No one ever thought turning DeMarcus Cousins into an NBA player would be easy. There's a reason a skilled, productive center fell to No. 5 in the 2010 NBA Draft: because team executives were worried that he'd eat his way out of the league or be too much trouble to keep around.
Cousins spent the lockout getting into great shape -- he's much slimmer, and he's reportedly lost 18 pounds since the start of December -- and has just one touchy technical foul this season. (It was a late double-technical in the Sacramento Kings' opener. He hasn't complained to the officials -- a rookie bugaboo -- at all.) On the court, he's struggled with his shot, missing an inordinate number of attempts at the rim. But he's otherwise been productive, professional and good on the court. He's No. 4 in the NBA in rebounds per game, No. 1 in offensive rebound rate and No. 2 in total rebound rate. He is working exceptionally hard.
But his mouth runs, and it has apparently run too much for the taste of Kings coach Paul Westphal. Westphal sent Cousins home on Sunday and held him out of Sacramento's game against the New Orleans Hornets. (The Kings won 96-80 as New Orleans went ice-cold.) That's not the weird part; while there had been nothing brewing in the public sightlines, we all know Cousins is a hothead, and we all suspect he lacks respect for Westphal.
What turned this into a firestorm was Westphal's public statements about the suspension.
First, he never called it a suspension. That might be because it's not a suspension. Suspensions come with missed paychecks and potential appeals from the players' union; it's unclear why the Kings failed to formally suspend Cousins. Adding to the oddity, the Kings sent out a statement from Westphal himself announcing that Cousins had demanded a trade and was sent home.
There is no franchise in the NBA traditionally as tight-lipped as the Sacramento Kings. Geoff Petrie, the team's longtime personnel boss, makes Bill Belichick look like an oversharing 17-year-old on Facebook. To see the Kings' head coach send out a statement not only fluffing up a discipline action against a star player with purple prose -- seriously, read the statement in all its ninth-grade English class glory -- but specifically detailed the crime is ... it was completely out of character for the franchise we've known for the past decade and a half.
Only now, it's the new norm. Petrie has ceded vast territories of control to Westphal, from trade input, free agent signings and the draft on down. Westphal has far more sway than even Rick Adelman did back in the Kings' glory years. The problem is that Paul Westphal is not good at this. There is a reason no other team would seriously entertain making Westphal its coach back when Sacramento hired him in 2009. It's because the NBA at large has a memory, and remembers why Westphal lost the last job he had as a head coach in the NBA.
In case anyone has forgotten: Westphal butted heads with Gary Payton in 2000, suspended the legendary point guard for arguing and rescinded the suspension once Payton apologized ... all in full view of the public. The Sonics mercifully canned Westphal almost immediately. Payton was always a hothead; he didn't get that way only when Westphal arrived. But strangely enough, George Karl, Nate McMillan and Pat Riley were able to handle Payton and get the most out of him on the court. Somehow, Karl could deal with Payton's eternally burning fire and get him to the NBA Finals. Somehow, Riley could reign Payton in enough to win a title with him in Miami.
Westphal couldn't. I'm stunned he's having the same problem with another hothead.
One of the features that attracted the Kings to Westphal was that he talks a good game. In 2009, Sacramento had the opportunity to hire Tom Thibodeau; he interviewed with the team a couple times, and the front office found him brilliant but awkward. Westphal is a political man at heart -- he apparently counts Rush Limbaugh as a good friend -- and he knows how to spin everything in a positive fashion ... for his own sake. He said everything the Kings wanted to hear in 2009, and that was all the opposite of that which Reggie Theus (the previous hire) stood for: personal accountability, toughness, strong effort.
But Westphal's version of accountability doesn't fly. Nothing is ever this coach's fault. The team got blown out Saturday at home by the Knicks. Westphal's starting point guard Tyreke Evans told the media that the players are lost in the offense. Cousins indicated similar displeasure with the offense in front of the media. Reports indicate J.J. Hickson -- J.J. Hickson! -- warned Cousins not to talk about his issues in front of tape recorders during the session. So Cousins takes it private with Westphal and ... gets suspended?
But hey, no one's talking about Evans' comments any more, are they? If only Westphal's in-game tactics were as sharp as the ones he employs on the media, the Kings might not be 51-118 under his watch.
Westphal told the media on Sunday that this was "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to Cousins. OK, so if it's the tip of the iceberg, why was this the tipping point? Cousins' agent says that if the center did say "trade me!," it was in the context of something like, "If you think I'm such a problem, trade me!" Again: if that's the tip of the iceberg, if that's just an indication of the spectacular disruption Cousins causes ... why didn't you suspend him last week? Hell, why didn't you bench him last week? Why didn't you fine him last week? What made this so egregious?
When the Kings drafted Cousins, they knew he'd need strong, effective management from the coaching staff and front office to turn him into the star he can become. But the Kings, broke as a sand salesman in the Sahara, stuck with Westphal, the lowest-paid, least sought-after head coach in the NBA, and hired Cousins' high school coach as an assistant, hoping some level of familiarity would help Cousins' transition. (That assistant coach left as soon as the 2010-11 season ended.) When that didn't work, Westphal began trying to shame Cousins in public ... because that worked so well in Seattle with Payton.
You can't put a two-cent bandage on a $100 wound and expect things to work out. It's time for better dressing before Cousins' career moves to a much darker trajectory. The Kings have to commit to the proper development -- emotional and otherwise -- of a great young prospect instead of the whims of a middle-aged egomaniac.
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