The Kings’ imminent challenge isn’t trading DeMarcus Cousins. That will happen soon enough, preferably right around the June 23 NBA draft. The more immediate task is coexisting with the volatile center long enough for general manager Vlade Divac to hire an experienced executive who can help him negotiate a decent deal.
You don’t dump your primary asset without getting value in return. You don’t even need a great deal. You need a good deal. The Kings are 13-41 without him in his five-plus seasons. And for all of Cousins’ detractors and his many issues – and where to even start? – he will have suitors.
A number of league executives fancy themselves as saviors, perceive the Kings as perpetually dysfunctional and are intrigued by the All-Star center’s enormous talents. Keep an eye on Houston, Dallas, Boston, the Lakers and the Clippers, to name a few.
But the regular season continues until April 13, and Cousins, who returns Sunday from his latest one-game suspension, figures to be in a bear of a bad mood. His recent social media postings suggest that he is the aggrieved party. According to Divac, his six-year veteran was “not happy” when he was sent home before practice Friday for berating George Karl during Thursday’s game against Cleveland and directing another profanity-laced tirade at his head coach later in the locker room.
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Sadly, this latest development is far from an anomaly. Cousins bullies teammates and chews up coaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Paul Westphal. Keith Smart. Tyrone Corbin. George Karl. All four were disrespected by their best player and attempted to discipline him in the usual manners: fines, suspensions, kicking him out of practice, removing him temporarily from the starting lineup. Even current Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who connected with Cousins during their one-plus season together, couldn’t prevent his temperamental star from repeatedly blistering referees and exceeding the league-imposed limit (15) on technical fouls; the result was a one-game suspension at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Cousins has 15 techs already this season, with four weeks remaining.
When Karl was asked Friday if the relationship between the two was salvageable, he said bluntly: “I can’t answer that question. Hopefully, we can communicate, and it gets to a good place.”
So good luck with that. In the long term, of course, it won’t matter. Cousins will be traded, and Karl is expected to be replaced at the end of the season. The disappointment goes beyond the 25-39 record. Players other than Cousins – not speaking without compassion – have cited the future Hall of Fame coach’s lack of energy, frequent cancellation of practices, and inability to project verbally during games and practices because his vocal chords were severely damaged by throat cancer treatment six years ago.
Additionally, the perception within the locker room is that Divac’s refusal to suspend his center last November for a similar postgame eruption undermined the coach’s authority and deprived him of the clout needed to respond forcefully and appropriately. In other other words, while Cousins was developing into a more versatile offensive player and a two-time All-Star, the enabling and coddling continued.
But that was the past. Things have changed. The sentiment around Sleep Train Arena these past few days has shifted as dramatically as one of Cousins’ mood swings.
Divac, the first-year executive who along with principal owner Vivek Ranadive was among the few within the organization who clung to the belief that Cousins’ would mature and his prodigious individual stats would translate into victories, offered a surprising response when asked Thursday if he is considering trading his star.
“When?” Divac replied, coyly. “When?”
In the offseason?
“This isn’t the offseason,” he noted.
No, it’s not, and Divac, who will continue to preside over basketball operations, is still interviewing GM-type candidates. And nothing significant happens until the structure of the front office is solidified. But in the meantime, Cousins rejoins teammates who are emotionally and mentally exhausted from all the shenanigans, and with no postseason in sight, left competing for the sake of pride and professionalism.
“A tired team,” Rudy Gay conceded after Friday’s loss to Orlando, adding that he was personally disappointed by his season-long struggles.
For the sake of peace, love and a semblance of sanity as the Sleep Train finale approaches, Divac and Ranadive need to sit down with Cousins and his agents, state the obvious about an inevitable divorce, remind the center that he is being evaluated for the U.S. Olympic Team, and try to finish out the year without another implosion.
Finally, the Kings have clarity regarding Cousins. Now they need an offseason to recast their image and open Golden 1 Center with a new look and a more promising, uplifting future.