MIAMI — When there’s no news coming out of Sacramento, that’s not all that bad for the Kings.
During the past year, most of the headlines surrounding the NBA’s witness protection program of a franchise have focused on the team’s potential move to Anaheim and the alleged trade demands of star big man DeMarcus Cousins. But now many believe the Kings will be able to settle their arena situation and stay long term in Sacramento. As for Cousins, he now also wants to stick around.
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“Absolutely, this is where I want to be,” the second-year center said in an interview with FOX Sports Florida when asked if Sacramento is where he wants to stay long term. “I’m loyal to the city. I’m loyal to my fans. I’m loyal to my team. I’m loyal to the organization.”
Debate all you want about whether Cousins, who will first be eligible to sign a contract extension in the summer of 2013, was loyal to Paul Westphal, fired as Kings coach Jan. 5. But there’s no question Cousins quickly has developed a unique relationship with new boss Keith Smart, who began the season as a Kings assistant.
Smart regularly goes to Cousins’ Sacramento home to chat about basketball and life. Cousins even has given Smart the keypad number to his gated community so Smart can show up freely.
“It’s been incredible,” Cousins said while the Kings were in Miami to face the Heat on Tuesday. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become a better player just from him taking over some things, and I enjoy playing in the system. . . . Everything is great. Everything has been positive.”
It sure wasn’t under Westphal, who was in his second year as Kings coach when Cousins arrived last season as a rookie from Kentucky as the No. 5 pick in the draft. The volatile Cousins, who showed up with a reputation as being difficult to coach, had his share of incidents as a rookie.
Cousins was fined by the Kings last season for exchanging words with members of Westphal’s staff and for having an altercation on the team plane with teammate Donte Greene, which led to Cousins to being removed from the plane and missing a game.
He lost his starting job briefly after making a choking gesture when Golden State’s Reggie Williams was at the free-throw line. He often clashed with Westphal over his role in the offense and was kicked out of a practice for having words with the coach.
It all reached a head this season when Westphal banished Cousins for a Jan. 1 game against New Orleans. Westphal released a statement that day in which he said Cousins requested to be dealt.
“When a player continually, aggressively, lets it be known that he is unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team, it cannot be ignored indefinitely. DeMarcus Cousins has demanded to be traded,” the statement read in part, with Westphal later saying Cousins twice told him he wanted to be traded.
Cousins, averaging 16.7 points and 11.3 rebounds for the 10-21 Kings, has continued to deny what Westphal alleged Cousins told him.
“I did not ask for a trade,” said Cousins, 21, who will be back in Florida later this week for Friday’s rookie-sophomore game during All-Star Weekend in Orlando. “That’s what he said, and that’s what the story got put out. I just had to take that one on the chin. There wasn’t much I could really say. I don’t really understand what his motives were, but that’s what he said.”
Cousins didn’t want to elaborate on exactly what he said to Westphal. But he did make it clear he wasn’t enamored with Westphal not giving him the freedom to step outside the post. Smart, conversely, has allowed Cousins to do just that.
“He’s actually using my talents,” the 6-foot-11 Cousins said. “And not just trying to have me as a stiff big man out there or whatever. However you want to put it. He actually lets me use my talent.”
Told of Cousins continuing to deny he asked for a trade and his criticism of how Westphal used him, the former Kings coach declined to respond.
“He can say what he wants to say,” said Westphal, 61, who said he is “decompressing” at his Los Angeles area home and doesn’t know whether he will coach again. “I have no comment other than the comments that I made (while coaching the Kings), and I stand by them.”
Regardless, nobody can deny Cousins, who averaged 14.1 points and 8.6 rebounds as a rookie and was averaging 13.7 and 9.3 in six games this season under Westphal, is now playing the best ball of his NBA career.
In 24 games under Smart, Cousins is averaging 17.4 points and 11.8 rebounds. In the nine games before Tuesday, Cousins averaged 21.3 points and 12.6 boards. Those are Dwight Howard kind of stats.
“He’s more personable and gets along more with Coach Smart and just likes the system that he brings to him,” Kings forward Jason Thompson said of the surge Cousins has had under a new coach. “When you have trust in each other and have good chemistry with your coach, then, obviously, your play is better.”
From a basketball standpoint, Smart said he recognized Cousins shouldn’t play the role of a traditional center. Cousins doesn’t yet have good enough low-post moves to use against established NBA big men, so it made sense to move him more away from the basket.
