When the Kings tabbed DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth pick in the 2010 draft, they knew what they were getting into. "They knew he was a pain in the ass," says a source close to the team. "But they were desperate for talent." So far, Cousins has been as expected on both counts: Last season the 6'11", 270-pound center averaged 14.1 points and 8.6 rebounds and made the All-Rookie first team. He was also kicked out of a practice, dismissed for a game for fighting with teammate Donte Green and fined repeatedly for bad behavior. Last week Sacramento fired coach Paul Westphal, just four days after Westphal banished Cousins for a game after accusing him of being "unwilling/unable to travel in the same direction of our team." Westphal also said that Cousins demanded a trade, which Cousins denied.
On the surface, firing Westphal would appear to be a case of a team's choosing a player over a coach, but the Kings' problems run deeper. Westphal was 51--120 with Sacramento and had lost the confidence of the players. And even if the Kings wanted to trade Cousins—who is under the team's control at a reasonable price for the next two seasons—it wasn't a realistic option. Several teams (including Washington, New Jersey and Boston) checked on Cousins's availability after his most recent incident, but none was willing to make a significant offer. "We would have lowballed them," says an Eastern Conference executive. "Right now, he's a big risk."
The task of molding Cousins falls to new coach Keith Smart. Smart has a history of working well with temperamental talent, and as an assistant under Westphal he developed a solid relationship with Cousins. Smart's first act was to reinstall Cousins into the starting lineup; Cousins responded with a 19-point, 15-rebound effort in a win over Milwaukee. "One of my skills is that I do understand ... how to build relationships," says Smart. "We have to focus on him growing with our team."
Cousins was upset by what he viewed as uneven criticism from Westphal. According to a source, last week Kings president Geoff Petrie apologized to Cousins in front of the team. If Cousins continues to mature under the steady-handed Smart, the relationship can still be salvaged. "He's an unbelievable talent," says one scout. "If he can finally grow up, watch out."