The Kings want their next coach to be the best fit for the organization, not for All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
But there’s no way to separate the two.
A successful organization wouldn’t intentionally hire a coach who would anger its best player. But that’s what the Kings did 14 months ago when they hired George Karl, forcing a relationship that would not work, as principal owner Vivek Ranadive was warned by league observers and some within the Kings’ organization.
The Kings now are searching for their third coach since December 2014.
If the Kings intend to keep Cousins, they must find a coach who can establish a relationship built on trust and directness.
Some mistakenly think Cousins prefers a pushover for a coach. The two coaches he’s connected with best since high school, John Calipari at Kentucky and Michael Malone in Sacramento, were hard on Cousins. They challenged him.
In return, Cousins gave them his best and remains loyal to them.
“Just be honest with him and keep it real,” Calipari said. “If I needed a kidney, he would give it to me except that his is too big and wouldn’t fit. That’s who he is. If you’re loyal to him, he’s going to the max for you.”
Karl never built that kind of trust with Cousins. Karl’s style bothered star players in previous stops, and Sacramento was no different. Cousins did not like that Karl explored trading him last summer, even though it wasn’t his job to do so, and the strained relationship never improved.
Cousins didn’t believe Karl was honest with him at the beginning of his stint as coach, and that made it difficult to bond.
“Everything is based on relationships,” Calipari said. “We want to talk about X’s and O’s, but it’s all relationship driven – all of it. If DeMarcus trusts and respects whoever is coaching him, and he knows that person has his best interests at heart, he’s not an issue.
“Will he get emotional in a game? Yes. I coached in the (NBA), and there were guys like that. You accepted that because that’s what made them who they were – that’s what made them so special.
“He is really intelligent, really intelligent. You’re not fooling him.”
Cousins is still close with Malone, who was fired in December 2014, a move that angered the entire team. Cousins still has tremendous respect for Malone and recently sent him a gift.
“It was really neat,” Malone recalled this month. “We were on the road, and I came back into my office and in the package was one of DeMarcus’ All-Star jerseys from this year, from him, signed with a really nice note.”
Certainly, Malone had tense moments with Cousins, but their relationship was built on trust, and that trust helped keep them focused on the same goal. Calipari said Cousins, like every player, tested the limits, but by the end of his only season at Kentucky, Cousins told coaches he wanted to return because he was having so much fun.
Still, Cousins left Kentucky and was selected by the Kings with the fifth pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
“I had absolutely no issues coaching him,” Calipari said. “There were standards I didn’t budge, and when he knew what they were, he was fine. The second thing is – and I’ve said this a million times – my wife absolutely loved him. He was her favorite. That means he had to be so respectful and so nice and always make time for my wife. That’s the kind of young man he is.”
But Calipari said that doesn’t mean Cousins won’t say things he shouldn’t or do things a coach might not like. Calipari says Cousins’ biggest problem is that “he probably reads too much and listens (to criticism) too much. Why? He’s (25).”
Calipari also points to Cousins’ Team USA experience as evidence that when he’s in a stable environment, his emotions are not a problem.
“He and I have a great relationship now; we had one here,” in Lexington, Calipari said. “He was the star; I was the coach. There were certain lines he respected. Never once was he disrespectful toward me, never once.”