What good is a center in today's NBA?
It's difficult to say, when the NBA doesn't even distinguish centers on the All-Star ballot anymore.
Fans, instead, can select three "frontcourt" players for this season's All-Star Game in Houston.
Don't be fooled. Big men still matter in the association. If centers weren't important, teams wouldn't have been willing to break the bank this offseason to acquire Dwight Howard.
Nor would there be intrigue about DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings' third-year player is part of the new age of centers who do not want to be defined only by their post play.
"Some days I play like a guard; some days I play like a big man," Cousins said. "And my biggest problem is trying to mesh those games together each game. That's something that I've got to continue to work on, but it's going to take time."
Many Kings fans are in a hurry to put Cousins among the elite centers in the NBA, in part because of his myriad skills. Cousins' diverse abilities are becoming common for big men, changing how centers are used on the court.
"Coaches are moving their players out on the floor more because they're running more pick-and-roll, so the spacing on the floor is different," said Kings coach Keith Smart. "Those players come into the NBA, and you try to develop them as a low-post guy and that's just not there. From middle school up until college, that's a skill that's gone away."
But big men still matter. Especially in the Western Conference, where the Kings are trying to end a streak of six consecutive losing seasons.
The Miami Heat won the NBA championship last season without relying on a dominant center, but there will be no winning in the Western Conference without a significant paint presence. That's especially true in the Pacific Division, where the Kings finished the 2011-12 season in last place.
The Lakers traded the league's consensus second-best center (Andrew Bynum) for a chance to grab the best (Howard).
The Clippers paid big money last season to match the offer sheet the Warriors made to young big man DeAndre Jordan. So the Warriors dealt popular guard Monta Ellis last season for center Andrew Bogut, even though the big man was still recovering from an ankle injury and has yet to play for Golden State.
Even the small-ball traditionalists, the Phoenix Suns, added 6-foot-11 Marcin Gortat in 2011 to give them a big man in the key.
It's a reason why the Kings are emphasizing defense so much this season. Cousins led the NBA in charges drawn last season, but he wasn't as active when it came to helping a teammate on defense.
The Kings' coaching staff wants to see him do more of that this season.
"You look at all the guys that have come into the West or play in the West they've got a defensive base protecting the paint," Smart said. " So for us, having a guy like (Cousins) is a luxury if he can get himself going and enjoy playing defense because you know his offensive gifts and tools will continue to get better."
Cousins averaged 18.1 points and 11 rebounds last season. But his offense was often inefficient as he shot 44.8 percent, low for a center.
Smart would like to see Cousins shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. He shot 53.2 percent (286 for 538) from five feet and closer; he shot 35.1 percent (162 for 461) from beyond five feet.
By comparison, Howard made 64.2 percent of shots from five feet and closer. Bynum shot 69 percent from that range.
Smart said Cousins must learn to finish his shots with better lift around the rim and learn to be craftier in the key, similar to Memphis power forward Zach Randolph, who isn't a great leaper but is a solid scorer.
Cousins said the key to doing that is simple.
"Just slowing down on my shots," he said. "I'm rushing a lot of shots around the rim. Just slowing down."
The job for Kings coaches is harnessing all that Cousins can do into a style that works. The Kings don't want to limit Cousins' game and force him to be a center that he's not.
"He's a curse to himself because he can do multiple things," Smart said. "So rather than just settling into one area, he can do other things. If he couldn't shoot beyond eight feet he probably wouldn't focus more beyond eight feet. Because he can shoot it, because he can pass it, because he can dribble it, he becomes a hindrance to himself a little bit at this stage of his career."
Kings assistant coach Clifford Ray, who at 6-9, played in the post in the NBA from 1971 to 1981, said "it's hard to take" seeing how center play has evolved.
"There's not a whole lot you can do because you've got these hybrid (power forwards) and hybrid (centers) and all these hybrid players are shooters," Ray said. "They shoot the ball and they extend the floor. Those are the kind of things you have to learn to get them to do some of the old-school things, as they call it."
Ray has coached big men, including Howard, Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. Ray said he often asks centers how the game should be played, and their reply is "inside-out."
"And I tell them, 'Who's going to get it inside if you don't take it inside?' " Ray said. "So now I've got him thinking that he's got to go inside at least sometimes. I know you can shoot it outside as good as anyone else, but if you're playing the (center) position, I need you to get in on the block."
Ray has developed a good rapport with Cousins. The coach wants to see Cousins improve his efficiency around the rim while also drawing fouls and while still mixing in his outside shooting.
Some of that will come with maturity and experience, Ray said.
"It's just a matter of him understanding when to get on the post because he's such a great shooter; sometimes it's hard as a coach," Ray said. "I try not to get on him about it, but I say attack a guy. Even if you don't get all the way to the basket, if you attack him, you might make a play. (Cousins) makes plays now."
Cousins realizes that All-Star centers have one thing in common their teams win games. The Kings haven't had a winning season since 2005-06, when Cousins was a lanky high school freshman in Birmingham, Ala.
So how does he join the elite centers of the NBA?
"Just help my team win games," Cousins said. "That's going to be the biggest thing, help my team win games."