|Cousins is brimming with talent -- yet seemingly has no inclination to listen to his coaches. (Getty Images)|
PHILADELPHIA -- DeMarcus Cousins sat at his locker for a long time after the game. He checked his phone, joked with teammates, raised his eyebrows at the size of the towels when the locker room attendant handed him one.
Cousins had just put up another double-double in an atrocious, 27-point loss to the 76ers on Tuesday night. He's so talented that he could put up a double-double while sleep-walking with one arm tied behind his back. To some extent, he might as well have been sleep-walking through this embarrassment of a game, and through this strange season for the Sacramento Kings.
To review: Coach Paul Westphal issued a written statement through the team on Jan. 1, saying that Cousins had demanded to be traded and was ordered, with the support of management, not to attend the team's game against the Hornets that night.
"When a player continually, aggressively lets it be known that he is unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team, it cannot be ignored indefinitely," Westphal said.
The Kings organization stood so solidly behind Westphal that he was fired four days later.
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In walked Keith Smart, a good coach with intelligent ideas who is being fed to the wolves in Sacramento. Smart could coach this team, could rein in all this talent and get it pointed in the right direction -- if only the talent weren't so belligerent. Cousins has been quiet lately, has temporarily cut it out with the constant bickering to the refs and disrespectful on-court demeanor. He's also showed signs of coming around on the court, as he did Wednesday night with a 21-point, 19-rebound performance in a 98-91 victory over the Raptors. But that's one night; Cousins' reputation has been built over many. Is it only a matter of time before he turns on this coach too?
"He hasn't had any problems for me so far, so what I want to focus on is where he's at right now and not what has happened or what I may have heard," Smart said. "He has a clean sheet of paper for me. I'm going to coach him as if he's brand new to me. I won't look back and say, 'He did this.' I'm going to focus on right now."
Smart is well-intentioned and knows what kind of coaching Cousins requires. But how could Smart possibly have the clout to coach Cousins that way -- with tough love, erring way on the tough side -- when his predecessor was so haphazardly tossed overboard in an obvious organizational genuflection to Cousins?
One way to show Cousins that Smart had the power to stand up to him was to give him a two-year deal, which technically, the Kings did. But multiple sources confirmed that Smart's deal has a team option for the 2012-13 season. In this case, let's call that what it is: a Cousins clause.
"He's a really talented kid," said Sixers forward Elton Brand, who abused Cousins on Tuesday night for a rare 21-point, 10-rebound game at this stage of his career. "I spoke to him a little bit after the game. Just keep bonding with his team, keep growing, because he has all the talent in the world."
All that talent, and no idea what to do with it -- and not much evidence so far that he's inclined to listen to someone who knows.
Smart was talking Tuesday night about tweaking the Kings offense so Cousins doesn't wind up in the low post so often because he's not polished enough for that yet. Smart wants him in the mid-post, where he has the option to back down his defender, turn and face up for a pass or jumper or give up the ball and get involved in a pick-and-roll. It's something that could jump-start Cousins' game, unlock his potential and get him a taste of success that could lead to better days ahead.
"His strength is, he's a willing passer out on the floor at the high post," Smart said. "He can shoot the basketball, and if there's a breakdown he can go right into a pick-and-roll. So there's a three-spot area where he can make a decision to do what he does very well already.
"Trying to make him a low-post guy right now as a threat, he's not there yet," Smart said. "That's just my philosophy. So I'm trying to develop him later on to have a go-to move. If I had to ask him, 'What is your go-to move right now? Could it stand up against the top 10 centers in the NBA?' It may be a question. He may say yes, but data will say no right now."
If only Cousins would listen to Smart, and the data, he'd have more nights like he had Wednesday in Toronto. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Smart is right on the money. Through 11 games, Cousins has had the majority of his offensive touches on postups, with dismal results: 18-for-45 (40 percent). As a cutter, Cousins is 8 for 13, and as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, he's 6 for 7.
Yet the night before his Toronto eruption, there was Cousins stubbornly wandering to the low block and trying to go head-to-head with the savvy, veteran Brand in Philadelphia. Cousins got his double-double in spite of himself, because on several occasions, Brand simply ate him alive.
One sequence late in the second quarter epitomized how Brand was toying with him: Brand blocked two of Cousins' shots in a row on one end, then backed him down at the other end for an easy basket. Undeterred, Cousins badly misfired on a turn-around jumper against Brand and then let Brand get separation for a catch-and-shoot on an inbounds play.
"When you play the young guys, you've definitely got to show them you've got something," said Brand, who was 10 for 14 from the field. "I hit one shot and he's like, 'Nice shot.'" Brand smiled at that point and added, "I'm like, 'That's not a nice shot. That's a shot I do all the time.'"
Smart, in the interim role for the second time in as many seasons after replacing Don Nelson in Golden State in September 2010, has a lot of coaching to do. It's just a matter of whether anybody listens.
