Kings center DeMarcus Cousins is probably just too close to the situation to fully appreciate what’s going on. The rumors aren’t true. The sky isn’t falling.
But the bruising reality of the NBA standings – another season nearing an end without a playoff appearance – is crushing his mood and darkening his perspective. He can’t see the future through the clouds.
While this is the worst of his five seasons in many respects, marred by serious illness, two coaching changes, injuries to key players and a shakeup in the front office, these also have been the most impressive months of his young career.
There are no more whispers. Cousins hits people over the head: rebounds, passes, jumpers, drop-steps, blocked shots, screens and an intimidating interior presence. In these closing weeks, Cousins has taken his game to another level. And even for someone who is 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds and only months removed from his first Team USA appearance and first All-Star berth, these are giant steps.
“Cuz, he’s not a center,” Kings coach George Karl said. “He’s a big man, and I think we’re going to continue to expand options on how to use him. It’s not going to be on the block. It’s not going to be on the elbow. It’s going to be everywhere, all the possibilities.
“(And) people love Cuz as an offensive player, but Cuz is our best defensive player. Statistically, we go drastically off, down, when we take him off the court.”
Statistically, since the All-Star break – when Karl took over for Tyrone Corbin – Cousins’ numbers have improved in most pertinent categories. Entering Tuesday’s game against the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves, he is averaging career highs of 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.8 blocks. But it is the intangibles – the wiser decisions, the eagerness to pass, the grudging acceptance of playing at a faster pace – that have been most impressive.
The style is reminiscent of Mike Krzyzewski’s up-tempo schemes with Team USA last summer. Cousins made the roster because of his unique skills, but only after he ran himself into better shape. Coach K allows his bigs to push the ball after collecting rebounds but demands they get across midcourt and into the offense within five to seven seconds.
Karl doesn’t use a stopwatch, but he has a similar philosophy. The goal is to advance the ball before defenses are set, establishing a rhythm with passing, cutting, movement.
“I think DeMarcus is adjusting to coach Karl’s system, to be honest with you,” longtime Kings analyst Jerry Reynolds said. “He’s being utilized a little differently. He’s getting a lot more touches, more cutters, getting more opportunities to move the ball – and he has. When he gets around the basket, he draws so much attention. He’s just a magnet, especially on our team.”
So what’s the deal with the sudden downturn in Cousins’ demeanor? Though coming off consecutive triple doubles, he appeared out of sorts during Sunday’s loss to the Utah Jazz. He barked at the referees, picked up a technical and barely averted another, reflecting his frustration and doom-and-gloom attitude.
Before leaving the arena, Cousins made a terse, brief reference to the persistent losing. He could have mentioned the team’s obvious talent deficiencies, but declined. Darren Collison has been sidelined since Karl took over. Rudy Gay is out because of a concussion. The young shooting guards are erratic from the perimeter, and, aside from Jason Thompson, the Kings lack length on the front line.
“I understand his frustration,” said Vlade Divac, the Kings’ vice president of basketball and franchise operations. “We need better shooting, more talent. That’s obvious. And five years in the league and five coaches. DeMarcus needs stability. We’re trying to bring that with coach, myself, and make this a stable situation.
“But when I look at him, I see a dominating big guy who is not afraid of anything. He’s playing in the paint, hustling, playing hard. I think he’s unbelievable. George is going to develop his passing abilities, create more opportunities for him because everybody is moving around. We’re going to help him. Believe me. Next year will be very different.”
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