Kings Issues Don't End With DeMarcus Cousins
As I write here in a Sacramento suburb -- where the job has changed since my days at the local newspaper, but the home base has not -- the Kings are heading to US Airways Arena in Phoenix where a win could change this negative tone that is quickly surrounding them. But even that wouldn't change the issues that are quickly coming to the surface with this club, not the least of which is the reported fine issued to rookie forward DeMarcus Cousins that so many are using to wave their 'I Told You So' flag.
That's premature, as I see it, especially since a source close to Cousins tells FanHouse that these tales of controversy inspired three top-tier teams to inquire about his availability in recent days rather than feel vindicated for their supposed fear. The former Kentucky big man who was taken fifth in the June draft and who has a reputation for volatility did indeed receive a $5,000 fine approximately a month ago, when -- as sources close to the team told FanHouse -- he essentially barked too loud and too unprofessionally at the team's strength coach, Daniel Shapiro, over a matter of personal fitness.
The sources say this came just days after the team's patience level had already been tested, as Cousins and assistant coach Truck Robinson -- the former player whose charge is to work with the team's big men -- had a loud, pride-filled and brief disagreement during practice. The more recent and relevant development came on Wednesday night, when Cousins' frustrations reached a new high at halftime of the Kings' home game against Minnesota.
Kings coach Paul Westphal, according to the sources, targeted the rookie in his halftime discussion with the team and largely blamed his selfishness for the team's 51-45 deficit. Cousins, in turn, was left shaking his head at what he deemed an effort to use him as a scapegoat for the night.
From this vantage point, it's déjà vu all over again for Westphal, a trend he really must find a way to bring to an end.
Put simply, and I'm speaking from experience here, teammates of Tyreke Evans don't take kindly to the finger-pointing when so many feel the finger isn't pointed his way nearly enough.
For all of Evans' dynamic talents and incredible skill, he remains a polarizing figure in-house because of the way he has been handled since coming on the scene last season. He was pitched as a point guard, then subsequently gained a reputation among scouts, front-office and coaching types as someone who -- no matter how many times he toes the company line -- only passes if he has to most of the time.
He was hailed as their savior, a campaign that officially kicked off on Dec. 26, 2009, when Westphal's repeated calls for an Evans-Kobe Bryant faceoff down the stretch -- in my estimation -- sent this storyline down the wrong path. It culminated at the end of last season, when Evans -- who should be viewed as a victim in some sense here -- admitted to the building pressure that came with a 20-5-5 statistical push (points, rebounds, assists) that was driven by the team's marketers, conceivably to ensure he won the Rookie of the Year award, and churned stomachs of old-school basketball people who saw it as a classic individual-vs.-team moment in time.
In terms of the Xs and Os, Evans' sixth foul against the Timberwolves on Wednesday said everything about why his teammates so often scratch their heads and the collective frustration builds, as he ran the break alone (which says plenty on its own) and barreled into three defenders before the accurately-called charge put him out of action with 9:02 remaining. Simple plays like those, or the countless times when Evans doesn't reward the teammates who run with him for their efforts, are at the root of a problem that Westphal must solve.
The challenge with Evans is that he's the polar-opposite of Cousins in terms of personality, quieter and far less prone to blow a fuse but equally capable of ignoring his coach with a far less fine-able style. There are reports out of practice that Westphal has grown more stern with Evans, getting on him hard when his fingers are too sticky and sending the sort of messages that weren't sent early on last season. The next step is doing it in the games, when even the most casual NBA observers look at the screen and wonder why the offense is being so shoddily run.
There is an optimistic view here that could work out well for these Kings, as it appears Cousins' refusal to ignore this elephant in the room just might force his bosses to bring some long-overdue balance to their culture. And that's the bigger picture here.
As easy as it is to sound the Cousins or even the Evans alarms and look their way for all the answers, you can bet the likes of owners Joe and Gavin Maloof and basketball president Geoff Petrie -- who is equally responsible for putting these players down this path -- are looking at Westphal and expecting him to keep this train on the tracks. With increased talent comes increased responsibility (no, I'm not quoting Spiderman's uncle), and all of the parties in power have an all-in attitude on these young talents that means the coach must make it work.
Westphal's 2011-12 team option worth $2 million was picked up in mid-April, so he's not a lame duck. But he is, like nearly every coach in the Association, being watched closely.
Westphal's challenges don't end with Cousins or Evans, either. Third-year forward Jason Thompson is reportedly being shopped, which I can assure you is just fine with him considering his current lot in this Kings life (specifically, the fact that he's being asked to play small forward). Free-agent-to-be Carl Landry entered the season, according to sources close to him, disappointed that the team didn't add any high-scoring free agent wingmen and is now frustrated not only at his poor play but what all this drama means for his future.
Third-year small forward Donte' Greene, whose added weight in the summer has had much to do with doghouse status, is hardly seeing any time and certainly adding to the declining locker room vibe. You can bet some of the above players voiced their concerns on Thursday, when Westphal reportedly canceled practice and held meetings with his team. Speaking to FanHouse by phone on Friday afternoon just hours before the Suns game, he insisted the situation wasn't as bad as it might seem.
And since I'm quite confident it's only the Kings/NBA fanatics still reading at this point, here are his thoughts in their entirety to shed some light on the matter. For the record, Petrie did not return a call for comment and Cousins' agent, John Greig, declined to comment.
On the Cousins fine and halftime situation on Wednesday ...
"First off, I don't confirm or deny anything that happens behind closed doors. And every team always has behind-closed-doors issues that are inevitable parts of basketball," Westphal said. "All I can say is generalities: we're thrilled that we were able to pick DeMarcus, we love having him on the team, I'm excited about his present and even more excited about his future.
"As with any player, there are going to be some days that are better than others as they learn what the league is all about. Anything that has happened as far as anybody trying to make more out of it than that is really not fair, I don't think.
"I love that we have DeMarcus, and we're going to have some growing pains along the way. That's pretty much what I would have to say about that."
On whether the team's relationship with Cousins is going in the right direction or needs major restructuring...
"I think it's going in the right direction. We have a great relationship. He's a very honest player. He tells you what he thinks, and I'm an honest coach," Westphal said. "I will not lie to him, and I'll tell him when I think he's doing well and I'll tell him when I think he needs to work on something. And he'll tell me what he thinks about what I think, and we'll work it out. That's what happens, and I like our relationship."
Tip-off is an hour away in the Valley of the Sun, where the heat is certainly on the Kings and Cousins is only the tip of this cactus.