Listen, I’m not going to say DeMarcus Cousins will win the MVP, but he should be on more ballots.
Cousins mined the Denver Nuggets for 40 points, 22 rebounds, four assists and four blocks in a 123-114 victory on Wednesday. The win marked the New Orleans Pelicans’ second in three games without Anthony Davis, both of which were sandwiched around a loss to the Golden State Warriors on a night they were threatening before Cousins and Kevin Durant were both tossed for a late-game scuffle.
(OK, so that last part is probably still the concern here, but we don’t hold it against KD, right?)
The NBA has seen two 40-20 games this season, and Cousins has both of them. He dropped 41 points, 23 rebounds and six assists in a win against his former team, the Sacramento Kings, back in October. That was the first time anybody had posted a 40-20-6 line in 30 years. You see a trend forming yet?
It’s not just those two games, either. After Wednesday’s performance against the Nuggets, Cousins is now averaging 25.9 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 3.3 combined blocks and steals per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley have posted 25-12-5 lines for a single season, and all but Baylor have at least one MVP to their names.
Have you seen the lineups Cousins is forced to play in when Davis is out? The most commonly used one: Dante Cunningham, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday and a past-his-prime Rajon Rondo. Next up is this gem: Moore, Darius Miller, Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson. If LeBron James were making those units work against a tough Western Conference slate, as Cousins is, we’d rightfully be singing his praises.
The win over Denver pushed the Pelicans above .500, tied for seventh place out West and a half-game back of the fifth seed. If New Orleans remains in the playoff race, with or without Davis, whose latest injury (groin strain) has him listed as day-to-day, then Cousins absolutely deserves MVP consideration along with LeBron, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and whoever else you want to throw into the mix. If the Pelicans are a five-seed, then he should be on everybody’s top-five list.
Yes, the Pelicans also feature Davis, the other contender for the title of NBA’s Best Big Man, and he’s been the more efficient shooter, but Cousins has been the lifeblood of the Pelicans, and it’s hard to argue against including the guy who has been so clearly the league’s best center on your MVP ballot.
Cousins is, at the very least, the First Team All-NBA center. He ranks third in the NBA in rebounds per game, fifth in points and ninth in blocks. He’s top-20 in steals per game and top-30 in assists. He’s playing more minutes than any other big, and only the Houston Rockets are using Harden more often.
Yet, The Washington Post recently conducted a straw poll of 105 media members seeking their MVP ballots at this point in the season, and Cousins was almost nowhere to be found. He received a single fifth-place vote, fewer points than Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard and, yes, even Davis, to name a few.
Harden was the runaway winner for the award in the poll, which is fine, and he was followed by LeBron, Kyrie, Giannis and Stephen Curry — also fine. (Although, Curry’s ankle injury, which may keep him out a month, could hinder his chances and heighten Kevin Durant’s odds by Christmas.) Nobody’s going to complain if your ballot features those first four and either Warriors superstar at this point.
Here are the bigs on those ballots, besides Cousins and Davis: LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond. Tremendous players, all. And here’s where Cousins ranks per-game among that group in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks: first, first, second, second, second and third, respectively. The only other guy in the top three of those categories in this group? Well, none of them, actually. Yet, they combined for 32 votes compared to Cousins’ one.
The advanced statistics favor Horford, Drummond and Aldridge in that group, but Cousins’ net rating, win shares per 48 minutes and value over replacement player might look a lot better if he had the shooting and coaching assistance around him that those three are enjoying on better overall teams. (Cousins has 9.5 would-be assists per game that are wiped away by misses, the most of any big man.)
Maybe Cousins, who has been notoriously prickly with the media over the years, isn’t getting a fair shake. Or maybe the fact that Cousins’ season began with him earning a $25,000 fine for responding to a heckler with an expletive in the opener and has since seen two ejections — one for elbowing Russell Westbrook in the head and the other for jawing with Durant earlier in the week — with a suspension a scant nine technical fouls away, has only emboldened his reputation as a detrimental player.
Cousins has yet to face the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks or Detroit Pistons, but he’s met the Spurs, and he owned Aldridge in a 107-90 win (Cousins: 24-15-3-3-1; Aldridge: 16-4-1-0-0). He will meet all of those other bigs at least once by mid-January, and maybe he’ll falter by then, but if he feasts on them the way he has the rest of the league, he should find his way onto more ballots.
The fun begins Sunday, when after the Pelicans host the Kings — the previous team Cousins put a 40-20 on this season — he faces Embiid and the Sixers in New Orleans, followed by games against MVP candidates Harden and Antetokounmpo before a rematch with Denver, his latest 40-20 victim.
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