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Eleven games into the 2016-17 NBA season, the song seems to remain the same for DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings.
At 4-7, Sacramento’s both a couple of floors above the Western Conference basement and a few below the playoff picture. Despite the import of defensive-minded former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, the Kings still sit in the league’s bottom 10 in defensive efficiency. Despite Cousins’ continued interior dominance, averaging 26.6 points per game and earning a whopping 10.7 free-throw attempts a night, Sacramento’s attack still ranks just below the middle of the NBA pack, and absolutely craters whenever Cousins leaves the floor. The Kings are scoring an average of 107.5 points per 100 possessions with Boogie on the court, the same as the seventh-ranked Los Angeles Clippers, and just 91.7 points-per-100 when he sits, worse even than the dead-last Philadelphia 76ers.
In the early going, the Kings have shown a capacity for impressive victories, like a five-point road win over the otherwise-rampaging DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors, and dispiriting defeats, like Thursday’s nationally televised loss to the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers, which saw Sacramento squander a 19-point lead to Luke Walton’s club and manage just 36 points after halftime.
Even before things fell apart for the Kings last Thursday, though, “Inside the NBA” commentator Shaquille O’Neal looked with a jaundiced eye during the TNT halftime show at Sacramento’s chances of breaking its 10-year postseason drought … thanks, in part, to what the Hall of Fame center identified as a lack of leadership from the Kings’ All-NBA pivot:
“It’s been 10 years. It’s been a long time. They’re still a long time away,” O’Neal said. “I think they can [sneak into the West’s eighth seed], but it’s up to their leader, DeMarcus Cousins. You know, previous years, in the past, he’s made a lot of mistakes. He’s been hot-headed. He hasn’t shown great leadership qualities yet. He’s one of the best centers in the league — this cat can do a lot, [fellow TNT analyst] Kenny [Smith] — but you know, [TNT color commentator] Reggie [Miller] mentioned this. He’s a hot-head. He’s a hot-head.
“So if they’re going to make a run, he’s going to have to be a leader,” he continued. “Great players do this. They perform like this, but they always keep people involved. If he can play like this and get the other guys to [perform with] him, then maybe they can sneak in. But he hasn’t shown me those leadership qualities yet. That’s why I’m hearing talk of, if things don’t start to become correct, then they may be looking to go in a different direction.”
That last bit, about how the Kings “may be looking to go in a different direction,” raised some eyebrows. Sure, speculation that the perpetually underwhelming Kings might look to trade their most valuable (and volatile) asset in hopes of netting a godfather offer that could at long last kickstart a meaningful rebuild is nothing new; we’ve heard similar scuttlebutt seemingly ever since Cousins got to Sactown. But it’s kind of weird to be hearing it from someone who holds a minority ownership stake in the Kings, isn’t it?
It’s worth keeping O’Neal’s status in the Kings’ ownership group in context here. He reportedly purchased less than 5 percent of the franchise back in 2013, making him one of a number of “limited partners” in the organization without significant say or sway. It’s not like this is Vivek Ranadivé — the Kings’ majority owner, chairman and representative on the NBA’s Board of Governors — saying the team might “be looking to go in a different direction” if Cousins can’t curb his on-court outbursts. (Boogie enters Sunday tied for the second-most technical fouls in the league, and recently received a $25,000 fine for disputing a foul call by throwing his mouthpiece and running into the stands.)
Vivek’s is the voice that carries, and while Ranadivé has said in interviews that personnel moves like a potential Cousins trade are the purview of vice president of basketball operations/general manager Vlade Divac, he has also downplayed past trade rumors, and is viewed as perhaps Cousins’ staunchest supporter in the organization. In the grand scheme of the Kings’ structure, then, “The Big Aristotle” occupies a relatively small role.
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Still, there have been enough reports of unrest among the Kings’ minority owners over the years to make you wonder if O’Neal’s remarks are merely the same old smoke or if they might indicate at least a spark behind the scenes — especially when it comes to complaints that Cousins, an elite offensive player who has worked to improve as a defensive anchor over the years, doesn’t always give consistent effort on that end, helping lead to Sacramento’s ongoing struggle to get stops.
“In order to show leadership qualities, one, you’ve got to take care of your teammates,” O’Neal said Thursday. “Two, whatever you bark at your teammates about, make sure you go out and do it. Like, you can’t be belittling people on the court […] you’ve got to [build] up your teammates, show those leadership qualities, and he hasn’t shown that. He’s just, like, cursing guys out in the locker room, doing a lot of crazy stuff.
“As a leader, you like to be loved. You want to be respected and loved. You know, Hakeem Olajuwon, one of my favorite players — he was respected, but he was loved. The guys loved him because he came out and he dove on the floor. He played hard. He played to the whistle. So until he becomes the leader that I know it’s capable of him becoming, they’re not going to go anywhere.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around in Sacramento. Maybe you lay the Kings’ yearslong depression at the feet of Cousins, for failing to elevate the Kings above the internal chaos that has characterized the franchise throughout his career. Maybe you think it’s on the front office that has missed on a litany of draft picks, free-agent signings and hires, failing to surround their one A-list star with the kind of supporting cast that can ease his burden. Maybe the buck stops at the top, and the most recent failures stem from a Ranadivé-led ownership group that hasn’t created the kind of stability necessary to drag the franchise out of the doldrums.
No matter where you place the blame, though, one look at where the Kings find themselves today — with a half-dozen players named in trade talks, a new round of rumblings surrounding Boogie, and now a minority owner publicly questioning the long-term prospects of an All-Star who’s about to enter the final year of his contract — suggests that the more things have changed in Sacramento, regrettably, the more they’ve stayed the same.
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