"What's up with DeMarcus Cousins?" a player asked me after the Blazers-Clippers game Sunday night.
This was at Staples Center, about 400 miles south of Sacramento, but there's no such thing as far when it comes to news around the NBA. The player was referring to the latest and perhaps final dust-up involving Cousins and the Sacramento Kings, something serious enough to warrant a statement from coach Paul Westphal on the Kings' website and a banishment of Cousins from their game against the Hornets on Sunday night.
The Kings have learned the hard way that there's a reason a player as talented as Cousins was still available to them with the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft, and they've also learned that those reasons have a way of showing up.
And it usually means that when the players grow up, they will do so elsewhere, not with the team that drafted them. It's why Michael Beasley dropped behind Derrick Rose in the 2008 draft even though Beasley was taller and the college player of the year, and then wound up in Minnesota two years later. It's why the Clippers once got Lamar Odom at No. 4 in 1999, even though he wound up standing taller than Elton Brand, Steve Francis and Baron Davis a decade later.
When a player's immaturity and/or irresponsibility is so deeply ingrained, it's not something that gets resolved during the span of a rookie contract. The Kings have come to that conclusion only a week into Cousins' second season. Better to realize it now than after it's too late.
In the statement, Westphal said Cousins has "continually, aggressively" shown "he is unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team." Westphal said Cousins demanded a trade. Cousins' agent told Sports Illustrated that the player did not demand a trade. Regardless of who initiated it, the Kings clearly want to move Cousins.
And they should, for everyone's benefit. Cousins needs to be around a veteran who can put some sense into him. The problem is there are so few of those teams to be found in a league that has skewed younger after 15 years of straight-from-high-school players or one-and-done college guys.
The Boston Celtics would be a good environment for Cousins, and perhaps he could learn enough from old dogs Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett (despite his antics in games, Garnett has never been a problem for coaches and set a tone of defensive accountability from the moment he arrived in Boston) this season to be a building block for when the team moves forward without the Big Three.
But I can't think of a player that would make sense for Sacramento to take back in a trade. And it's not as if the Kings are looking for expiring contracts. They had enough trouble meeting the minimum payroll this year; the last thing they need is more salary cap space.
The Kings are in a bind because Cousins' reputation is becoming so toxic they can't expect close to equal value for him. But if the Kings can't count on a long-term investment, why not go for the ultimate rental, Dwight Howard? If the Orlando Magic were willing to gamble on Gilbert Arenas, they might be interested in Cousins. He'd come a lot cheaper ($8.8 million over the next two seasons) than anything else the Magic could take on (i.e., a Lakers center or two).
The Kings have the salary cap room to take Howard and his $18 million salary back in a trade without having to send a bunch of players to Orlando. They know he wouldn't want to stick around Sacramento past this season. But with the city trying to secure funding for a new arena to keep the Kings in town, it wouldn't hurt to have a superstar in town to make home games feel like a big event for the next four months.
If the Kings wanted to look after Cousins' best interests, they would find a way to get him to Portland so he could be around Kurt Thomas, the steadying locker room presence on the ninth stop of his 17-year NBA journey.
"This is a business," is what Thomas said he would tell Cousins. "You're not playing for just one team, you're playing for the 29 other teams. You've got to keep playing, keep your head. A lot of guys think it's all show. You've got to keep your head."
Thomas' second sentence was the most important. If things don't work out with the Kings, they probably won't work out with the next team or the next team, until there's no more next team. The Kings could look after their player investment and fire Westphal, but this is a Cousins problem, not a Westphal problem. There were issues with the coaching staff during Cousins' lone collegiate season at Kentucky. There will be issues with Cousins' next coach, whomever or wherever that is.
Another player I talked to Sunday night said the guys in his locker room were concerned Cousins could wind up out of the league if he doesn't get it together. Talent and potential will keep problem players around longer than they merit, but it's not infinite. Ask Stephon Marbury.
This anonymous player said he used to be resistant to any criticism, because he didn't have any strong male authority figures around when he was growing up. He carried anger with him for a long time. It took getting married and having kids for him to settle down. Now he's even reconciled with a former coach with whom he had a frosty relationship.
This player realized what Cousins has to realize: The only thing Westphal or anyone else around want is for him to succeed. A more productive Cousins would help Westphal's job security. But even people with no vested interest only want to help.
After the Lakers' game in Sacramento on Monday night, Kobe Bryant said he pulled Cousins aside during last year's All-Star Weekend to give him a little advice.
"He has too much talent to be doing all of that [stuff]," Bryant said. "Just play, man."
In Cousins' rookie season, that stuff (Bryant actually used a different word) includes an altercation with a teammate who didn't pass him the ball at the end of a game, a fine for a verbal confrontation with a team training staff member and an ejection from a practice after talking back to Westphal. Apparently, his attitude hasn't changed as a sophomore.
The reality is that teams that draft people of questionable character often get the worst of them, only to see them blossom elsewhere. Take Odom with the Clippers, who picked him in 1999 after his stock dropped because of rumors floating around during the buildup to the draft. The fears were realized in Odom's second season, when he was suspended for violating the league's substance abuse program (although sources said the suspension was for not complying with the monitoring process, not a positive test).
The Clippers' patience with Odom was so thoroughly exhausted that when he became a restricted free agent, not only did the Clippers decline to match Miami's offer sheet, they also issued a statement from then-general manager Elgin Baylor detailing exactly why: "In the final analysis, the decision was based on issues of character and other risks involved."
It was an extraordinarily (and unnecessarily) candid moment. I haven't seen anything like it … until Westphal's statement Sunday. Think of how exasperated the Kings had to be to let everyone around the league know they were willing to trade Cousins, while saying just how risky a trade prospect he would make.
Maybe Cousins will go on to have a career like Odom's and become a valuable contributor to back-to-back champions. The only thing we know for sure is that the best of Cousins will come with a different team. That's how these stories end.