DeMarcus Cousins faces his last shot at normalcy with the Kings
Is this finally the season Cousins is universally accepted by the casual NBA fan?
Imagine being born into complete and utter chaos.
No, this isn't something comparing Sacramento Kings franchise center DeMarcus Cousins and the Scottish auto-tune accented Bane character from Christopher Nolan's last Batman movie. But Cousins' NBA career was born into a chaotic environment that was too scorched to bear fruit. When the Kings took Cousins with the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft, the Kings were on the verge of being a complete and utter disaster.
The Maloof family was tapped out financially for what NBA owners are supposed to be able to do. The leadership within the organization was behind the times. Paul Westphal -- the coach at the time -- was in over his head and quickly lost respect by the two young cornerstones of the team, Cousins and Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans. The Westphal situation would be a microcosm for what Cousins would deal with and how he would deal with it over the next six years.
The Kings were an organizational mess. It got to the point where the NBA stepped in and essentially ran a lot of operations or at least provided significant guidance. It wasn't quite George Shinn selling the Hornets/Pelicans to the league and then the league finding an owner, but it wasn't far from it either. The Maloofs didn't have the capital nor the management to be competent enough for the league to trust them at that point.
During this time, the Kings popped coaches like they were Tic Tacs -- something they've been doing since they parted ways with Rick Adelman back in 2006. Westphal was the fourth coach in four years if we're counting Kenny Natt as an interim. Even if we aren't, three coaches in four years is still a huge problem for continuity and direction. Westphal had a solid assistant staff with guys like Mario Elie and Jim Eyen, but the organization hired high school coach Otis Hughley to the NBA staff simply because he coached Cousins in high school.
Cousins had a reputation as a hothead in high school and it followed him to Kentucky. It's probably the reason he wasn't the No. 1 overall pick in the draft ahead of Kentucky teammate and point guard phenom John Wall. It's the reason Evan Turner went ahead of him. It's the reason Derrick Favors was selected by the Nets ahead of him. It's the reason Minnesota opted for 23-year old Wes Johnson instead of pairing Cousins with Kevin Love. Hughley, who really had no business being on that coaching staff for basketball reasons, was given the promotion to help keep Cousins in line.
That didn't work. Cousins saw the lack of leadership in the organization and rebelled. Maybe rebel isn't the right word, but he certainly wouldn't buy into the poor scrambling ideas presented to him when it was obvious the people trying to teach him how to be successful weren't going to be around the Kings for a long time. As Cousins was essentially left to teach himself how to be a pro, he both grew and regressed -- sometimes simultaneously.
The Kings were almost moved to Anaheim before they were almost moved to Seattle, but Vivek Ranadivé and his ownership group ponied up the cash to keep them in Sacramento. And with that change in regime, Cousins was finally supposed to get the support around him to be the franchise leader many believed he could be. Everything about him ticked the boxes of what a franchise big man was supposed to be able to do outside of the leadership aspects that were lacking if not inconsistent.
By now, we know that stability has been slipping through the fingers in Sacramento even with the change in ownership. They've still been going through coaches by firing Michael Malone, the one coach Cousins has actually connected with, and giving him George Karl, who immediately tried to ship the star center out of town. The Kings have presented themselves with poor building transaction after poor building transaction, all while Cousins has been left to endure losses and figure out when his frustration and complaining are warranted.
The hiring of Dave Joerger this offseason is supposed to be the new way of harnessing the raw, impressive impact of Cousins on the court with competent, steady leadership from the sidelines. Joerger isn't as fiery as Malone was, but they have a similar approach to the game. This is where the organization may finally be getting out of its own way with its ninth coach in 11 seasons -- assuming they can keep this marriage going longer than what happened with Karl and Malone.
In the process, there is a cloud of drama and the seemingly inevitability hanging over the franchise's head. Many people around the NBA expect Cousins to leave Sacramento when he becomes a free agent in 2018.
"They're fooling themselves if they think he's sticking around," said one league executive. "The good news for them is his value will always be high. There isn't a point of no return in which you're not getting high value for him. Teams will bid against each other in the trade market. Maybe [Cousins] doesn't go for the biggest money in free agency but you'd love to have that card to play."
