Trust is key with Cousins, Kings
DeMarcus Cousins has no reason to hide. That's the worst part about his whole covert operation.
Nearly four months into the lockout, the Sacramento big man looks nothing like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man some assumed he would become during this unsupervised work stoppage. He won't be this generation's answer to Shawn Kemp after all, as Cousins and his trainer say his weight is the same now (between 285 and 290 pounds) as it was at season's end. His game is lean and mean, too, with countless hours spent improving his midrange shot and lessons learned from Kevin Durant in their many Goodman League face-offs about how to have a more aggressive mentality as a scorer. And, no, there haven't been any incidents he's trying to keep quiet. After a rookie season in which his solid play was too often overshadowed by nonsense, there have been no setbacks of any substance.
Still, one of the game's most compelling, controversial and surprisingly charismatic young talents has spent the offseason dodging media like boxes of donuts because, well, the public spectrum and saturated fat have been equally unhealthy for him in the past.
"Coming into this lockout there were a lot of stories, a lot of comments being made, and I just felt like no matter how much I try to move things forward, they always throw back some type of negativity," Cousins said by phone after months spent convincing him to chat with SI.com. "Now I just kind of expect it. I know I'm going to get it. I know there's going to be something.
"I'm just to the point where it's getting old, and I really have a point to prove this year. So I'll just have fun, try to wait until the season starts, and every exhibition game I play in, I want to be the one where everybody is like, 'Wow.' I really just want my game to speak for itself."
It's not hard to understand why Cousins is so wary. While his bad boy reputation has always been largely the product of his own doing, the cartoonish way in which the former Kentucky big man is so often portrayed has led to this disappearing act. He has read the stories claiming a recent exhibition game technical foul was the latest indictment of his character, never mind that his agent, John Greig, claims the incident never happened. Cousins hears it when the announcer at the Washington D.C.-based Goodman League games pokes fun at his persona, calling him "Mr. Bad Attitude" for all four quarters. And then, of course, there's the social media universe to deal with.
"I try to stay away from it, but with the whole Twitter world everything comes to you in some type of way," he said.
His relative silence has made for a pleasant summer for Cousins, but it does nothing to help with his deep-seated issues with trust that will have everything to do with his future as a player and a person. It would be one thing if it ended with media, at which point it would matter only to the marketing types who are looking to better his brand. But the distrust goes deeper from there, specifically to the team that -- based on the current rules of his rookie-scale contract -- will have him on board for at least three more seasons.
Cousins spent most of his rookie season convinced that Kings officials -- from basketball president Geoff Petrie to coach Paul Westphal on down -- had bought into the negative hype. He gave them plenty of fuel for that fire too, from being fined $5,000 for verbal run-ins with an assistant coach and trainer to being kicked out of practice after an argument with Westphal, to a locker-room boxing match with teammate Donte' Greene after a Feb. 12 loss to Oklahoma City. Cousins was fined one game's pay -- $41,000 -- for his fight with Greene.
It suddenly seemed that Sacramento had its own little version of Kobe v. Shaq (minus the winning, of course) after that last incident, as guard Tyreke Evans' style of play and strangle-hold on the team's late-game offense was at the root of Cousins' frustrations with Greene and led to the question of whether this town was big enough for the two of them. Somewhere in between all the drama, Cousins -- while certainly lacking efficiency in his game -- played well enough to finish third among rookies in scoring at 14.1 points per game (behind Blake Griffin at 22.5 and John Wall at 16.4) and second in rebounding at 8.6 per game (behind Griffin at 12.1) while the Kings went just 24-58.
But if the Kings and Cousins can find a way to collaborate in Year No. 2, the possibilities will be far more potent. And trust, which clearly doesn't come easy for Cousins, will be a must.
"I know it's going to be a lot of hard work on my end, but I'm not going to stand here and say it's just me either," Cousins said. "I believe the organization is going to have to believe in me as well for it to happen. I believe they want to believe in me. But I think they also believe what everybody else is saying."
There has been some progress on that front, though, a small sign that a bridge just might be built between the two sides. Just before all lines of communication between players and team officials were cut off by the lockout on July 1, Westphal and Kings strength and conditioning coach Daniel Shapiro traveled to Washington, D.C., to check in with Cousins and discuss his offseason plan.
While league rules prohibit Westphal and Shapiro from discussing the trip because it involves a player, Cousins' trainer, Keith Williams, saw it as a sign that their rocky past could be smoothed over.
"It was beautiful for Paul to come and sit down and talk with us," said Williams, whose list of clientele includes Durant, Gilbert Arenas, and Michael Beasley, and who has known Cousins since his early high-school days in Alabama. "The Kings didn't do a good job of really connecting with us last season. They probably thought we were just out here just riding off the kid, so I was like, 'Paul, you know if you look at my résumé -- you don't have to listen to me -- but check my résumé and you'll see I'm not about letting him skate by.' We probably want more from him than they want. And if they can meet him halfway, I think it's going to work out just fine.
"With DeMarcus, a big part of it is having trust. He's not saying he's perfect, that he doesn't make mistakes, but he wants to know that 'you're with me. You're behind me as I take this journey.' We all forget that he's 21. He's got unbelievable upside, but he's still a young guy, still figuring it out."
The fact that he's not alone in that regard doesn't make it any easier. The 11 players already on contract for the Kings next season are an average age of 24, a figure that would have made them the youngest team in the league last season. And while the talent pool rose recently with the additions of former Cleveland forward J.J. Hickson, veteran swingman John Salmons and rookie guard Jimmer Fredette, the roster is still light on the sort of leadership that a player like Cousins so desperately needs.
Yet after five straight losing seasons in Sacramento, the question of whether he and Evans will be a dynamic or disastrous duo will be key to the team's immediate future. To that end, Cousins -- who said Evans came to his 21st birthday in Las Vegas on Aug. 13 -- was quick to dispel any lingering concerns about their relationship.
"Me and Tyreke have never had a problem," Cousins said. "I hate that that even got out [after the fight with Greene] with me and Tyreke being the core of the Kings. I can understand why that would bother people, but there's no problem.
"Me and Tyreke are boys. We have the same goals, the same mindset. We want to go out and win games and do whatever we can do as individuals and teammates to help our team win. Me and Tyreke are on the same page. He's in incredible shape. I'm excited. I really believe this is going to be a good year if we ever get it going."
Until then, he'll stay on his hideout and wait for the right time to return.
"I believe I'm on the right track, and I know it's going to take time," Cousins said. "It's nothing that's going to happen overnight, but I'll just continue to grow, to prove each person wrong one by one."