Everybody wants to blame DeMarcus Cousins for the Kings' mini-slump, of course. He's the biggest target, the most talented player, and since signing his maximum contract extension, he's on the cusp of becoming the wealthiest gentleman in the locker room.
But that long-term security comes with a hefty price tag, the pressure to perform intensified by that additional four years and $62 million. Microscopes are all the rage. Television cameras and microphones are everywhere.
Now, on occasion, this can work to his advantage. During Tuesday's loss to the visiting Atlanta Hawks, the replays exonerated Cousins of a flagrant foul and completely exposed Dennis Schroder's below-the-belt squeeze play that left the Kings' center writhing on the floor in pain. The refs – notwithstanding Game 6 in 2002 – are not the enemy. Cousins' reputation is the enemy, and the only way to earn the respect of the officials, his coaches and his teammates is to play to his strengths and maximize his potential.
The Kings' 1-3 start is not all on Cousins. This starts with the learning curve of a hastily assembled organization, with the expectations of a playoff-starved community and, to some extent, with the ill-advised designation of Cousins as the team leader.
He's not there yet, but who knows? He is 23 years old. In the previous era, he would be finishing college or starting his rookie season. Anyone remember Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing or Scottie Pippen at age 23? Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Chris Webber?
The league has multiple-choice answers for every Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and frankly, the last thing Cousins needs right now is to be overburdened by lofty labels.
Interestingly, it was two veterans, Greivis Vasquez and John Salmons, who addressed their teammates late Tuesday night in a meeting that probably should have lasted into the wee hours. The list of troublesome issues is expansive and includes inconsistency at both forward positions, erratic levels of defensive intensity and physicality, poor ball movement, poor decisions, stagnant halfcourt offense and generally far too many flashbacks to the Kings of recent seasons.
But the Kings could have defeated the Clippers, should have competed against the Warriors, and absolutely should have prevailed against the mediocre Hawks. The fact Cousins appeared fatigued and distracted Tuesday both before and after Schroder tagged him with a low blow – and both before and after the referees rescinded a flagrant foul he had been assessed – landed him on the bench and out of sorts for a second consecutive game. And that can't continue to happen.
"He has to understand people are going to come at him," Vasquez said. "You've got to be man enough to understand you are the best player. You are the franchise player. To whom much is given, much is expected. But you know what I like about DeMarcus that people don't know about him? He gets in the locker room and when he makes a mistake, he gets up and says, 'That's on me.' That's another part of the process for him."
But only part of the process. What's that other saying? Control what you can control. With his instincts and his Webber-like soft hands, Cousins should challenge for the league's rebounding title. His strength and versatile skill set should make him a chronic nightmare for defenders, particularly when he makes quick, decisive moves and avoids getting anchored and predictable in the left block, enticing double and sometimes triple teams. And though he has lost significant weight and his conditioning is much improved, his thick body type, coupled with his physicality and the pounding he absorbs nightly, presents a career-long challenge to stay in shape.
"He has to do a better job with his low-post defense," coach Michael Malone said, "and we have to do a better job of helping him. And to his credit, the non-basketball stuff I give him a ton of credit. He's really trying to contain his emotions and handle it."
Cousins denies that he feels additional pressure because of the contract extension. In fact, he sounded relatively upbeat after Wednesday's practice; four games do not dictate a season.
"We've just go keep moving, cutting with a purpose," he said. "That's the stuff we've got to continue to work on. The double teams aren't going to stop anytime soon. Just make minor adjustments and keep going every day."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208. Follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.