“He doesn’t have the power, strength and balance right now,” Smart said about Cousins, who shot 39.6 percent from the field to start the season under Westphal and is at 46.1 percent with Smart. “So I put him where his strength was, moved him to the elbow. … If this guy is shooting low 40 percent in the post … move him up and all of a sudden he’s shooting 50 percent from the elbow off the lane. So why not do that as opposed to letting him keep struggling down there and getting frustrated?”
But Smart realized getting Cousins to feel more comfortable had more to do than with just Xs and Os. He has sought to establish a close relationship with the big guy ever since he first time took the floor for the Kings as an assistant at training camp in December.
“Rather than me coming in with that preconceived notion that this guy is a head case, this guy is this, let me figure him out first and understand what buttons to coach to push and from there to coach him,” said Smart, who coached Golden State last season and was on hand when Cousins gave the choke sign to Williams.
After Smart replaced Westphal, he sought first to address the issues surrounding Cousins.
“I knew this was a guy that everyone thought was a problem so my attention had to be on that guy first,” Smart said.
Smart said he’s given Cousins a “fresh start.” He said the two have established an understanding that any time they are to have a significant talk, it either will be at a restaurant, Smart’s house or Cousins’ home.
“That’s because now his ego is down,” Smart said. “If all of a sudden I call him on the floor and say, ‘I want to see you in my office after practice,’ he’s like, ‘Oh, here we go again’ . . . The ego is up.”
Smart said a major breakthrough with Cousins occurred shortly after he replaced Westphal. He went to Cousins’ house, and the two spent three hours chatting.
They did so while watching a college basketball game on television and eating gumbo prepared by a member of Cousins’ family. With Cousins a native of Mobile, Ala., and Smart a native of Baton Rouge, La., that’s a favorite dish for both.
“The game is on TV and I’m talking to him about what he likes and what he didn’t like,” Smart said. “I got a chance to know him away from the arena, the practice facility, away from all that, and now his ego is down. . . . I said, ‘Cous, when I see that you’re not running up and down the floor (hard enough), I’m going to take you out of the game. I’ll put you back in, but I got to take you out. Is that fair?’ He said, ‘That’s fair, coach.’ He gave ownership to it.
“If you’re going to fight with the officials . . . I said, ‘If I see you doing that a lot, I’ve got to take you out of the game. Is that fair? I’m going to get you back in’ . . . He said, ‘That’s cool.’ . . . So he knows that when I have to be on him, I’m not personally attacking him. I’m doing it because of that conversation we had at his house.”
While eating gumbo, Smart asked Cousins what his goals are as an NBA player.
“He said, ‘Coach, I want to one day be an All-Star,”‘ Smart said. “I said, ‘OK, I have never met or been around an All-Star that didn’t have a work ethic and work hard and play consistently, and that’s what you have to do. So since that time, all I got to stay to him is, ‘You know what you told me. You know what you said you want to be.’ . . . Since that time, he’s been real consistent.”
The conversation went so well that Cousins eventually invited Smart to stop by on a regular basis.
“He gave me the code to his neighborhood,” Smart said. “That’s a trust level for him.”
Now, if only Cousins can help give Smart some more wins. The Kings had lost five straight heading into Tuesday’s game.
“They’re impressive numbers,” Cousins said of the stats he has been putting up lately. “But, at the same time, we’re not collecting wins.”
Still, it’s a gradual process to rebuild the Kings. They’re bound for their sixth straight losing season and had gone 51-120 under Westphal, including 2-5 to start this year.
The Kings, though, do have pair of strong young backcourt duo in Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton, and Cousins certainly can become an All-Star in a league with a dearth of centers. So it’s no wonder Smart was excited to hear Cousins talk about wanting to stay long term with Sacramento.
“That’s great,” Smart said. “I’ve said (to Cousins), ‘You have a chance (to be among players who can) take a franchise and put it on their back and carry it. You’re 21 and you don’t know how to play yet, and you get a double-double. . . . So why not take this franchise, grow it, and as people move along and now you become the franchise? You’re running your own team.’ . . .
“So him saying (he wants to stay long term), he’s thinking of that. It’s nothing like, ‘I want to get out of here and go somewhere else.”‘
Whether Cousins actually did say that earlier this season remains a source of debate. But he’s sure not saying it now.