By Brett Koremenos
It's been a forgettable season for the Sacramento Kings. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Kings went from a lottery-bound afterthought to a surprise playoff contender to a rudderless mess after head coach Mike Malone was fired despite a relatively promising 11-13 start to the season. With the Kings on the verge of almost completely losing their legitimacy as a franchise, GM Pete D'ALessandro pushed ownership to bring in one of the game's all-time winningest coaches, George Karl. And while the hire gave hope and an established presence on the sidelines to a Sacramento team needing both, bringing Karl into an organization that employs a sizable (literally and figuratively) young star in DeMarcus Cousins also created a fascinating intersection of contrasting basketball talents that will be fascinating to watch co-exist going forward.
From his time as a player under the late Dean Smith of North Carolina and former Spurs head coach, Doug Moe, to his stint as head coach of the Nuggets, Karl's teams typically played at breakneck speed with equally swift ball movement. In 2013, Karl (who was unceremoniously fired after the season), won 57 games and a coach of the year award without a single player that could have been, or currently is, one the league's marquee superstars. The system that allowed the Nuggets to excel that year utilized concepts from an offense created by a high school coach, Vance Walberg, who assisted Karl in Denver and has joined him once again in Sacramento.
The dribble-drive motion (DDM, for short), basically requires players to use ball movement, dribble penetration and cuts to create large gaps in the defense for their teammates to attack the basket off the bounce. It's an offense designed for perimeter players -- like the collection Karl had in Denver -- to excel while rendering big men as accessory pieces who make their living off offensive rebound putbacks and drop off passes from penetrating teammates. While Karl doesn't use the dribble-drive in it's entirety, certain aspects, like pace-halting post ups, don't feature in his brand of offense.
Karl's preferred way of playing suits the majority of the Kings roster with one exception: DeMarcus Cousins, the franchise's mercurial but uber-talented centerpiece. At 6-foot-11, 270-pounds, Cousins earned his first All-Star appearance on the back of his raw but effective post game. Per Synergy Sports data, Cousins has spent just about one-third of his offensive possessions on post-ups. This season, his 8.3 post ups per game (Synergy data registers a post-up only if the play results in a shot, foul, turnover or pass out to a shot) ranks fourth overall in the league (minimum 200 attempts), behind only low-block luminaries such as Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard. Karl's last team in Denver actually ran fewer post-ups per game as a team (5.6) than Cousins has this year as an individual.
With the legendary coach now in charge, Cousins post-up opportunities may not vanish, but it's a safe bet they will diminish significantly. And therein lies the rub. If Cousins isn't posting up, what is the All-Star big man going to be doing for the Kings on offense?
In Denver, Karl's big men, like Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos, operated primarily as screeners, cutters and offensive rebounders. That's a very blue-collar role filled by blue-collar players. Cousins is far too skilled of a player to operate primarily in such a limited capacity. But without a bevy of post-ups, Karl needs to find a way for Cousins to stay heavily involved in the team's offense.
Through the team's first three games, Karl's solution to this dilemma has been letting Cousins operate as the "trail big" or big man that runs to the top of the key during team's secondary break. In that role, Cousins operates like both a big man and a perimeter player. When he catches in this position, he has the choice to pass to a teammate and follow with a screen (traditional big man move), drive the ball to the rim or shoot a long jumper -- the latter two being something most players his size wouldn't be overly effective at. It's produced some pretty impressive moments like this drive against the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan:
When Cousins doesn't directly catch the ball when trailing, he spaces the floor and reacts to dribble penetration from a teammate using a loop behind (also know as euro cut, or snowballing or about eight million other terms) DDM concept to attack toward the basket.
It's not as if Cousins fills this role the entire game. When the Kings have gone small, with either Rudy Gay or Derrick Williams at the power forward spot, Cousins occupies a more traditional role closer to the basket where he does have some freedom to post up. It's an interesting mix that, as seen in the video above, flashes some unique and encouraging signs. But there is certainly a downside as Cousins has also had 16 turnovers in the three games he's played for Karl. And, in general, the idea of a player as physically dominant as Cousins not spending the majority of his time exerting his physical dominance on the low block is a potentially troublesome outcome.
But the flip side is that Karl's offense suits not only the way the NBA game -- with the emphasis on fast pace generating efficient shots like threes, layups and free throws -- is heading, it also should be a major boost for the majority of the Sacramento roster. Gay has the potential to be a more explosive version of Gallinari, while athletic youngsters like Ray McCallum (shooting nearly 50 percent in Karl's first five games) and Ben McLemore have skill sets well suited for this type of up-tempo, attacking style of basketball. Omri Casspi, who has struggled with injuries of late, has transformed his game to also be effective in a "downhill" offense like Karl's. Even underachieving big man Jason Thompson should find a home feasting off his teammates breaking down the defense with rim-rattling finishes from the dunk spot -- also known as the short corner or area halfway between the lane line and three-point line along the baseline.
These dynamics will make the Kings era under Karl a fascinating spectacle to watch. Karl could combine with Cousins to make a forlorn franchise relevant once again. But if the two key players fail to mesh at some point in the near future, it will leave Sacramento to decide between its star and its legendary coach's system.
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Brett Koremenos (@BKoremenos) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Grantland, Deadspin and other outlets. He coaches and trains basketball players from the high school to the professional level.