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April 16, 2012
Projection vs. Production
DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans

by Bradford Doolittle

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There is a lot about the Kings that we still don't know. That begins of course with their chaotic arena and ownership situations. After the league's and the city's best efforts to keep the team in Sacramento suddenly collapsed, we no longer know where the Kings will be playing long term. The league's most vagabond franchise has already gone from Rochester to Cincinnati to Kansas City-Omaha to just Kansas City to Sacramento. Now they may become the problem of Anaheim, or Seattle or maybe even Kansas City once again.

Not only does the franchise lack a permanent arena, it also is still searching for the right core group of talent to build around. As with all things related to the Kings, nothing is certain. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins are as talented as any young duo in the league. They have the kind of elite talent you expect when you draft from the kind of slot that comes with big-time losing. Yet the Kings' wins-per-82-games number has gone like this since Evans turned pro: 25-24-26. Too often, the one-and-done players have undermined their NBA-level talent with AAU-level sensibilities.

Today's Projection vs. Production looks at the pre- and post-All-Star performances of Sacramento's star-crossed tandem. It seems like they've improved over the course of the season as they've become more acclimated to playing under Kings coach Keith Smart. But have they? What does a closer examination of the numbers reveal?

Our projection system SCHOENE forecasts a full suite of our favorite metrics, but the bottom-line number to watch for is WARP (Wins Above Replacement), which measures how many more wins a player adds to his team's total than a freely available guy plucked off the scrap heap. While no single number can capture everything that happens in an interdynamic team sport like hoops, WARP points you in the right direction. When you see a WARP number that surprises you -- and remember, we know when to be surprised because we've predicted all these WARP scores -- the next step is to ask why. All the WARP numbers you see in this article have been prorated to 82 games, just to give the results an air of normalcy in this abbreviated NBA season.

BETTER THAN WE THOUGHT

C: DeMarcus Cousins, Kings
Projected WARP: 6.0; Pre-ASG WARP: 8.9; Post ASG WARP: 8.8

Cousins was pretty much the player we projected during the season's first half, especially after his public spat with former coach Paul Westphal ended with a coaching change. He was a high-volume, low efficiency player who hit his forecasted true shooting percentage (.510 vs. .511) on the nose. Looking closer, he surprised in a couple of ways. He didn't venture out to the 3-point line as often as we thought. The comparables SCHOENE generated suggested Cousins would develop an increased appetite for the 3-ball but, luckily, he didn't take the bait. For his career, he's 5-for-30 beyond the arc.

Cousins was a beast on the boards during the first half, the primary reason he exceeded his WARP projection. He grabbed 11.3 boards per game before the break, including 4.5 on the offensive end. That, combined with a blocked-shot percentage that was nearly double his forecast, marked Cousins as a breakout player. If he could only improve his shot selection and contribute to a better team defense, the Kings might have a star on their hands. Unfortunately, in terms of bottom-line value, Cousins has been virtually the same player in both halves of the season. How he's gotten that point, however is a story in itself.

His high-volume, low-efficiency ways have become even more pronounced. His usage rate rose from 28.3 percent before the break to 30.6 percent after. That level of usage is normally reserved for star perimeter players like Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant. Accordingly Cousins' true shooting percentage has dropped to .483 -- an unacceptable mark for a player that burns through that many possessions. Of the eight players that have used 30 percent or more possessions over the whole season, the lowest true shooting percentage is the .573 figure put up by Carmelo Anthony.

The perception has been that Cousins has had a big second half but in reality, it's only his scoring average that has improved. Well, that's not exactly true. His assist rate -- a strength of his game during his rookie year -- has bounced back after a paltry first half in which he averaged just one assist per game. That's up to 2.4 in the second half, which is about what he posted last season. And his turnover rate, which is still too high, has been much better than his rookie season. However, those gains have been undermined by a drop in rebounding percentage on both ends of the floor and an inability to stay out of foul trouble, an issue that threatens to plague Cousins his whole career.

The bottom line with Cousins, as with Evans, is that the Kings haven't improved as a team, going 10-20 in the first half and 9-21 since. The offense has been much better and Cousins has contributed to that. However, a defense that was already anemic has gotten worse. Sacramento's team defensive rating has risen by two points per 100 possessions since the break. The Kings have been 1.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Cousins on the bench. That's despite the fact that team's rebounding numbers are vastly superior when he's in the game.

Until Cousins begins to impact both ends of the floor, he's not going to be the kind of foundation player the Kings were counting on when they drafted him.

WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT

G: Tyreke Evans, Kings
Projected WARP: 7.0; Pre-ASG WARP: 4.5; Post-ASG WARP: 1.2

As recently as last season, the Kings were hoping that Evans would improve his decision-making skills to the point that he could become a bigger version of Rose. This season, those expectations were scaled back, and the club was merely hoping he could bounce back from his injury-marred 2010-11 season.

It's been a positional odyssey of sorts for Evans. According to 82games.com, he's played about two-thirds of his minutes at shooting guard, and has even logged some time at small forward. He's struggled terribly on the offensive end when he's been asked to run the attack. Meanwhile, his defense has been a liability when he plays on the wing. Like Cousins, he hasn't had nearly the all-around impact that the Kings needed so badly when they drafted him.

Before the All-Star break, Evans didn't play as much point guard, especially once Smart took over as coach, but he's slid back and forth between positions more often since. Regardless of position, Evans has gotten worse the more he's been asked to do, the opposite of what you'd want from a player that was once looked upon as a possible face of the franchise.

Evans' offensive efficiency has edged upwards as the season has progressed. He's cut back on his usage rate a bit and his true shooting percentage has risen from .493 to .517. Of course, that's still a poor number. Evans has struggled with his long-range shot and has cut way back on the number of attempts he takes behind the arc. He's shooting just 15 percent from out there over the last six weeks, so if he keeps that up, he ought to cut out the 3s altogether. He can't do that though, because it's pretty hard for a modern NBA two-guard to get by without a 3-point shot.

You would at least hope that Evans would compensate for the shooting slump by attacking the rim. That hasn't happened either. His rate of free throw attempts has fallen by a third from one half to the next. Two years ago as a rookie, Evans averaged 6.5 foul shots per game; this season he's at 4.3.

Nevertheless, the biggest disappointment in Evans remains on the defensive end. He came out of Memphis with potential to become one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders. He excelled on that end in his lone college season under John Calipari. With his size, stretch, athleticism and wingspan, he seemed like a surefire All-Defense candidate. It just hasn't turned out that way. This season, the Kings are 2.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense without Evans. According to our positional rankings, Sacramento ranks 24th defending point guards and dead last against shooting guards.

So despite some occasional scoring outbursts from Cousins and Evans, they remain enigmatic. Not only do the Kings lack a long-term home, they still haven't even laid the foundation.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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