SACRAMENTO — It was exactly seven years ago Friday that DeMarcus Cousins began his NBA career with the Sacramento Kings, scoring 14 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a rare Kings victory.
Remarkably, all the questions that surrounded Cousins when he was selected fifth overall in the 2010 NBA draft remain, even as he arrived here Thursday with his new team, the New Orleans Pelicans, for his first game against his old one.
As he demonstrated in the Pelicans’ 114-106 victory, Cousins is unquestionably one of the league’s most talented players. He finished with 41 points, 23 rebounds and six assists in almost 44 minutes, becoming just the 10th player in the past 20 years to have a 40-point, 20-rebound game. It was exactly the kind of dominant performance his team needed with fellow star Anthony Davis out with an injury.
But Cousins has developed a reputation for being one of the league’s most temperamental talents, prone to blowups at opposing players, the referees or the media, depending on the situation and his mood.
His individual success — he’s a three-time all-star and two-time second-team all-NBA selection — is unassailable. His lack of team success — the Kings won more than 30 games just once in his six full seasons in Sacramento (33 in 2015-16), and he could end this season in the top five all-time in terms of games played without a playoff appearance — is equally noteworthy.
As Cousins enters his eighth NBA season, all of those issues leave one question: Can a team win with DeMarcus Cousins?
The answer remains unclear.
“They didn’t win when Ernie Banks was in Chicago,” Coach Alvin Gentry said, a sly smile creeping across his face. “He was a pretty good player.”
It’s true Cousins has made the playoffs the same number of times Banks did — none. But it was only slightly harder to make the playoffs in Major League Baseball during Banks’s career — when no more than two teams from either league made the postseason — than it is in the NBA, where more than half the teams in each conference qualify each season.
Still, a case easily can made both for and against Cousins’s ability to be a vital part of a successful NBA franchise.
The pro-Cousins argument is fairly simple: The Kings were a dysfunctional mess for his entire six-plus seasons. In the years after selecting Cousins, Sacramento drafted a series of busts — Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas — and there was a chaotic ownership changeover and myriad front-office regimes.
The anti-Cousins argument also is fairly simple: Cousins was such an overwhelming presence, both on and off the court, that he helped create a good portion of the dysfunction that haunted the Kings.
Many people around the league have horror stories about dealing with Cousins, but those can be countered by his many acts of charity, done without seeking credit or attention. That love for the community came through Thursday as Cousins talked about the standing ovation he received from the sold-out crowd when he was introduced before the game.
“It was a special night,” Cousins said. “The fans were beautiful. They were into the game. They let it be well known they hated every shot I made, but now I see how other players feel when I used to be on this side, the other side of the fence. I can remember games where the crowd was the reason we won it. It’s well known the Kings have incredible fans. They showed up tonight, as well.”
The argument over whether Cousins is capable of winning anywhere has become the NBA’s version of the “chicken or the egg” debate. That didn’t change when he was traded to the Pelicans in February. Few situations would rival the Cousins-Kings mess, but one has to be New Orleans. The Pelicans have surrounded Cousins and Davis with a disjointed roster, and Gentry seemingly has been on the hot seat for more than a year.
Cousins will be a free agent in July. The Los Angeles Lakers are desperate to land a star and will have a gaping hole at center once Brook Lopez becomes a free agent, and they have the salary-cap space to sign Cousins. But would that situation — one featuring promising young talent such as Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram but potentially coming off five straight seasons without a playoff appearance — appeal to Cousins, who is desperate to make the postseason? And would Cousins, a plodding big man, be the best fit to play alongside Ball as the Lakers attempt to create an up-tempo attack to suit their young point guard’s skill set?
As with everything regarding Cousins, these are questions with no clear answers. That’s not supposed to be the case when discussing an elite player in the prime of his career. It’s also why Cousins remains the most polarizing star in the NBA — one that even now, as he approaches unrestricted free agency for the first time, there are questions about his ability to be part of a winning team.
DeMarcus Cousins may have left the Sacramento Kings, but the debate over his place in the game continues. The only thing everyone can agree on is that the arguing won’t end any time soon.
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