Rudy Gay could opt for a quicker path toward the playoffs. Another team could make Isaiah Thomas an offer he can’t refuse, and one the Kings could refuse to match. The one sure thing is DeMarcus Cousins is the central figure on the Kings for at least the next four seasons.
Cousins will be in the first year of his new maximum four-year, $62 million deal in the 2014-15 season. Finding players who fit in with the center will determine how fast the Kings can emerge from their eight-year playoff drought.
For all his talent, Cousins has earned the reputation of being a teammate who is not easy to play with or get along with in the locker room.
Some of Cousins’ former teammates in Sacramento say privately they’re relieved to be away from him and his bullish personality. Many around the league wonder if Cousins will become a player who commands his teammates’ respect in the locker room.
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Just as other star players do, Cousins needs to become the team’s biggest recruiter and selling point for free agents. But he must become a respected leader and teammate to persuade players to come to Sacramento.
The Kings can’t offer the big-city life like the New York Knicks or a recent championship tradition like the Los Angeles Lakers. So if Gay and Thomas remain in Sacramento, it will mean that’s partly because they believe Cousins will evolve as a teammate and leader.
But that is questionable.
When the new ownership and front office touted Cousins as the cornerstone of the franchise and team leader entering this season, teammates knew that empowering the emotional 23-year-old with such clout would only make the situation more difficult.
Cousins’ penchant for yelling at his teammates the past four seasons has never been taken well. His first coach in Sacramento, Paul Westphal, forbade Cousins from correcting teammates because he didn’t believe the rookie was setting the right example by getting on veterans.
His next coach, Keith Smart, encouraged him to be more of a leader, a decision he would regret when Cousins began tuning him out. Cousins also verbally attacked Smart during halftime of a game in Los Angeles against the Clippers and was suspended by the team.
And the leadership role had its bumps this season.
In his last game of the season against the Minnesota Timberwolves, in which he picked up his 16th technical foul that led to a one-game suspension for the season finale, Cousins berated Thomas during a timeout for not getting him the ball. Thomas sat off to the side, smirking during the tirade. Gay finally stood up and reminded Cousins the Kings were winning.
Coach Michael Malone said Cousins has made strides at becoming a better teammate. Cousins also admits he’s learning how to lead in the right way. But there’s only so much professional players will put up with, especially on a 28-win team. Outsiders see Cousins’ 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game and wonder why the Kings do not win more. The Kings were 0-11 without him in the lineup this season.
Nevertheless, the Kings’ best moves this offseason might be to retain their top two free agents. While Thomas’ critics argue he’s not the pass-first point guard the Kings need, he might be the perfect teammate for Cousins. Even when they disagree, Cousins ultimately appreciates the heart Thomas plays with and has been his biggest supporter.
That Thomas is a natural leader and is not intimidated by Cousins – not to mention being able to laugh through his tantrums – might be worth some money. A weaker-minded player could shrink, and that’s not what the Kings need.
Gay also has the kind of personality the Kings want to keep. He’s even-keeled on the court and respected in the locker room. He’s secure in himself as a player and person, and Cousins does not rattle him.
Gay can opt out of his contract, which would pay him $19.3 million next season, in pursuit of a long-term deal with a team that might be closer to a title. Thomas will be a restricted free agent once the Kings make him a qualifying offer.
Ultimately, the Kings’ fortunes hinge on Cousins.
He’s the focal point of the team. The franchise player.
Cousins just has to continue to make the steps to get his teammates – and free agents – to want to be a part of his franchise.