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Sacramento Kings' head coach Keith Smart is ruining a fixable situation

By Zach Harper | NBA writer
Now is not the time for your cat impersonation, Keith. (Getty Images)

The DeMarcus Cousins situation was fixable. Actually, it's probably still fixable in some way.

On a local Sacramento radio show Thursday evening, Kings coach Keith Smart said he is "leaning toward" playing Cousins against the New York Knicks tonight. The fact that he doesn't know or isn't telling anybody, presumably Cousins (I'll get to that in a bit) doesn't know either, shows the same immaturity he's punishing his prized big man for showing.

The third-year center out of Kentucky has been pretty infuriating this season. After spending much of last season in a seemingly euphoric state after Paul Westphal was fired, Cousins has reverted to the poisonous reputation he was saddled with in high school, college and in his rookie season in the NBA. It's not that Cousins is a malcontent per se; he's simply a guy without a filter who needs a strong voice to guide him into maturity.

It seemed like Smart was that guy. He and Cousins got along swimmingly and there weren't any incidents last season after Westphal got canned. Smart was his voice of understanding and it seemed like he'd always back Cousins whenever he needed a shield from criticism over his actions. Then something changed with the Smart-Cousins relationship.

When Cousins was suspended "indefinitely" for blowing up at his coach between the first and second quarters and again at halftime, Smart was teaching his young player a lesson. There is a certain line you can cross when talking to a coach who has had your back at all times this season, and DeMarcus apparently crossed it. You teach him the boundary and then you move on from the situation. It's a basic parenting/mentoring tactic.

What you don't do is lift the suspension and then leave him at home against the Portland Trailblazers the next game. You don't hem and haw about whether or not a guy is going to play when the only reason he shouldn't play is because of injury or suspension. If the suspension has been lifted and he's healthy, you're doing everybody in this situation a disservice.

It's not that Cousins' actions aren't punishable. They definitely are. It's that the punishment has to be clear. You can't string the guy along if you're hoping to repair the relationship.

There was a fantastic Tumblr post by newest Dallas Mavericks guard Chris Douglas-Roberts the other day. Here's an excerpt:

Those of you who know me also know my story. However, I'll give you a brief on the last couple of months and how I handled each situation. When I got back from Italy after the lockout year, I was a unrestricted free agent. Teams were afraid to sign me. Not because I lacked skill, but because I developed a reputation for having a bad attitude. Early in my career I was very immature. I handled a lot of situations the wrong way. I simply didn't know how to be a professional, but it was never in a harmful way. I was just young. I owned it though. I took responsibility for my past. Because of that, I matured. I could've pointed the finger and used excuses as a crutch, but I didn't. I knew I was an NBA player. I knew I belonged, but I also knew my road back was going to be rocky.

The very first day I was 1 on 1 partners with Kobe. And we were going at it. Shit talking…elbows were thrown. To my surprise, after that first practice Kobe went to media and spoke highly of me. Every day I played well and practiced well. Kobe continued to mentor me along the way.

However, I took positives away from my month with the Lakers too. I developed a relationship with Kobe Bryant. He showed me how to be a pro. He showed me real work ethic. Playing against him every day made me so much of a better player. He understood me. He understood that its a difference in having a bad attitude and being competitive and wanting to win every drill/game. One night after a game and we were in the showers and he told me “you have no other choice. You were put here to be basketball player. You have to fight until you're one of them boys. You're too talented. I played behind mfers that I was better than up until my third year but I KNEW I would be who I am today then. I work too hard not to break through.” That stuck with me. So I appreciate the opportunity the Lakers gave me. I looked at that month with the Lakers as an internship under Bean. I gained knowledge that I couldn't have gotten any other way. That's what I took from that situation. It's all about how you respond when times are rough.

You see guys like Chris Douglas-Roberts come and go in the NBA. They have a terrible attitude, never realize the game is bigger than them, and find their way out of what should have been a lucrative career. Their entire lives they've been told they were the best because they were the best in their circle. When they were in middle school, junior high, and high school, they were almost always the best player on the court.

As the circle expands because of their success, certain guys never get that their previous world means virtually nothing. The best players from all of these small circles have gathered into a slightly larger circle and are fighting to stay in it. The guys who get that end up making a lot of money doing something they presumably love. The guys who don't always end up making excuses and deflecting the blame of their own immaturity.

DeMarcus Cousins isn't going to be one of those guys. He's not going to play his way out of the NBA. He's going to make over $100 million in his career, whether he gets it or not. He's simply too talented and too good not to have countless GMs and organizations take a chance on him over the next decade or more.

The reason I bring in this CDR example has to do with teaching a young guy how to behave. It doesn't take Kobe Bryant to set a guy on the right track. It helps to have a guy with that kind of historical clout, but really you just need a strong voice with a respectable demeanor. Smart was that guy for Cousins, or at least it seemed like Cousins viewed him as that guy. Now? It looks like Smart let frustration get the best of him in a losing situation.

It's rare when coaches win out in these ordeals. The player is the money-maker for a team and this particular team badly needs money. They can't afford for Cousins to bolt or not become their franchise player. This is what happens when you have a dysfunctional organization from the top to the bottom; the margin of error becomes as small as their chances for making the playoffs.

The team's assumed financial suffering buys Smart more time than most coaches usually get. Nobody really believes the Maloofs will pay multiple head coaches at the same time, so Smart is unlikely to be fired soon. This gives him more time to end the childish games and stop dangling the carrot of team involvement in front of Cousins.

He's losing the respect and trust of a player who badly needs someone to respect and trust. Cousins may not ever get to a point of realizing his immaturity now and really owning up to it to the point that he makes a conscientious decision to reverse course, like we saw Chris Douglas-Roberts realize and admit to changing.

But if Smart wants to do his job to its fullest capacity, he needs to get over the quarrel, open up to Cousins and go back to trying to turn him into the player everybody wants him to be. It's unlikely Keith Smart will ever reap the benefits of the player Cousins could be in this league. What he can do is get Cousins into the right frame of mind to set him up for future success and dominance.

You can take solace in knowing that someone else will benefit from your guidance and hard work. That's what being a coach in this league is all about.

Cousins probably doesn't know any better right now. It doesn't excuse his actions; it just shows a desperate need for understanding and direction. But the longer we go down this road of frustration boiling over and petty games being played, the chances of the situation being fixed in Sacramento waste away.

 
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