Plumlee Beats Out Cousins

Brian Windhorst reported that Mason Plumlee is more likely than DeMarcus Cousins to make the Team USA roster:

And twitter exploded. How could this be? Coach K favoring the Duke alumnus? Actually, the decision makes perfect sense to me, because Plumlee had a surprisingly great rookie season, and DeMarcus Cousins' game, while improved, is flawed, and those flaws are particularly bad for the international game.

Cousins C 2298 .157 1.8 7.5 33.7 12.8 4.6 17.4 4.3 5.2 1.9 2.3 5.6
Plumlee C 1275 .233 4.2 6.2 19.6 7.9 3.7 11.6 2.3 2.9 2.1 1.8 6.4
Average C C 1421 .099 0.0 2.9 19.1 9.5 4.4 13.8 2.5 2.7 2.0 1.2 5.1
Cousins 49.6% 49.9% 0.0% 72.6% 49.6% 55.5% 24.9 0.1 1.36 12.4
Plumlee 65.9% 66.6% 0.0% 62.6% 65.9% 67.0% 11.4 0.1 1.72 7.3
Average C 51.0% 52.0% 31.8% 67.5% 51.8% 55.1% 15.0 0.7 1.27 5.1

When we compare the two players, we see that Cousins is a much better rebounder, but several important things strike out:

  • Plumlee doesn't shoot very much, which means his 7.3 free throws per 48 is amazing. He clearly has a knack for getting to the line.
  • Plumlee shoots an amazing percentage because he's always shooting in the paint. He had 259 shots in the restricted area; most of the players above him played starters' minutes.
  • Cousins turns the ball over a truckload! This leads me to question whether his higher assist rate really means he is a better passer.
  • Cousins's shooting efficiency, despite his very high number of shots, is only about average. This is mostly because he takes a huge amount of 15-19 footers, and lots of 20-24 footers (but no threes). Last year, he took 358 mid-range shots, converting only 40% of them. Even worse, he took 282 shots in the paint but outside the restricted area (i.e. not layups and dunks), and converted only 36%. Among centers, only Al Jefferson took more, but Big Al converted 51% on those shots.

In essense, Cousins is a very gifted rebounder and an able defender, but has the kind of shot selection that would make Nick Young proud. He loves to shoot (he was 6th in the NBA in shots per 48 minutes), but he is not a good shooter.

This type of game is a horrible fit in international ball. There are two primary reasons this is the case:

  • The 3-point line is about 18 inches closer in the NBA. This makes the 3-pointer a better shot than in the NBA, because those 18 inches add a few percentage points. When the shot is worth three points, the impact of those added percentage points on a shot's expected value is large. This means that if a midrange shot is the worst option in the NBA (teams prefer threes and layups), this is magnified in FIBA ball. Every shot a team takes has an opportunity cost. That opportunity cost is expressed as "Could someone else have gotten a better shot?" And the better those alternative shots are, the higher that opportunity cost.
  • FIBA teams play a lot of zone. In fact, it is not uncommon for Team USA to play an entire game without ever seeing a man defense. And FIBA zones are not like NBA zones -- The NBA has rules a defensive 3-second rule that prevents packing the paint, and FIBA has no such limitation. It's much more important to threaten the defense from beyond the 3-point line to get defenders out of the paint and create space. A player like Boogie shooting 15-20 footers against a zone mucks up this spacing (and it is generally precisely the shot that the zone wants the other team to take). Coach K likes to field lineups where nearly everyone is a threat beyond the arc. Tyson Chandler was a notable exception, but again, he was a player that, on offense, wasn't standing around that 15-20 foot area clogging up space. When attacking zones, Coach K likes big men who "hide" behind the low post defenders and run back and forth near the baseline; when a player attacks the paint, then the big man can step up from behind the basket to the spot vacated by the defender and either look for a pass/layup, or to grab the offensive board. Chandler did this exceptionally well, and guys like Anthony Davis and Plumlee also fill that void well. Boogie does not do this job well, because he's too often hanging around the perimeter (but not far enough out to be a 3-point threat).

Then there is the question of team fit. I think a player like Plumlee, who does not take many shots (and makes them when he does) is a far better fit on team USA than a jump-shooting center who takes lots of shots. This is because Team USA wants every shot it possibly can get from Kevin Durant. Obviously Durant cannot take every shot, but there is a "best shot" (Durant from three, dunk/layup from anybody) and then a long list of "better" or "good" shots, and somewhere way, way, way down that list is Boogie shooting an 18-footer. With Plumlee on the team, you get more of those shots because Plumlee won't shoot unless he gets a layup/dunk. This gets you more threes from shooters like Durant/Parsons/Harden, more penetration from Rose or Westbrook or Wall (with better targets to pass to off penetration than Boogie at 18 feet).

In short, I don't think this is about Duke. Plumlee is just a much better fit on this team than Boogie is, and I don't think that should really be all that controversial.