills to NBA offenses. Shooting, driving, athleticism…plenty of players have varying degrees of these attributes but lack the ability to connect one skill to the next, or plug those traits into a system in, if not a meaningful way, a more optimal one. Even star scorers like Carmelo Anthony struggle to translate their individual success to an overall healthy offense.

Here’s the rub for pass-first players, though: it takes at least one more complementary skill to truly activate court vision and IQ to its fullest extent.

Players like Ball, or even Ricky Rubio before him, are effective but far from franchise changing because they lack the ability to consistently draw off-ball attention from the more disciplined defenses.

Consider Boris Diaw for a moment. He wasn’t a superstar player, and in some contexts, it would be hard to call him a good one. But when his size in the post or craftiness in his handle proved too much for his specific matchup, he would dissect entire defenses like a star player. Those matchup traits made him a threat and activated his passing ability.

Now, let’s take a look at Jokic’s scoring ability:

Now, there’s certainly a point to which efficiency is overrated. A player like Otto Porter, who, if very efficient in absurdly narrow ways, doesn’t have the same utility as a guy who sacrifices efficiency to be more of a force with the ball.

Shot creation is important.

Jokic has that ability.

Few players are as prolific or efficient as Anthony Davis, but it should be noted 69.6 percent of his two-point field goals have come off assists (shots others created for him) over the course of his career. Last year, that number dipped to a 64.5 percent, the lowest of his career.

By comparison, Jokic was assisted on only 56.6 percent of his two-point field goals. None of this is to suggest Jokic is on Davis’ level, but it should highlight his self-contained scoring ability has some significant punch to it. It might be his secondary strength, but it’s a pretty developed one.

If anything, Jokic’s efficiency is high enough to suggest there’s plenty of room to increase his utility before his self-created shots dip into ineffective territory. He can hold his position on the block, uses his footwork to maintain his balance, his length to shoot over and around defenders, and knows how to work to his spots to begin possessions from an advantage.

As for the quality of teammates around Cousins and Jokic, it’s true the Denver Nuggets are a far more competent organization than the Sacramento Kings. But how much does Jokic elevate his teammates? How much does Boogie?

It’s not as if the Kings have been bereft of talent throughout Cousins tenure. Tyreke Evans was a positive for the Pelicans in their playoff run. They’ve also, at different times, had Isaiah Thomas, Patrick Patterson, Seth Curry, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside.

All have gone to develop into quality players elsewhere. On paper, parts of this former Kings’ roster look to be perfect complements to Cousins. And while it’s hard to separate the organizational dysfunction from Boogie’s role in the stalled development of such players, it’s not unfair to say he played at least some part in it. If not by temperament–which, hell, I’d be disgruntled too playing for such an incompetent organization–then perhaps to some degree by playing style.

Holas

I mean, that’s all well and good. Jokic can create his own shot a little, which is pretty important. I guess.  I didn’t flog this horse corpse enough yet, so I’ll say it again: Jokic is a young stud and seems destined for stardom. Being assisted on less than half of his 10 two-point attempts a game (in a hair under 28 minutes a night) seems pretty good.

Boogie Cousins was assisted on only 42 percent of his 15.5 two-point attempts a game in Sacramento last year, man. A measley 30.2 percent of his 13 two-pointers a game were assisted in New Orleans. If Jokic is “significant punch,” what do we call this? Magnificent bullets?

And I almost fell out of my chair in amazement at you trying to spin Sacramento as some sort of talent haven in Boogie’s tenure. The NBA is all about pace and space, right? Evans is widely viewed as one of the worst Rookie of the Year’s ever and shot 27 percent from three in his first go ‘round in Sacramento. Pat Pat played a total of 41 games and less than 1,000 minutes while taking less than a three a game when he passed through Sacramento after two and a half years in Houston. James Johnson flamed out in Chicago and Toronto before his 54-game stint in Sactown. Seth Curry was undrafted and the Kings was his fourth team in three years, Hassan a second rounder who had to go play overseas to get his act together. This is the talent?

Let’s look at what Cousins was working with last season: Rudy Gay was playing really well but was done for the season early in December. Darren Collison is a quality backup masquerading as a starting PG. Ben McLemore was Ben McLemore. Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes are washed up malcontents.

Undrafted, over the hill, disappointing, mismatched: these are the terms I’d use to describe the guys Cousins ran with in Sacramento last season.

By comparison: Danilo Gallinari, Jamal Murray, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Juan Hernangomez, even Emmanuel Mudiay…all first rounders. Harris was allegedly a key asset in the failed Kevin Love deal and the Nuggets reportedly refused to send Murray to Chicago as part of a package for Jimmy Butler. Gallinari has been a 19-point per game scorer when healthy the last two years, and along Wilson Chandler formed a potent 1-2 scoring forward duo.

Let’s not play the “but he had talent” card. Riff on Sacramento’s fractured, incoherent front office issues, talk about how they’re on their sixth coach in seven seasons. Don’t you dare try and compare that suckitude the Kings slopped on DeMarcus with to the deep, burgeoning well of talent that Jokic has the honor of working with.

