Kings in quite a quandary with DeMarcus Cousins

BOSTON – DeMarcus Cousins lingered in an emptied-out visiting locker room last week, dutifully dressing after another all-too-familiar night. It was 28 points, nine rebounds and four blocks for Cousins, stats that further solidified the 6-foot-11 center as arguably the best pivot in the game. And it was another loss for Sacramento, an early-season defeat that pushed the Kings closer to an 11th straight losing season.

Cousins has been there for seven of them, an eyewitness to an NBA train wreck. But with the league a week away from the unofficial start of trade season — on Dec. 15, players signed over the summer are eligible to be dealt—many wonder: Will he be there much longer? For the second straight season, Cousins is the focal point of trade rumors, with teams across the NBA wondering if Sacramento will pull the trigger on a trade for its mercurial star.

DeMarcus Cousins is in his seventh season with Sacramento. (AP)
DeMarcus Cousins is in his seventh season with Sacramento. (AP)

Officially, the Kings’ position is simple: not interested. Sacramento opened a sparkling, $550 million arena this season and ownership — specifically controlling owner Vivek Ranadive — is hell-bent on ending it with a trip to the playoffs. And despite a circus-like atmosphere in recent years, Cousins has never demanded a trade, either. As one former teammate told The Vertical, “It’s a mess there, but he sees it as his mess.”

“I’m a King,” Cousins told the Sacramento Bee last week. “I’m good.”

On one hand, the idea of trading Cousins is a little nutty. At 26, he’s immersed in his finest season, averaging a career-best 28.8 points and shooting a shade under 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line. He’s due $17 million this season and $18 million the next, a relative bargain in a league of rapidly exploding salaries.

On the other, it would be foolish for the Kings not to explore trading him. At 8-13, Sacramento is three games back of the final playoff spot. But the Kings are deeply flawed and would have to leapfrog playoff stalwarts (Portland and Oklahoma City) or a rising newcomer (Utah) to secure the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2006. That extra season on Cousins’ contract ratchets up his value; a trade would net the Kings a package of young players and draft picks that might better position the team for long-term success.

Trading Cousins though is complicated; few players at his level are more polarizing. An example: Asked recently about Cousins, a high-ranking executive from a Western Conference team that had kicked the tires on acquiring him was adamant. He didn’t want him. “Everything about that guy is wrong,” the exec told The Vertical. “I don’t want that attitude around my young players.” Alternatively, an assistant coach from the same team was equally strong in his opinion that he would welcome Cousins onto the roster. “That situation out there would screw anybody up,” the coach said. “I’m telling you, get him out of that mess and you will see a different person — and a great [expletive] player.”

Opinions of Cousins internally are divided, too. Last weekend’s incident in New York— where Cousins and Matt Barnes allegedly were involved in an early morning altercation a night after playing the Knicks, an altercation that has resulted in both Cousins and Barnes being sued for assault— reinforced to some in the organization that Cousins will never show the maturity needed to be a franchise player. Others, most notably Ranadive, remain enthralled with Cousins’ talent and believe he can still be the centerpiece of a contending team in Sacramento.

How Sacramento plays the next two months will likely determine Cousins’ future. Kings coach Dave Joerger — a proponent of power ball during his days in Memphis — has built the offense around Cousins and has spent the first month of the season mixing and matching lineups around him. Whereas Cousins had a combustible relationship with former coach George Karl, Joerger has tried to build a strong, sustainable one with the center.

“[Cousins] gets credit for his talent and he gets credit that he’s improved in the league,” Joerger said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for his approach to the game and the way he carries and conducts himself. Those have greatly improved. The way he goes about his business is very positive.”

The Kings have long-term goals, and in a perfect world, Cousins is part of them. But if the season slips away, the team will have to make a tough decision. Cousins’ value will dip after the February trade deadline as the end of his contract inches closer. Moving a talent like Cousins is painful, but it’s nothing compared to watching him walk away for nothing in the not-too-distant future.

3-POINTERS

Kevin Love is once again playing like an All-Star. (AP)
Kevin Love is once again playing like an All-Star. (AP)

3. Kevin Love … All-Star?

Among the bigger surprises of Cleveland’s strong start: Kevin Love is playing like an All-Star again. Love’s numbers didn’t exactly crater the last two seasons, but his role in the Cavs’ offense was reduced, suggesting that his days as an All-Star were over. Maybe not. Don’t look now, but Love’s numbers are inching closer to his Minnesota levels. He’s averaging 21.4 points per game while connecting on a career-best 42.2 percent of his 3-pointers.

Love is asked often: Are you more comfortable this season? Did winning a title change your perspective? But the truth behind his resurgence is simpler. A year ago Love was coming back from a significant shoulder injury, which sabotaged his offseason workouts. And a second season in coach Tyronn Lue’s system has increased Love’s comfort — there’s that word again — with his role in the offense.

