Why DeMarcus Cousins never found his place in the NBA

The high-water mark of DeMarcus Cousins’ career — on life support after he tore his ACL in a private workout earlier this week — was his 11-point, 10-rebound performance that fueled a Game 2 victory for a team he was a mercenary for in an NBA Finals series it eventually lost.

That’s not nothing. So many players lace up and hang up their kicks without reaching that stage. After spending 12 months rehabbing an Achilles tear and missing another six weeks after tearing his quad, merely stepping onto the court was a Herculean feat.

But there should have been more for Boogie, if he ever could catch a break. Instead, he has spent nearly every day of his nine-year NBA career fighting against either a team, a league, a mind or a body revolting against him. On talent alone, Cousins’ résumé should tell a tale of consistent dominance. Instead, the ink could dry with a few fleeting moments and a series of false starts.

Cousins was always considered a curmudgeon, a blue-chipper who couldn’t get out of his own way. He might have been the most talented prospect in the 2010 draft, but he fell to fifth and got drafted by an organization that, at the time, was lab-designed to fuel a moody 19-year-old’s worst instincts: the Sacramento Kings. By the time he wised up, his body did, too. Traded to New Orleans, playing the best basketball of his career (and astronomical minutes, it’s worth noting) alongside Anthony Davis, months away from unrestricted free agency, he tore his Achilles.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13:  DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the Golden State Warriors reacts against the Toronto Raptors in the second half during Game Six of the 2019 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2019 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
DeMarcus Cousins made a splash in the NBA Finals for the Warriors. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Multiyear max sheets from multiple suitors shriveled into a mid-level exception offer from the Golden State Warriors. Cousins — who came of age in a league in which players were much more strictly consigned to their fates — never got to choose his own world. It’s hard not to wonder what else could have been different if not for that fact. It’s also hard to imagine a career arc like his ever happening again.

Say what you will about the modern, swipe-right NBA, but toxic relationships — especially when star talent in all its empowered glory is involved — don’t fester like they used to. The flip-side of the quainter NBA so many are pining for after a whirlwind free-agency period is the case of Cousins: almost seven miserable years with the Kings in a career that might be out of meaningful ones, under contract only for the sake of being under contract, a symbol of the trade demands and risky deals that didn’t get made at a time when teams clung to every star, no matter how poor the fit.

Among other things: In 2014, the Kings’ front office chose a tactical whim over the first coach their star got along with, and Michael Malone was fired. The next year, George Karl was dead on arrival after rumors that he suggested Cousins should be traded. Eleven games into the season, Cousins reamed out Karl in the locker room and didn’t get punished for it, cutting Karl’s authority off at the legs. Of course, the Kings waited until the end of the season to fire Karl.

A few months after Cousins tore his Achilles, a former Kings assistant wondered how different things could have been if he had been drafted by a more reputable organization, where his temper might have been met with a more nurturing mix of discipline and understanding. Could his worst tendencies have been smoothed out faster instead of spiraling? The NBA is, after all, built to withstand the temperaments of its young stars. There’s no guarantee that would have been the case, but the point is we never get to find out, and that’s a shame for everyone involved.

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