Ailene Voisin

Amid talk of a trade, Koufos ready for whatever is next, sees ‘much potential’ on Kings

Kings center Kosta Koufos (41) and Willie Cauley-Stein are the only players remaining from the summer of 2015, Vlade Divac’s first offseason as GM
Kings center Kosta Koufos (41) and Willie Cauley-Stein are the only players remaining from the summer of 2015, Vlade Divac’s first offseason as GM hamezcua@sacbee.com

Kosta Koufos seldom has bad days, or even bad moments. He compares himself to a midsize sedan that reaches the speeds of a Maserati on the interstate, and in urban areas, slows down and cruises along, taking in the sights and enjoying the ride.

 
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But Thursday night was a rarity, a real downer for Kosta. The Kings backup center was in the midst of his most impressive performance of the season, a 14-point, 14-rebound effort in which he was a catalyst for the second-half comeback, only to make one crucial mistake – an errant pass intended for Garrett Temple – that resulted in a turnover and a game-clinching dunk for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Afterward, it was hard to tell who felt worse: Kings coach Dave Joerger, who coached Koufos previously in Memphis; his Kings teammates, who have tremendous affection for the endearing 7-foot veteran; or Koufos, who is caught in the middle in a very real sense, yet refuses to complain about that, either.

“It was an error on my part,” he said, glumly, downplaying his statistics. “It (stats) doesn’t matter. We didn’t come out with the ‘W.’ 

That pretty much summarizes Koufos. The 10-year veteran routinely takes one for the team. Though he also has played for Utah, Minnesota, Denver and Memphis, he knows his place. He is an NBA player who accepts his role – mostly that of a durable backup center – and is willing to do pretty much anything that is asked.

Secure rebounds. Run the floor. Defend the interior. Create space for teammates with nasty, stubborn screens. He scores primarily off follow shots, half-hooks, occasional breakout dunks. The only time he ventures near the foul line in halfcourt situations is to shoot free throws.

Yet with the roster overcrowded with centers and the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaching, Koufos is well aware that he once again could be changing ZIP codes. He hears the whispers. His representatives recently met with Kings general manager Vlade Divac, who is open to a trade, but only if he receives value in return.

Koufos’ favorable contract is particularly appealing for teams in the playoff chase and unwilling/unable to absorb massive salaries or long-term deals. He earns $8.3 million this season and has a player option next year for $8.7 million. (Zach Randolph, by contrast, is on the books for $12 million this year and $12 million in 2018-19.)

As for Koufos’ desire? You might be surprised. The fact his 2 1/2 seasons with the Kings haven’t gone as smoothly or consistently as he had hoped hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm for the city or the team.

No small part of him still clings to the notion of sticking around to apply the finishing touches on a rebuild he helped start. Of the current Kings, Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein are the only players remaining from the summer of 2015, Divac’s first offseason as GM. In those frenetic, chaotic weeks following the departure of Chris Mullin and Pete D’Alessandro, Divac drafted Cauley-Stein out of Kentucky and pursued Koufos in free agency.

Koufos, 28, signed with the Kings largely because of his prior relationship with George Karl, his coach in Denver during his most productive NBA seasons. The Nuggets’ style of play – brisk pace, defense that creates offense, quick decisions, crisp ball movement – worked to his strengths as a complementary player who didn’t have to score to be effective. In his only season as a full-time starter (2012-13), the Ohio State product averaged career bests in scoring (8.0 points), rebounds (6.9) and blocks (1.3), while shooting 58 percent from the field.

Though openly disappointed about Karl’s hasty demise and privately critical of DeMarcus Cousins’ disruptive presence, his adjustment was eased by the hiring of Joerger. Koufos goes out of his way to acknowledge the difficulty of parsing out enough playing time to keep the veterans happy while developing the youngsters, per the organization’s priority.

“We still have a ways to go,” he said, “but the vets are doing a great job trying to lead the young guys, and the young guys continue to work hard. Willie and Skal (Labissiere) are helluva good players. They have so much potential, and Willie is having a great year. I’m so proud of him. That’s the thing about this team. Everybody is enthusiastic and turning each other on. You don’t always see that.”

Koufos’ stall located in the middle of the U-shaped locker room functions as something of a late-night magnet. He lingers long after the games, often icing his knees, and can be seen teasing teammates, lending his can of deodorant, wisecracking at the TV screen, directing reporters to players he believes are more deserving of the attention. When the cameras are on, Kosta is cautious and on-script. When they’re off, he is inquisitive, thoughtful, funny, revealing.

Asked how he maintains such a positive disposition amid the trade speculation, erratic playing time, a losing record, all the usual NBA stuff – he nods, explains simply that this is what he knows. His father, a prominent oncologist, died of cancer when Kosta was 9. His mother was a high school counselor who raised three children on her own, aided by friends and relatives in the tight-knit Greek community in Canton, Ohio.

“Take it day by day,” he said. “I understand it’s a business. If I get traded? Whatever happens or doesn’t happen, wish good things for others and good things will come back to you. And when your time is there, perform the best you can. I am thankful every day to have a job playing in the NBA.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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