“He didn’t get to do any lifting at all last summer,” Cavs general manager David Griffin told The Vertical. “He came in a much leaner version of himself [last season]. He was a little more mobile, but he was nowhere near as strong in the paint as he wanted to be. He didn’t have the center of gravity he really wanted to have. This offseason was really the first time since he has been with us that he has really been able to dedicate himself to getting better physically, and he did that. We’ve never had anyone work as hard as he did this offseason.”

The trade talk has dissipated, but Love knows: It will never be gone. The blame for an extended losing streak or a poor performance against a small-ball team will almost certainly be directed at him. It’s a reality Love has accepted. But in the second year of a five-year, $110 million contract, Love appears more comfortable than ever with his situation.

“Part of it that you don’t see is that he’s not [going to be] a free agent,” Griffin said. “We never thought Kevin was leaving here, but now that he is under contract to be here for a while, I think it’s made the rumor mill die down. But I absolutely think that Kevin is in a better place spiritually and emotionally with his role. I think he feels much more at peace that the team recognizes our need for him. I think he’s really comfortable in that space.”

James Harden has reached another level this season. (AP)
James Harden has reached another level this season. (AP)

2. James Harden … MVP?

While Russell Westbrook continues to make an early season case for MVP — six straight triple-doubles and counting — the play of his former teammate has been equally impressive. Harden ranks in the top five in scoring (28.5 points) and continues to lead the league in assists (11.4). To say Harden is Houston’s offense would be accurate: He has scored or assisted on nearly 50 percent of the Rockets’ makes this season and has racked up four triple-doubles of his own. On Monday against Boston, Harden faced off against two elite perimeter defenders in Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. The result: 37 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in a one-point Houston win.

More importantly: Houston is winning. The Rockets are 15-7 and entrenched in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race. The defense remains a work in progress — the Rockets are 22nd in defensive efficiency — but Houston has exceeded early expectations. No player since Nate Archibald in 1972-73 has led the NBA in points and assists, but Harden, who has been empowered by coach Mike D’Antoni, has a shot. His MVP chances, though, hinge on his ability to keep the Rockets in the upper half of the playoff bracket. And they have a chance. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are enjoying resurgent seasons, Clint Capela has capably filled the hole left by Dwight Howard, and 2015 draft picks Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell have emerged as valuable contributors in D’Antoni’s free-wheeling system.

“They’ve done a great job of putting guys in that fit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They have four shooters on the court at all times. And even guys that haven’t shot as much, over 40 percent of their attempts are from 3, whether it be [Patrick] Beverly, Dekker, or other guys that have come off the bench. They just spread you out and make it really difficult.”

Sean Kilpatrick has been a pleasant surprise for Brooklyn. (AP)
Sean Kilpatrick has been a pleasant surprise for Brooklyn. (AP)

1. Kilpatrick shines in Brooklyn

After a brief, early-season surge the Nets have slipped back into the Eastern Conference basement, a disappointing but not unexpected development for a team in the fledgling stages of what is expected to be a long rebuild. Wednesday’s win over Denver snapped a three-game losing streak and was just Brooklyn’s second win in its last 12 games.

If there’s a bright spot for Brooklyn — besides Brook Lopez’s metamorphosis into a poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki — it’s the play of Sean Kilpatrick, a 10-day find late last season who has emerged as one of the Nets’ top scorers. Kilpatrick earned his spot. Undrafted, he bounced between the NBA Development League and the NBA for parts of two seasons before catching the eye of Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks late last season. Last March the Nets inked Kilpatrick to a multi-year contract, and he has not disappointed. He’s averaging 16.7 points and led the team with 38 in a stunning win over the Clippers late last month.

Kilpatrick credits Marks for his rapid ascent.

“The confidence he had in me really helped,” Kilpatrick told The Vertical. “As soon as I came to the team, he told me, flat out, just to play my game, just to continue to do the things I’d been doing the last couple of months in the D-League. I think when you have that type of confidence in a player, coming from your GM, it’s a big boost, at least it was to me.”

There is no sugar-coating the Nets’ situation. They will be bad, likely bottom-five-in-the-NBA bad, and then they will be forced to flip their pick to Boston in a continuation of the disastrous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade that has hamstrung the franchise. To succeed, Brooklyn will need to mine for unheralded talent, and the Nets think they hit on Kilpatrick, who has continued to develop in coach Kenny Atkinson’s system.

“My pick-and-roll offense is getting better,” Kilpatrick said. “And I’m able to defend multiple positions. I think that’s played a huge role in my development. When I was in summer league, I carried what I did there on into the season. Now I have more confidence knowing exactly what I want.”

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