DeMarcus Cousins just can't get out of his own way.
If the Sacramento Kings' newly maxed-out center could only have kept himself from pulling teammate Isaiah Thomas away from a perfectly normal postgame handshake, one of the biggest takeaways from the Kings' 103-102 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 23 would have been Cousins' fantastic all-around performance.
Instead, everybody—including Chris Paul—is talking about how the ultra-talented big man has to grow up.
If that narrative sounds familiar, it's because we've been hearing it for years. Cousins, a mixed bag of unquestioned talent and crippling immaturity since his days at Kentucky, simply hasn't done anything to change his hit-or-miss makeup as a pro.
We may not have needed another reminder of Cousins' status as a frustrating work in progress (if he's actually progressing at all), but his efforts at postgame leadership provided one anyway.
The Good: He Gets His Numbers
Cousins piled up 23 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists in 38 minutes against the Clippers on Saturday. The multi-skilled center didn't just do a little bit of everything. He did a lot of everything.
In the midst of his best statistical season as a professional, Cousins flashed the tantalizing talents that have always allowed him to put up impressive individual numbers. He punished the Clippers in the paint, totally controlled the defensive glass and even found his teammates for open shots.
On the year, Cousins is averaging 21.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and a pair of assists per game. Better still, he's snatching more steals and registering more blocks than he ever has, which indicates that even though his understanding of team defense still leaves plenty to be desired, he's showing better activity than he has in the past.
His PER sits at a comfortable career high of 25.0, per Basketball-Reference.com, and he's doing that while functioning as the Kings' unquestioned focal point on offense. Added responsibility has spiked Cousins' usage rate to a massive 35.6 percent, the highest figure in the NBA among players logging at least 15 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
Against the Clips, his passing was eye-opening. He found open teammates as defenders collapsed or rotated, leading to more open shots than the Kings' clunky offense typically generates. And in the image below, you can see that Cousins has the vision to feed cutters when he's so inclined.
Patrick Patterson easily laid this one in after DMC found him.
Sure, it'd be nice if his general passing judgment was a bit better; Cousins has more turnovers than assists in his career. And yeah, if he could knock down shots from the field at better than a 46 percent clip, that'd be great, too.
But we're focusing on the positive here. There's no question about Cousins' all-around skills. He's got the total package.
The Bad: That Whole "Winning" Thing
For all of Cousins' remarkable talents, he simply doesn't help his team win. And as you might imagine, that's a problem.
It's always dicey to point to the plus-minus rating from one contest as a conclusory statement on a player's value. That's why we're only using Cousins' minus-three from the aforementioned Clippers game as a jumping-off point to discuss a disturbing, career-long trend in his numbers.
On the year, the Kings have posted an offensive rating of 99.4 points per 100 possessions when Cousins has been on the floor. That number jumps to 103.7 when he sits, per NBA.com. And defensively, the story is the same. Sacramento holds opponents to 106 points per 100 possessions with Cousins in the lineup, but puts the clamps on (relatively speaking) to the tune of 101.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench.
That latter statistical split is particularly problematic.
The Kings are paying Cousins like a flat-out superstar, which is completely absurd given his negative defensive impact.
And it's not just that he doesn't defend at the elite standard of guys like Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Andrew Bogut and the like. It's that he can't defend at anything approaching a halfway-decent level.
I mean, what on Earth is this?
Last year, the story was the same. Cousins made the Kings nearly two points per 100 possessions worse on offense and more than two points worse on defense. If we look back to 2011-12, he at least made a minimally positive impact offensively.
But, again, his presence on the floor two seasons ago caused Sacramento's defensive rating to jump from 105.7 to 107.5.
When you watch Cousins play, the reason for his terrible defensive numbers becomes clear almost immediately. He simply plays without a basic understanding of defensive positioning, help rotations and, most damningly, restraint.
He typically starts out of position, fails to recognize where the opponent's action is taking the ball and then compounds the issue by reaching or committing fouls. Frankly, it's a mess.
The Kings are paying Cousins for his potential, and maybe he'll someday show a vague understanding of how to defend. But he hasn't shown any signs of figuring it out yet.
The Ugly: The Blind Leading the Blind
There's no mystery behind the impetus for this Cousins profile, is there? We can all just collectively agree that the main reason the petulant talent is under the microscope is because he added yet another instance of questionable sportsmanship to his resume, can't we?
Circling back to the beginning, Cousins hauled Thomas away from CP3 after the game, preventing what was probably going to be a valuable moment in the young point guard's development. Thomas had played well, and Paul was almost certainly going to congratulate him, impart some encouraging words or otherwise give him the respect he'd earned.
But Cousins stopped that from happening, which, in a nutshell, is the very ugliest thing about DMC's makeup.
It was a classless move, borne out of immaturity and a misguided understanding of the "us versus them" mentality that many NBA leaders adopt. In a vacuum, it was just another black mark in the ledger of a guy who has made a career out of confronting sideline commentators, complaining to officials and losing his cool.
But in the broader context of the rebuilding Kings, this was a frighteningly clear sign that they've tabbed the wrong man as their leader.
The biggest source of concern has to be that Cousins almost certainly believed he was doing the right thing. But in his ill-conceived attempt to act as a leader, all he did was drag a teammate—and really, his entire organization—down to his level.
Maybe it's not fair to hold Cousins' past against him. Maybe if Paul had been the one pulling his teammates away from the Kings after the buzzer, we'd be lauding CP3's killer instinct. But Cousins has earned his reputation, and it's up to him to change it. More importantly, it's up to him to make sure he doesn't poison the rest of his teammates with his attitude.
It bears mentioning that the Kings clearly believe Cousins can change. The team's new ownership group spent extravagantly on him after what was surely a thorough discussion of his pluses and minuses. They wouldn't have forked over $60 million if they didn't believe he had the ability to mature.
That has to count for something.
The Entire Package
In a lot of ways, Cousins is getting better. His statistical impact is greater than it's ever been.
But he's not getting better in the ways the Kings need him to.
Re-signing Cousins was the first major move of an ownership group that desperately wants to move the organization forward. But when Cousins hauled Thomas away from Paul, he wasn't just tugging on a teammate's jersey.
He was pulling the entire franchise in the wrong direction.
*All stats accurate through games played Nov. 23.