So what's wrong with DeMarcus Cousins anyway? His game, not his attitude. What happened to his game?
One month into his third season with the Kings, the Big Cuz is in a massive funk. His numbers are down in all the pertinent categories. He isn't running the floor with the same energy or commitment of last season. He repeatedly is finding himself in foul trouble and on the bench, or in trouble with his coach and on the bench.
And he doesn't have any answers.
"I've been terrible," Cousins said bluntly but softly. "We're losing. I don't feel like I made improvements from last year. I really don't have any confidence at all. I'm just trying to think my way through it, but right now, I'm not finding anything."
Based on Cousins' own personal growth chart, this was supposed to be a year of appreciable professional development. He came to training camp talking about the All-Star Game, about pushing the Kings toward the playoffs, about taking what he learned from his experiences with Team USA into the 2012-13 season.
This can still be his year. One month doesn't dictate a season or a career. But as Cousins has regressed, so have his Kings. The lack of cohesion and camaraderie has been acutely and painfully familiar. Select five Kings any lineup combination and watch five guys work five different shifts.
Overdribbling. Driving into crowds of defenders. Ignoring open teammates. Failing to rotate. Fingerpointing in the locker room. Frowns, glares and head shakes on the court.
Cousins, who was benched in the second quarter Saturday for his lack of hustle, is one of the Kings' leading offenders. He's tied with New York's Carmelo Anthony for the most technicals (five) in the league, and his ongoing tiffs with officials clearly are limiting his effectiveness. He is too easily distracted by bad calls or non-calls, often lingering and complaining instead of busting downcourt and matching up with his man.
"He came to camp in great shape and in a great frame of mind," coach Keith Smart said, "but after all those things, the suspension (for verbally accosting San Antonio analyst Sean Elliott), then having to reset, then early foul trouble. The rhythm of that, and not getting shots to go down, not finishing at the basket, all those things tie in. And when you're losing, that's another setback. He just has to keep working through stuff."
The 6-foot-11 Cousins, who averaged 18.1 points and 11 rebounds last season, refers to himself as the Kings' leader. But given his age (22), maturity and relative inexperience, there is no way he is ready to shoulder that burden; he would be wiser to first establish himself as an elite teammate.
The suspension, ejection, outbursts the drama is wearing thin on those other players in Kings uniforms.
While the front office has no interest in trading the young center, Year III traditionally is the time NBA executives stop discussing players as prospects and start drawing conclusions.
One month into the season, Cousins is coveted by several teams, despite the red flags, attitude issues and a low-post game that is ill-defined. Though he's extremely skilled and instinctive and shoots effectively from midrange, his lack of explosiveness enables interior defenders to contest his close-in shots, contributing to a field-goal percentage (41.7 percent) that is far too low for a gifted big man.
Assistant coach Clifford Ray is urging Cousins to embrace and perfect a baby hook, and he wants ballhandlers to deliver entry passes while Cousins is moving, thereby forcing defenders to react and creating openings underneath.
"Before the suspension, DeMarcus was doing some very good things, setting great screens, holding screens," Ray said, "and from what I saw last year, he is doing some things better. But he's a young player, and sometimes young people get frustrated. They worry about things they can't control, like when they don't get the ball, when they get it too late or in the wrong spot. With him, I see some of that."
Cousins, of course, has no control over a roster that lacks an elite playmaker and floor leader. But there is no reason he shouldn't rank among the game's premier rebounders. Larry Bird compensated for a lack of leaping ability with anticipation, desire, positioning and learning to use his wide hips and strong lower body to block out and become difficult to dislodge.
That should be Cousins. With his combination of size and strength, and huge, soft hands reminiscent of Chris Webber's, he should dominate the boards virtually every night, triggering transition opportunities.
A smile wouldn't hurt, either. The refs love a smile.