Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The Kings have suspended DeMarcus Cousins indefinitely after his latest incident. Is it time for the team to admit it's ill-equipped to help him?
The question is not whether DeMarcus Cousins can be fixed enough to have a long, successful career in the NBA. We have seen players with similar issues flame out. We have seen players with similar issues (Charles Barkley, Zach Randolph, Rasheed Wallace) bear tremendous fruit ... eventually. The question after this latest suspension from the team — Cousins' third in three seasons, to go with a number of league sanctions — is whether Sacramento is equipped to fix DeMarcus.
The answer seriously appears to be no.
This isn't to absolve Cousins. He's committing his own basketball misdemeanors, and to scream "extensive profanity" and personal attacks at Keith Smart, a coach who has been nothing short of forgiving and supportive -- that might be a felony in this game, at this stage, in this situation. It was bad enough for Smart to bench him Friday and exile him going into Christmas week with two winnable games (vs. Portland, at Portland) and plenty of practice time on the schedule. By all accounts, what Cousins did on Friday was bad. He apologized, but "sorry" isn't a time machine. He deserves this suspension.
But, in all likelihood, it's not going to fix anything in and of itself. It'd be miraculous and wonderful if Cousins returned sometime next week on his very best behavior and had nary an incident for the next season and a half, reached his All-Star potential and led the Kings back to the playoffs soon. But ... I'm not going to hold my breath. Chances are that even in the best case, there will continue to be growing pains as DeMarcus Cousins learns how to become an adult. A passionate and excitable but decent adult.
And if you look at Barkley, Z-Bo and Sheed, winning would help. Chuck and Sheed won plenty as jerks, but they won more as responsible adults. Barkley was a playoff regular in Philadelphia, and Wallace was moments from the NBA Finals in Portland. But Barkley's Suns played Jordan's Bulls tough in the Finals, and Sheed won it all with Detroit. Z-Bo's renaissance has come on a very good Grizzlies team. All of those teams have had, in their own ways, strong leaders: Kevin Johnson in the desert, Chauncey Billups in Motown and coach Lionel Hollins on the bluff. But also, of course, the men in question got older. They got wiser. They calmed the Hades down.
The Kings don't have success. They don't win. There are no leaders. And DeMarcus Cousins, 22, looks like he's a long way from growing up.
There are a lot of theories to entertain in all of this. Four teams passed on Cousins in the 2010 NBA Draft for precisely this reason. But here's the thing: none of them thought they couldn't fix Cousins, or give him an environment that would lead to his blossoming as a man. They all just calculated the risk-benefit factor, and went a different direction. (Never forget that David Kahn went with Wes Johnson. There's no scenario in which the Kings get less out of Cousins than the Wolves got out of Wes Johnson.) The Kings in 2010 might have made a decision to go with Greg Monroe instead of Cousins if only they'd been able to admit that, lacking money, a good roster and a strong leader, Sacramento was a poor environment to make the prospect into a star. Upon taking Cousins, instead of trying to build the sort of environment that would mold Cousins into a good man and better player, they remained totally hands off. The moribund management of the Kings let Cousins try to figure it out on his own. Only Cousins never really felt like trying to figure it out.
It's as hard to imagine the Kings changing as it is to imagine Cousins changing. Geoff Petrie, the Kings' president of basketball operations, is the league's longest-tenured lead executive. Over the past six years, his team has the league's second-worst record. By all accounts, his front office is void of dissenting opinions on major matters. His bosses, the Maloofs, haven't paid more than what is basically minimum wage for a head coach since Rick Adelman left town almost seven years ago. No offense to Smart, but he has enough to worry about with this abysmal roster and completely stripped-down scout unit to handle Cousins. That's not going to change. If Smart couldn't keep Cousins from going here, no other $1.5 million coach is going to do it. If Isaiah Thomas, Chuck Hayes and Francisco Garcia can't keep Cousins in line, no other leaders or vets the Kings can pull will do it. Until Petrie is gone or a groundshaking rookie star comes in, this franchise is going nowhere. And until the Maloofs get resolution on the franchise's future, Petrie's likely going nowhere.
It's really, really hard to imagine Cousins getting right in a Kings jersey. He's worth the trouble, but the resources for change just aren't in place and hardly look attainable. This isn't to say that now is the the time to shop him -- and hell, I wouldn't trust Petrie to get fair value for a dollar bill at the 99-cent store. It's going to be months, if not a year, before anything likely happens on that front. Maybe in the interim, the Kings will draft a player that oozes leadership, or it'll all come together on the court, or they'll trade some other prospects for a leader, or the Maloofs will sell and Petrie will be replaced. Maybe something miraculous will happen and the Cousins era can take a turn toward the positive.
But like I said, I'm not holding my breath.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.