DeMarcus Cousins (15) is one of the most productive big men in the NBA, with plenty of room for improvement. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has defaulted on most every standard of athletic professionalism in his three-year NBA career. He clashed with two coaches -- one a regrettable, ill-fitting hire (Paul Westphal), the other promoted because of his bond with Cousins (Keith Smart) -- and survived both of their firings. His body language is horrendous and tends to irk referees (Cousins led the NBA in technical fouls last season) as much as it does casual fans. He's been suspended by his team and the NBA and allowed his frustrations on the court to boil over into postgame confrontations with teammates and broadcasters.
Still, this is the player tabbed as being the face of the Kings, and for good reason. Cousins, who turns 23 in August, may be petulant at times, but few players have the skill to do what he does, and even fewer are capable of matching his production. There's room here for Sacramento to be concerned without overreacting, and to address the problem without disregard for such a prodigious talent.
It's for that reason that the Kings will be meeting soon with Cousins' agent to discuss a possible extension of his rookie contract, according to TheSacramento Bee. Talks alone don't guarantee a resolution, but a possible extension would represent a hard commitment from a franchise under new leadership. It's fair to say that a max-level deal is in play and that many will question whether Cousins -- who, personality-wise, is a loose cannon aimed in no particular direction -- is really fit for such reward.
But the very notion of a "max" contract seems to foster misunderstanding, as any deal that Cousins could sign would be decidedly cheaper than a potential max offer to a more accomplished veteran. Dwight Howard, for example, will make $20.5 million in his first year with the Rockets. Cousins, on the other hand, could make only an estimated $13.7 million in the first year of a contract extension (which could be worth up to about $80 million over five years), with some room for minor adjustment based on the 2014-15 salary cap. That's a number that the Kings can likely live with for a player of Cousins' caliber, and if not, they can rest assured that some other team can and gladly will. Even if no agreement is reached before the Oct. 31 extension deadline, meaning Cousins would become a restricted free agent next summer, the max offers are coming for him. All that remains to be seen is whether the Kings can sell him on a discount and whether the franchise is ultimately amenable to committing that kind of money to Cousins so soon.
There's risk involved, but as SB Nation's Tom Ziller laid out, that risk is far more manageable than one might think. Even if Cousins clings to his immaturity and refuses to grow up, he should still be the same volume post scorer and bulk rebounder he is now -- if not better. That Cousins might not grow to be a better teammate would complicate the process of building around him, but fundamentally the Kings would still be engineering a roster around a 20-and-10 monster or looking to trade a hot commodity.
Only one other NBA player matched Cousins last season in both scoring and rebounding per minute. That player was Tim Duncan, and while the two make for an odd coupling of inverse personalities, their comparison should put in perspective the caliber of production at stake in Cousins' career. His is simply a case of an All-NBA talent wrapped in a consistent headache, and it's frankly easier to track down an economy-sized bottle of Tylenol than a big-man prospect with Cousins' bona fides.
He has a lot to learn as a player, though, and badly needs to address his limitations as a first-option scorer. That process has already begun. Cousins' shot selection may not have gotten much better last season, but his effectiveness near the rim improved. His 55.1 percent shooting around the basket, up from 48.4 percent the previous season, is still very low, but Cousins deserves some benefit of the doubt for operating in an offense both without quality playmakers and a consistent spacing strategy.
The modern NBA is hard enough on post players as it is given the general tilt of defenses, but to operate from the block with so little organizational help from his own team was destined to come at some cost to Cousins' shooting efficiency. He's certainly not excused from his rushed, wild flings toward the basket or quick-trigger mid-range jumpers, but Cousins should benefit from every capable piece the new-look Kings place around him.
His defense, too, is a worry, though Cousins is fortunate to have three assets working in his favor: good size (he's listed at 6-foot-11, 270 pounds), hands and instincts. Those factors have allowed Cousins to get by on that end, where he grades out as a plus-defender (if only slightly) through adjusted plus-minus despite crummy fundamentals. Cousins defends while fully upright a shocking percentage of the time, and he can't quite seem to cut the desperate gambles out of his game. He's getting better in that regard, but Cousins' tendency to turn and swipe at the ball or defend a half-step too closely contributes to his shoddy defensive work on the perimeter (No. 15 in white):
Any kind of face-up possession tends to put Cousins in a bad spot, and he doesn't usually do much better when closing out against opponents threatening to take spot-up jumpers. Upon recognizing that his man is wide open from mid-range, Cousins typically enters into a wild scramble to compensate -- sometimes ending in a desperate leap toward the shot that makes him look like a flailing fish out of water. This can be a problem for shooters who have trouble thinking on the fly, but many take the opportunity to put the ball on the floor and attack with Cousins out of the frame:
The good news is that both of these problems are very much fixable -- players can be taught to keep their hands to themselves on defense and to close out with better balance. What they can't gain through instruction is a feel for coverage, which Cousins clearly demonstrates in the way he defends the post:
Cousins has great anticipation when put in a position to maximize his inherent advantages, and he could well apply that same aptitude toward a wider array of defensive pursuits. All he needs is a consistency of training that the Kings have yet to provide, but which could prove to be a hallmark for Sacramento's new regime. Young, raw defenders don't tend to develop well in spoiled cultures, and while Cousins himself had plenty to do with all that went sour with the Kings in recent years, that doesn't much change his need for a more consistent teacher and scheme.
All NBA prospects share in that need to some extent, but Cousins would seem to require it -- and stability in all forms -- more than others. He can grow as a person and player if given the right opportunities in controlled, fixed environments. By that same logic, he could stand to benefit from the resolution of a quick extension as opposed to playing out the season with his impending free agency swirling overhead.