Better teammates is definitely a factor, and then we look at how MUCH both Boogie and Jokic were asked to do. Boogie’s usage last season was a herculean 36.5 percent, second to Westbrook’s 41.7 percent, and just ahead of All-stars and All-NBAers Demar DeRozan, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas. Jokic? His minutes and usage (23.5 percent) fell in line with hoop luminaries such as Greg Monroe, Julius Randle and JJ Redick.

Let me ask you: somehow you can swap those two last season. How does Denver fare? Is Sacramento better?

More from James Holas

Blanchard

I’m glad you asked. First of all, let’s clear something up. I don’t mean to suggest the guys listed from Sacramento’s old roster were significant pieces. I’m merely saying they developed into something so much more outside of Sacramento.

Most of the blame should go to the front office and coaching staff for that. Still, you’d think someone, anyone, would spark playing next to Cousins. Even a whisper of making players around him better.

I love watching Boogie, and I think in a better, more stable situation he can be the guy who anchors a healthy offense and makes the game easier for his teammates instead of working to drag them along.

Jokic already does that.

I respect DeMarcus Cousins’ ability to physically dominate any opponent and then counter with skill. It’s a rare trait few players have (including Jokic). At some point in a playoff series, you absolutely NEED that.

But there are two types of franchise players, in my humble opinion: Guys who can go out and carry teammates and guys who can lift teammates up; who are able to expand their game as needed to fill-in the gaps and let teammates flourish in their roles. We discussed this to an extent with Kawhi Leonard versus Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Before Leonard evolved like a damn Pokemon and turned into the guy who can just single-handedly take over games too).

Yes, Denver has accumulated some nice talent. But all of its talent was disconnected and futile before committing wholeheartedly to Jokic as its centerpiece a month or two into the season.

Cousins is the superior individual player, Jokic is easier to deploy. It doesn’t take long for a team to find its identity with a player like Jokic as the centerpiece, and that’s a very significant part of the battle. It makes a world of difference to know who you are as a team and what looks are available night in and night out. With everyone on the same page, everyone flourishes.

Let’s ignore efficiency and discuss real estate. From Jokic’s shooting chart, you can see he operates in the middle of the floor at all three levels, diving to the front of the rim for easy baskets, perched at the elbows for jumpers, dribble handoffs, high-low passes and extended to the top of the key, sniping away for three-pointers and stretching three-pointers beyond their breaking point.

In the art of war, Jokic holds the high ground on every offensive possession. From the middle of the floor, it’s impossible to double team or shade help without an obvious pass and he’s tall enough to see over defenders. Forget Morey zones, the middle of the court is the most prized real estate in basketball because getting the ball there opens up the easier shots for teammates less capable of creating for themselves.

It would be enough to make a defense move side-to-side and occasionally collapse. Jokic first inverts a defense, lifting an opposing big man outside of his comfort zone. Then, after he initiates the side-to-side movement with quick reversals, he gives defenses another rotation point to track at the top of the key.

Everything flows around him like water and eventually defenses get tired of flailing amidst the waves and just drown.

Cousins is, somehow, underrated as a passer. The guy creates plays. He’s also comfortable in the same spots as Jokic. But just as Jokic isn’t in the same league as Boogie in terms of pure shot creation, Cousins isn’t anywhere close to Jokic in reading the floor, anticipating plays and making quick decisions on the move. You can see the seams in his game and sometimes they unravel in silly turnovers or fouls. Jokic blends everything with perfect, subtle gradations like Leonardo Da Vinci applying his famous Sfumato technique.

Boogie threads the needle to find open players. Jokic passes players open. That’s huge. Boogie is capable of more incredible feats; Jokic is capable of creating easier ones on a more consistent basis.

More from Jesse Blanchard

Holas

Hey, before we wrap up, help me find my eyes. They just rolled out of my head and under the coffee table. That 7-foot doughboy is now a basketball Leonardo Da Vinci? Dear lord, you’re now a protractor-carrying member of Them™.

If Jokic is Da Vinci, Boogie is Michael Bay. Screw your subtle gradations, Boogie is flash bang grenades and floor shaking car explosions. Why worry about water flowing to a gradual death when you can blow them the hell up?

We can go round and round about it, but I think I’ve badgered you into begrudged acquiescence; Cousins is the superior player for now. And I can reluctantly admit that, while I think Boogie IS the better offensive player, Jokic being less of a headache and such a gleeful passer seems to make him the guy who’s easier to play with, and that matters.

But that’s a much as I’m budging. If Jokic is Da Vinci, then who’s Julius Randle?

Blanchard

Randle? I’m going to have to go with Bob Ross making happy little mistakes and turning them into trees.

As for water versus grenades, an explosive will take a chunk out of a mountain. A river will eventually cut through it and reshape the land.

Holas

So you’re saying that Jokic is more a sculptor? He’s going to remake the Nuggets with his sense of touch, his passing? Jokic is really the blind girl from Lionel Richie’s “Hello” video?

Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins

Blanchard

Come on now, what Jokic does is art. Look at this pass:

It’s the kind of pass you want to frame so you can take down the Mona Lisa and hang in the Louvre.

Jokic is channeling his wide-eyed innocence and sculpting for us the hero we didn’t know we needed. What’s more impressive than a picture perfect recreation of Lavar Ball?

NIkola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins

Holas

You’re really the worst. And dammit, Lavar Ball has been Lionel Richie this whole time and now I can’t sleep at night. This is my punishment for crossing Them™.


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