NBA Metrics 101: Who Ya Got, Warriors Starting 5 or 5 No. 1 Picks?

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Golden State Warriors: DeMarcus Cousins (6.78)

The Top PicksKarl-Anthony Towns (15.11)

This would’ve been a battle royale if DeMarcus Cousins had never suffered the ruptured Achilles that prematurely ended both his 2017-18 efforts and his tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans. Then again, a healthy version of this center wouldn’t have needed to sign with the Golden State Warriors on a one-year deal.

Before Cousins’ body betrayed him, he was in the midst of a fantastic season that involved plenty of defensive improvements—it’s amazing what consistent commitment to the less glamorous end can do—to go along with his continued efficacy from beyond the arc and tantalizing combination of physicality and finesse around the hoop. He was more of an all-around player than ever before, capable of holding his own on either end while filling myriad roles for the Pelicans, ranging from go-to scorer to willing fast-break facilitator. 

But what will we see moving forward? 

We’re assuming Cousins is healthy for the purpose of this exercise, but he’ll still be on the wrong end of an Achilles recovery—one of the most difficult rehabilitations in professional sports. Most players, especially those who suffer the injury at this stage of their careers, aren’t the same afterward. As Chris Towers wrote for CBS Sports back in 2015:

“All in all, players who returned from a ruptured Achilles didn’t see a huge dropoff in their rate stats in their first season back, surprisingly. On the whole, these players’ usage, rebound and assists rates generally stayed constant.

“However, their efficiency took a hit, as the collective dropped from 45.9 percent shooting to 40.9 on average. That could be the result of players settling for more three-pointers as they tried to get their legs under them, as the average three-point rate rose 21 percent.”

That’s not good news for Cousins, who needs every bit of efficiency to match the unabashed offensive prowess of a 22-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns.

And Towns is only getting better.

Not only did he average 21.3 points with a 64.6 true shooting percentage in 2017-18, making him one of just four bigs in NBA history to clear those thresholds during a qualified campaign, but he also did so while drastically improving his biggest weakness.

Towns ranked dead last among centers in 2016-17 with a score of minus-1.41 in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus before elevating to No. 63 (0.44) this past go-round. Yes, that’s an above-average defensive score, though still lagging well behind where most 5s typically find themselves. 

Time has passed by Dwight Howard, dooming him to drop out of the elites at his position. Maybe Deandre Ayton eventually takes this spot for the top-pick team. But for now, it belongs to Towns rather easily, and he’s winning the battle against the league’s resident superteam. 

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