If that's the case, the Kings should be using the next season and a half to find the best possible trade scenario in which they return a package of prospects and flexibility like the Timberwolves received when they traded Love. And yet, for now the Kings are hoping Joerger can quickly build the trust of Cousins in a way that makes him feel like the tide is turning and he should stick with the program.
Are the Kings fooling themselves or does the rest of the league hoping to acquire Cousins just want to believe that? Just how likely is that pie in the sky of him wanting to stick around past 2018?
Joerger's way of using Marc Gasol in Memphis was fantastic. He took the Defensive Player of the Year and made him a higher-usage guy within the offense. No longer did they just rely on Mike Conley or Zach Randolph to have the offense run through them; the Grizzlies were running a lot more plays with Gasol involved in the action and saw their offensive rank rise modestly in the first two seasons -- all while the defense remained one of the best in the NBA. In Gasol's second year under Joerger and first healthy year (he missed 23 games in 2013-14), he was named All-NBA First Team center.
The setup and roster in Sacramento aren't nearly as established as we saw in Memphis with Joerger taking over a team that had just made it to the Western Conference finals. To expect him to magically fix the Kings' 22nd ranked defense right way would be irresponsibly ambitious, but establishing a culture the organization has sorely lacked since Adelman was shown the door is as likely and important as anything right now. And that's where Cousins comes into play the most.
Cousins has rarely bought in. Some will say that's his personality shining through; others will say there wasn't anything to really buy into. It's why it's tough to judge his frustration and boiling over outbursts without a huge clarification because his time with the Kings has been anything but pointed in the right direction. His frustrations come from a place of hating to lose and while he's learned to harness and subdue them much better than earlier in his career, there's only so much patience he's able to maintain when you only win 34 percent of your career games.
Joerger will sell him on leading by example. No more meandering back on defense when he doesn't get a call. No more barking at teammates if he also missed a defensive rotation. Consistency will mean more than the numbers he's putting up. It will also mean the attitude he's showing and the way he commands the same accountability he wants for everybody else in the Kings organization. The intangibles will need to be measured in some way and that's the foundation Joerger has to both implement and sell to his franchise player.
Joerger's willingness to adapt to the approach that works best for his relationship with Cousins is the key to this. It won't be his way or the highway; it'll be "our way" in figuring out the message that works. That's how they'll try to forge the defensive team-building that can turn things around sooner rather than later.
If he's willing to buy into what Joerger is selling, it'll go a long way toward turning around his reputation, which can be categorized as unfair but with the caveat that none of this stuff ever has to be fair. If his reputation is sullied from the first six years of his career, he can choose to turn it around himself or his play can make it impossible to hold him to those first six years. It helps that many people took his side in the Karl debacle, and his play on the court has been the type of numbers we've mostly only seen Shaquille O'Neal put up in the last two decades (Kevin Love and Chris Webber also averaged 26 and 11).
The Kings' point guard situation has the potential of being a mess. Right now, it's Darren Collison, who still has a court case involving domestic violence to get figured out, and Garrett Temple, who is more of an emergency point guard. But in that lack of depth at the position brings the opportunity to run even more of the offense through Cousins and get him to be the point man in the half court that Gasol was able to be in Memphis. Using Cousins' skill set in that type of attack is where the Kings can make up for not having a desirable situation at the position.
What the combination of Cousins and Joerger can't control is the management continuity above them, but what they can control is the management of everything happening on the court. The coach and the star will have to work together to bring everything in the right direction. It's something that hasn't happened in Sacramento in a decade. The lack of direction led to creating the chaos that is all Cousins has known in the NBA. Maybe he would've had these "attitude problems" wherever he was drafted, but they were always going to be magnified in a situation in which nobody could offer up a real solution to help him learn how to win.
For the first time in his career, Cousins has a chance to be led out of the chaos by someone in charge of creating and settling the culture on the court. That shouldn't happen seven years into a career but that's where we find the big man. Is it enough to build trust to keep him around long-term? That remains to be seen.
At least for now, it can build trust toward the casual NBA fan accepting Cousins as the star he's supposed to be.
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