The combustible combination of Cousins and Tyreke Evans would be a terror for the most experienced of coaches, much less one with an interim title and a team option hanging over his head. Evans is saying all the right things, but couldn't help himself when asked how Cousins has responded to the events of the past week or so.
"He's been a different guy, actually. Surprisingly," Evans said. "He hasn't been arguing. He's just been going out there and playing basketball. He hasn't been arguing with the refs. He was in foul trouble the last game [against Orlando] and he just kept his composure and played basketball.
"We all try to talk to him," Evans said. "We all want the best for him. We know how hard he wants to win. Now with a new coach and things, I don't know, it just changed. I'm happy for him though. He's doing a good job."
On some level, it's on Evans -- the De facto leader on a team devoid of them -- to point Cousins in the right direction. It sounds like something Evans wants no part of, and to be fair, it's hard to blame him.
"I think it's on him mostly, but I'm here to help," Evans said. "We're grown. This is a man's sport, so the only thing I can do is tell him and talk to him. It's up to him to listen."
It's looking like another long season in Sacramento, but Cousins can change that if he wants to.
"You see his moves," Brand said. "He's athletic, he takes charges, he plays defense. He's going to be a problem in this league for years to come."
And then Brand, the Duke guy, recognized the humor in this slip of the tongue.
"And hopefully," he said, "just on the court."
And with that, the rest of this week's Postups:
• Sacramento's opponent Tuesday night, the Sixers, are going in an entirely different direction. Philadelphia (7-3) leads the Atlantic Division and has the third-best record in the East heading into a home-and-home with the woeful Wizards this weekend. Too bad nobody in Philly is noticing yet. Before losing at New York on Wednesday -- their third game in as many nights -- the Sixers won their sixth consecutive in front of a half-full house at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers are everything Philly should like and everything you need to be in a lockout-shortened season: young, deep, well-coached and mostly unchanged since last season's playoffs. And they're doing it with defense, leading the league in every major statistical category -- most impressively, points allowed (85.5), opponent field-goal percentage (.394) and, according to Synergy, a rip-roaring .796 points allowed per possession. Coach Doug Collins credits defensive assistant Michael Curry for instilling the new mentality.
"Our guys believe in it, and they're enjoying it," Collins said. "Two years ago, I don't think anybody would've been talking about Thaddeus Young's defense, but he's changed our whole team."
For the intangible stuff, like figuring out how to win, the credit goes to Collins. In the closing minutes of a 10-point win against Indiana on Monday night, Collins said he noticed something in his players' eyes that could prove telling come playoff time.
"If you looked in our guys' eyes, you could see that they knew they weren't going to lose it," Collins said. "Last year, you couldn't have said that. We found all kinds of ways to lose games last year."
• The Warriors, led by determined owner Joe Lacob, continue to send signals across the league that they will aggressively look to upgrade the roster with a superstar. After falling short in their pursuit of Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and Nene during post-lockout free agency, sources say Lacob is determined to make a run at bigger prizes between now and the March 15 trade deadline -- including the Magic's soon-to-be free agent, Dwight Howard. While Golden State has David Lee to dangle in trade discussions, the four years and $57 million left on his contract after this season will be difficult to move. But the biggest hindrance to the Warriors' strategy is the diminished trade value of Stephen Curry because of his ongoing bout with ankle injuries. The Warriors balked at including Curry in a potential trade for Paul, and soon will find that Curry's injury red flag could scuttle any major trade package they may try to put together.
• No formal trade request has been lodged yet, but sources say a player to watch as the deadline approaches is the Clippers' Mo Williams. There simply aren't enough minutes in the Clippers' crowded backcourt, not even enough for Williams to assert himself as a viable threat off the bench. In the Clippers' 95-89 overtime victory over the Heat on Wednesday night, Williams had six points in only 21 minutes. At only 26 minutes a game, Williams' playing time has been squeezed and with the grueling schedule, there will be no shortage of contenders looking for guard help. Randy Foye, whose minutes have been squeezed even more, also could be a target of trade inquiries. It's inconceivable that the Clippers would do this, but the ideal landing spot for Williams would be the other team that plays in Staples Center. Williams at point guard alongside Kobe Bryant would solve a lot of problems for the Lakers.
• An unfortunate symptom of the chaos in Sacramento is its impact on rookie Jimmer Fredette, whose development is being stunted by the circus atmosphere and coaching change. Fredette got his first career start Tuesday night in Philadelphia, in front of a vocal group of fans spelling JIMMER on their T-shirts, and it was a struggle. Fredette was 2 for 7 from the field and looked lost on both ends of the court. After starting in place of Marcus Thornton (thigh) again Wednesday night, Fredette is 5-for-17 as a starter. "It's definitely more difficult when you have a coaching change for anybody, especially as a rookie," Fredette said. "You're trying to figure out where you fit in anyway, and then trying to do it all over again during the beginning of the season. It's definitely a transition period, but I’ll do the best I can."