It was early in the fourth quarter of Friday's loss to Detroit. Cousins had played relatively well, but the Pistons' tall front line seemed to outwork him late in the third.
Maybe it was a normal rest, or like ESPN's announcers suggested, maybe it was an intentional message from coach Mark Malone.
Either way, little-used forward Luc Mbah a Moute, a defensive specialist, drains consecutive jumpers. Flash cut to the bench. Cousins, standing alone, is showering Mbah a Moute with applause. I swear I saw a grin on his face.
The Sacramento Kings made what many classified as a risky and perhaps reckless gamble on the 23-year-old center in September, signing Cousins to a four-year, $62 million contract extension.
We're only eight games into that contract -- we'll see how he may react to a benching in April with his team 15 games below .500 -- but so far, so good for Cousins and the Kings, and Friday was a perfect example of why.
Despite Vivek Ranadive's insistence that Sacramento is no small market, it's not a destination city for free agents and never will be. If the Kings were to become a perennial playoff team, they could hope to compete in that market, but that's the ceiling.
That means Sacramento has to develop its talent and has to take some risks. For all the petulance, battles with coaches, pouting, technical fouls and selfish play, Cousins is a top-5 physical talent among big men in the NBA. Good luck luring someone of his ilk to Sac Town through free agency (the Kings offered a lucrative deal to Andre Iguodala this offseason, well above market value, and he hesitated before Sacramento moved on).
That said, I'm not advocating a blind buy based on the seductive "p" word and some flashy stats. Many analysts and sources within the league thought Cousins could flourish "within the right organization." A fresh start, they postulated, could make him an All-Star. Well, with new people in place from the ownership to the front office to the coaching staff, Cousins has that chance right here in Sacramento.
Back to Friday. This admittedly is an oversimplification, but for the first three seasons of his career, a carousel of coaches and authority figures vacillated between hard-line (Paul Westphal) and coddling (the front office). This year, the organization, once it decided to gamble on Cousins' talent, has employed a cheap sociology trick.
Put a man behind bars and call him a criminal, the theory goes, and he'll act like one. Give him responsibility and treat him with respect, and more often than not he'll rise to meet the occasion.
Whether Friday was one of those times or not, Malone has shown a willingness to bench Cousins when the center starts slipping into frustration or isn't playing hard enough. However, Malone has kept any coaching or criticism that could be perceived as harsh in-house rather than letting it play out in the media, which has been problematic the last few years.
And while the team has made it clear Cousins won't be able to get away with murder, it also has shown with the contract, and with the offense, he's The Man in Sacramento.
On Friday, following a sequence in which Cousins took hard contact underneath the basket during two consecutive misses, Malone got a technical for tossing the basketball. That's a situation that in seasons past would have every Kings fan anticipating a Cousins implosion. Instead, the team's general had his back in a symbolic way.
ESPN also interviewed Ranadive during the broadcast, asking about the decision to sign the star center. The majority owner managed to come across as informed and calculated rather than naive, acknowledging past issues that came up during his due diligence, but also expressing confidence in the organization's decision to back Cousins.
Along with some corny motivation, Ranadive said he told Cousins at the time of the new contract he wanted the center to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. He also took the time to text his star player.
Ranadive, quoting Cousins' response, included an interesting word: "Boss." Apparently, that's what Cousins used, and not in an ironic sense. For a guy who seems to have issues with authority, that's an early indication that Cousins is responding to the Kings' approach.
Sacramento also has smartly facilitated an ongoing dialogue between Cousins and part-owner Shaquille O'Neal, who seems like a good candidate to catch his ear.
No sane person is expecting Cousins never to foul out, never to have an off-game or never to get a technical foul. But if Sacramento is to return to the playoffs within the four-year deal, it needs Cousins in a big way.
Again, it's only been eight games. But Cousins is playing like an All-Star, averaging 22.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, nearly two steals and well more than a block per game entering Sunday.
For a Sacramento team with a roster full of temporary parts, Cousins finally may be the franchise cornerstone the Kings drafted him to be.
Christopher Smith, a lifelong Kings follower, currently is FBS Senior Editor at Football.com. He's also worked or interned for three NFL teams, most recently the San Diego Chargers, the Washington Post and many other newspapers and magazines.
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