I don’t have a beef with DeMarcus Cousins, and I don’t work with anyone who does. The Kings’ star center confronted a colleague of mine, sports columnist Andy Furillo, in the locker room last week about an article he’d written, and video of Cousins’ tirade resulted in national publicity and a $50,000 fine for the player.
Some fans on social media have described this incident as indicative of a feud between player and newspaper, but that’s simply not true. It’s just the latest in a series of conflicts that Cousins has had with one person or another since arriving in Sacramento in 2010.
In that time, Cousins has been a complicated puzzle of immense talent and staggering immaturity. In that time, the Kings always have been a poorly performing team, but that’s not the fault of a single player.
The true crisis here – what Cousins’ latest outburst represents – is the continued inability of the Kings basketball operations to be functional and successful. And I want to be clear here: This is not a failure of Kings marketing, community relations, ticket sales, events, concerts, management of Golden 1 Center or anything else non-basketball-related.
The Kings are great at everything except basketball.
If there is anything dispiriting about the current state of the Kings as a basketball team, it’s that they are only marginally less dysfunctional under Vivek Ranadive than they were under the Maloof family.
A small-market team like Sacramento has to be smart, shrewd and self-aware if it wants to compete at a high level. Who are we? What works for us? Smaller than Sacramento, San Antonio has built a dynasty by always knowing the answers. Franchises in Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City and Portland are more successful by often knowing the answers.
With Cousins, who is the face of the Kings’ franchise, there are no easy answers. His tantrum over Furillo’s coverage came after he and a teammate were sued by a New York couple following an alleged bar fight. That came after years of blowups with coaches and others in the Kings’ orbit.
In 2011, he was pulled off the team plane for fighting with a teammate. He was sent home before a home game in 2012 after aggressively demanding to be traded. He was suspended for confronting Sean Elliott, a former NBA player, in “a hostile manner” when Elliott was critical of Cousins. He was suspended for yelling at former coach Keith Smart. He’s been suspended for striking other NBA players, for getting too many technical fouls and for cussing out former coach George Karl. There is more, much more, but you get the picture.
Complicating the question about what to do about DeMarcus is his physical prowess. He’s a 7-foot athletic marvel who can move with the speed of a much smaller man while punishing teams with his immense strength. He can shoot from long distance like few big men can. He has wonderful vision and can find teammates with precise passes that make your mouth fall open. There are nights when Cousins can be one of the most exciting players in the NBA. He’s only 26 with great prime years ahead.
But he lacks mental discipline. His outbursts on the court have made him the NBA leader in technical fouls. If you’ve watched the team – and I’ve suffered through almost every game in 10 straight losing seasons – you’ve seen Cousins cost his team points when he loses the composure and single-mindedness needed to win games. Even now, in his seventh NBA season, his shoulders still slump when a game goes south. He still argues too much. He still allows himself to be distracted. And then, as in Sunday’s dismal 99-79 loss to Dallas, Cousins was again the only King who played well.
A veteran basketball executive would struggle with how to solve such a puzzle. And herein lies the biggest problem of all: Ranadive promoted Vlade Divac, one of the most beloved Kings players ever, to run the basketball operations even though he had no experience running an NBA franchise.
Ranadive’s choice of an inexperienced executive to run a team deeply in need of a strong vision has been a curious one. He has strong leaders running the business end of the Kings and Golden 1 Center. But Divac has had to learn on the job.
Leaders who select inexperienced underlings tend to do so because they don’t want to be challenged. Leaders who don’t want to be challenged are not strong leaders. Weak leaders lose games.
The Kings are better coached this season under Dave Joerger, and Ranadive and Divac deserve credit for recruiting him. There has been improvement in some aspects of the Kings’ play, though they are still frustratingly inconsistent and too often unfocused.
But the distracting nature of the Cousins question has remained the root of all the Kings’ problems. He’s great, but can you ever win with him? He gives back to the community, but can he ever develop the mature steel needed to be the franchise player who puts the team above any other distraction? And if not, are the Kings smart enough to trade him for enough value in return?
I’m not qualified to answer these questions, but as a season ticket holder, I would like to feel confident that Ranadive, Divac and the rest of the Kings’ executive team are qualified. But I don’t, and I’m not alone. I know people who are not going to renew their season tickets because they don’t believe the Kings’ basketball product will be equal to the prices charged for it.
It will soon be time for ticket holders to start cutting those checks, and Cousins’ latest mess doesn’t help in any way. The team hasn’t been playing well, the New York bar incident happened, and Furillo did what any columnist would do – he raised reasonable questions about the franchise player. The player took exception and cussed him out in a threatening way. The anger was all one-sided and even then, the anger and the yelling is not the issue.
The issue is the player refusing to talk to other media until the reporter left the room. That can’t happen. No player gets to dictate the media coverage.
Cousins seems to want to set up this binary for journalists: Either never question his choices and have access to him or criticize him and get berated and cut off. That’s not only unprofessional, it’s a version of censorship, and journalists – from those who cover the Kings to those who cover the president-elect of the United States – cannot allow people who behave like bullies to keep them from reporting on the news and commenting on the news.
On Tuesday, Cousins apologized to everyone but Furillo and the other members of the media he tries to bully. The Kings essentially enable this behavior until the next time.
But again, this flap is just a symptom of a larger problem that has not been addressed. The problem with the Kings is not The Sacramento Bee. The problem with the Kings isn’t DeMarcus Cousins. The problem is with a leadership group that doesn’t just lack answers – it doesn’t even seem equipped to know what questions are being asked.