Ailene Voisin

DeMarcus Cousins, agents can’t continue to keep Kings hostage

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl pats Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) as he comes off the court during the Sacramento Kings game against the Boston Celtics.
Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl pats Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) as he comes off the court during the Sacramento Kings game against the Boston Celtics. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The DeMarcus Cousins circus continues, in one form or another, year after year, coach after coach, losing season after losing season. Since Michael Malone’s firing Dec. 14 – a monumental mistake, as principal owner Vivek Ranadive has acknowledged – the Kings made a nice recovery by hiring George Karl as coach and recruiting Vlade Divac to oversee the front office.

But the next issue is the real doozy: resolving the Cousins conundrum. Does he want to continue his career in Sacramento, led by an innovative and accomplished coach, an owner who spends money, and a basketball icon with the smarts and contacts to piece together a winning franchise? Or does he want to take his ball and go home or, in other words, force a trade? Is he in or is he out?

Ranadive and Divac, the vice president of basketball and franchise operations, continue to insist Cousins will not be traded. Distracted from his preparation for Thursday’s NBA draft, an irritated Divac responded to reports from ESPN and Yahoo early Tuesday by forcefully saying, “It is not happening. I don’t care what the agents or the media people are saying. I don’t know why we are wasting time talking about something that is not going to happen.”

At least not in the foreseeable future. But stay tuned. Teams win with committed superstars, not fence straddlers or malcontents, and for the past few months, Cousins has been transmitting mixed messages. He was crushed by Malone’s stunning departure, was immersed in the team-wide emotional funk during Tyrone Corbin’s ill-fated interim tenure, and battled health issues during the closing weeks of the season. He also refused to fully engage with Karl, who took over the emotionally and physically crippled Kings on Feb. 17.

Karl unknowingly leaped into a mosh pit. He dodged elbows from all directions. While most of the players – and the community – embraced the hiring of an accomplished, high-profile coach, former general manager Pete D’Alessandro was plotting to hire special assistant Chris Mullin at season’s end; Cousins’ powerful agents, Dan Fegan and Jarinn Akana, adamantly opposed the move and argued instead the demanding Karl was too large a personality for their 6-foot-11, 270-pound client – a theory also endorsed by D’Alessandro; and injured starting point guard Darren Collison didn’t suit up for a single game under Karl.

The fact Cousins nonetheless went out and played the best basketball of his career under Karl, producing consecutive triple doubles, passing and moving and benefiting from enhanced spacing, somehow seems to have slipped his mind. When the season ended, his mood was dark; he spoke about resting his body and mind following a tumultuous season amid internal discord within the front office.

No one argues with that. Cousins, who was named to his first All-Star team, absorbs more hits than a punching bag. His combination of size, strength and skill is unique among the league’s big men. Assuming he stays healthy and shows up in shape, he likely will be named to Mike Krzyzewski’s 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

But the recent onslaught of speculation, of rumors and innuendo, about his future with the Kings demands a resolution. Franchises held hostage by players or agents are doomed to failure. In or out? Cousins has to make up his mind, and he can’t be coy. No whispers, no tweeting, no cryptic messages. No more hiding behind his agents or his buddies or others “in his camp.”

He wears the pants. His is the voice that resonates. Can he be a leader on a Karl-coached team that defends aggressively, plays fast and with pace and shares the ball and the credit – all traits that defined the 2014 champs, the San Antonio Spurs, and the reigning champion Golden State Warriors? Or does he cling to his own blueprint for success, one undoubtedly centered around his muscular All-Star skills and punishing personality?

For now, Cousins stays put. Ranadive is holding firm to the final three years of his contract. Divac is similarly intent on building around his gifted big man. In a meeting with Cousins’ agents a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, the Kings’ top basketball executive struck right at the heart of the matter: Karl is the coach, and he isn’t going anywhere.

While Cousins has complained he has not heard from his coach, in an ominous sign, a source said Karl sent an estimated 10 texts or phone calls since the season ended, none of which has initiated a response. In a brief conversation Tuesday, Karl sounded as exasperated as Divac.

“I want to get better,” Karl said. “I’ve had more conversations with my staff about ‘How we are going to coach him (Cousins), how we are going to motivate him, connect with him?’ than anything else.”

Asked about speculation he has been pressuring management to trade the All-Star center, Karl replied, “We won 29 games last year. Cuz is our best player. We know that, and we want him committed. My interest right now is commitment, trust and building a team that’s excited about being in Sacramento, excited and committed to being a good basketball team. Rudy (Gay) is just like Cuz. They’re our two best basketball players, and 99, 95 percent of this (trade) stuff is just a bunch of innuendo, gossip and somebody putting two and two together until it becomes six. But two and two comes out four, and they’re going to be on our basketball team.”

And the rest of the team? What is that Warriors theme, “Strength in numbers?” One is the loneliest number, even in basketball.

Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl talks about trade rumors involving star center DeMarcus Cousins while participating in a kids golf clinic at the U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso Country Club. Video by Randy Pench, The Sacramento Bee.

Ailene Voisin: (916) 321-1208, avoisin@sacbee.com, @ailene_voisin. The Bee’s Jose Olivar contributed to this report.

NBA draft

  • When: Thursday
  • Where: Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • TV: 4 p.m., ESPN
  • Kings’ pick: No. 6 in first round
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