Willie Cauley-Stein on facing DeMarcus Cousins and his expanded role on offense
DeMarcus Cousins returns for the first time Thursday as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, and he appears to be an angry bear, not his alter-ego teddy bear, so there is no need to poke.
He believes he is a victim. He says he was a fool. He blames everyone except the ushers, concessionaires and janitors inside Golden 1 Center for the six-plus years of Kings chaos and misery that preceded an extremely nasty divorce.
But let’s start with this. Let’s welcome Boogie back, show him some love, and send him on his way. The breakup last February was both inevitable and several years too late. A marriage counselor would have spent five minutes with this couple and directed them to the nearest attorney’s office.
As it turns out, though, Cousins got what he wanted – a trade to an organization with a franchise player (Anthony Davis) and a legitimate shot at the playoffs – and the Kings got what they needed: Buddy Hield and a first-round draft choice that led to a swap for rookies Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, and most significantly, the intestinal fortitude to admit that when something isn’t working, it’s time to try something else.
Hence, the aggressive reboot that transformed those Kings into these princes, and is infusing Golden 1 Center with a very different vibe and a patient, positive energy. Starting over is hard and it will be time consuming, to be sure, but there is something exciting about the young kids and the glimpses of a promising Kings future.
De’Aaron Fox. Bogdan Bogdanovic. Skal Labissiere. Willie Cauley-Stein. Frank Mason III. Jackson. Giles. On and on it goes, the haul from three consecutive drafts, several sweeping trades, and a commitment from principal owner Vivek Ranadive to finally stay out of the way and allow his basketball executives to make the decisions.
“This was hard for me,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said recently. “DeMarcus, he has so much talent. Off the court he does so many good things in the community. He should be a role model for everybody in that sense. But we are trying to build an organization that does things the right way. So, hey, we move on.”
While Cousins has criticized the Kings repeatedly since the trade – and not without some justification – the three-time All-Star has an opportunity to recast his image, to reach for a pen and redact all the unsavory elements of his turbulent tenure here.
At 27, he is in excellent condition and in his physical prime, with ample opportunity to experience a postseason, develop into a beloved teammate, establish favorable relationships with the refs and his coaches, though there have been far too many of the latter. In fairness to Cousins, he met the Kings during their most dysfunctional era, with relocation threats hovering, an ownership change looming, constant turnover occurring in the front office and among the coaching staff. Factor in one terrible draft choice and personnel move after another, and what you have is a nightmare that never ends.
But a look in the mirror wouldn’t hurt, either. Cousins’ conditioning was a chronic problem, ranking right up there with his temper. He berated coaches, bullied teammates, harassed the refs. Again and again he was fined and suspended by the Kings and by the league. Former coaches Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Tyrone Corbin and George Karl all advised Ranadive to trade him elsewhere, yet the owner and his center stubbornly clung to one another.
In an interview with ESPN’s Marc Spears earlier in the week, Cousins said his biggest regret “is not leaving when I had the chance. I had the chance, but I fought it. I had the chance to leave, but I didn’t.”
He was referring, of course, to the 2015 offseason, when it was clear that he couldn’t coexist with Karl any better than Westphal, Smart or Corbin. But Karl never had a chance. Zip, zero, none. Before even being introduced to Cousins, the center’s representatives, Dan Fegan (who once represented Karl) and Jarrin Akana (who was on the Denver Nuggets’ staff when Karl was hired and brought in his own staff), convinced their client the new Kings coach was a terrible person, that he couldn’t play for him, that he should demand a trade.
Cousins didn’t demand a trade, but he got his pound of flesh out of the two-time cancer survivor in this sense: In his previous 21 years coaching in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver, Karl never endured a losing season. In his 1 1/2 years in Sacramento, he finished 33-49 and walked out the door physically and emotionally spent.
When he was traded, Cousins was shocked and angered, and similar to other players stunned by a trade, said he felt betrayed. Divac can relate. Drafted by the Lakers in 1989 and embraced by luminaries Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, among others, he was so devastated when Lakers GM Jerry West swapped him to Charlotte seven years later – for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant! – that he spent weeks contemplating retirement.
“I was in the same situation,” Divac recalled, “and it was crushing. When I stepped back, I could understand and see the other side, too. So I have understanding, but I don’t support the way (Cousins) reacted.”
What will be Cousins’ legacy?
That will be his choice. He becomes a free agent next summer and can control who he plays for, who he plays with, where he lives. My hope is that he goes in peace, and that he finds prosperity.