Five weeks ago, DeMarcus Cousins' reputation hit a low point. The 6'11 center had an uneven premiere season, good enough to land on the first team All-Rookie squad but with enough fouls, missed shots, turnovers and reported conflagrations that those hoping to see the league's next great big man develop had to give pause. Then, on January 1, with the Sacramento Kings absolutely flailing, coach Paul Westphal delivered the single most bizarre NBA press release I've ever seen.
In the release, Westphal ripped Cousins' attitude, said the 21-year-old wasn't interested in working toward the team's goal and claimed that the big man had demanded a trade. Westphal had not just suspended Cousins for one game after a man-to-man meeting gone wrong. The coach had attempted to inflict maximum damage on Cousins' reputation in the process, either as a form of punishment or as a "tough love" ploy to scare DMC straight.
Whatever the motive, the final result was Kings boss Geoff Petrie pushing Westphal off of the end of the plank five days later. Keith Smart, who was known for his ability to reach players as an assistant and head coach at Golden State, took over and immediately unleashed Cousins. He has let Cousins play through mistakes. He has put Cousins in a position (the post) where he is more likely to succeed. He has loaded up the minutes and doesn't pull DMC after a few unsuccessful possessions.
Cousins has rewarded Smart and the Kings with the sort of production we all expected when he ascended from the University of Kentucky.
Cousins had 28 points and 19 rebounds on Monday against the New Orleans Hornets; he tallied 18 points and 14 rebounds during a second half comeback. More importantly, he's clearly taking a leadership role on a team that desperately needs a vocal leader. After being bumped around by Hornets' big men Emeka Okafor, Gustavo Ayon and Chris Kaman for much of the first half, Cousins lashed out at a ref in the second quarter and earned a technical foul. From that point on, the Kings ran the table and took over the game. Smart talked to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee about the tech.
"What was good during that time was he didn't explode," Smart said. "That's growth. He stayed under control and went down the floor playing basketball and probably said something to the official that he probably shouldn't have said. Nevertheless, I was happy he never said it within the flow of the basketball game, and that was growth right there."
This is no longer about Westphal, but how Smart handled that situation (a tech for arguing with a huge deficit on the road) was the exact opposite of how it would have been dealt with last year. And guess what? This way works. Allowing Cousins to make a mistake, learn from it and continue to play opened up the opportunity for that monster second half (one in which the refs heeded DMC's complaint and gave him five free throws).
Emile Avanessian of Hardwood Hype breaks down Cousins' impressive numbers under Smart, and how impressive they are: he's one of nine players in the league average at least one steal and one block, he's No. 3 in double-doubles behind Kevin Love and Dwight Howard, he's shot better than 50 percent in eight of his 15 games under Smart, sits in the top eight in every rebound rate category and No. 4 overall.
Five weeks ago, Westphal made Cousins look like a monster. Now Cousins is doing that job himself, on the court. It's no surprise that, as a result, the Kings are 7-10 under Smart with a road-heavy schedule (six home, 11 road) and looking like the best of the West's non-playoff contenders.
We always debate how large an impact coaches have on NBA teams. It's a tricky subject. But in Sacramento, there's no question that for this player, for this team, the impact of a change on the bench has been a huge factor in unleashing a real beast.
The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.