In the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Rockets-Kings tilt, superstar shooting guard James Harden did his best to put his team on his back, scoring 10 of his game-high 38 points in the final frame. The defensively challenged Sacramento backcourt didn't have a prayer of stopping him.
If the Kings were to win, they needed someone to stop Harden in the final minutes. They needed DeMarcus Cousins.
At first blush, a center like Cousins would not be the optimal choice to stop a speedy, slippery guard like Harden. But the Kings had no one else, and Cousins did what a team's best player is supposed to do: He got the job done.
Cousins forced Harden into back-to-back turnovers to salt away a 110-106 Kings' win. First he drew a charge on Harden, and then he snatched the ball away from Harden despite being mismatched out on the perimeter. Cousins struggled early in the game, scoring only two points in the first half, but he made the plays when it mattered.
The win was only the 10th of the season for Sacramento, who is still mired in 14th place in the Western Conference. But don't blame Cousins for that record. The 23-year-old has raised his game in 2013-14 and has emerged as one of the league's better forwards.
Great Play, Bad Rep
But the numbers don't lie. As of the new year, Cousins ranks at or near the top of the NBA in several categories, per Basketball Reference:
- Sixth in player efficiency rating (26.8)
- Ninth in made field goals (242)
- Ninth in points per game (22.7)
- Fifth in rebounds per game (11.3), eighth in total rebounds (329), fifth in total rebound percentage (20.5%)
- Eighth in steals per game (1.8), ninth in total steals (53), 10th in steal percentage (2.9%)
- First in usage percentage (33.6%)
- First in technical fouls (9)
And yet it is that last statistic, the technical foul, that is most often associated with Cousins. He has ranked in the top five in technical fouls in every season of his four-year career, per ESPN. He has been far better known for his suspensions and tirades than for his buckets and rebounds.
The low point of Cousins' career came in December 2012, when Cousins was suspended by the Kings for “unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team.”
Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee reported that both his teammates and then-team president Geoff Petrie were growing tired of his antics.
"It’s not something that just showed up yesterday, last year or two years ago or five years ago," [Petrie] said. "But he’s our player so we want to work with him to get past this so he can be what everyone sees is possible."
Cousins has alienated teammates with his verbal tirades to the point players give him the ball rather than feel his wrath.
But this year, Cousins has been on, if not good, then certainly better behavior. He has yet to be suspended or ejected from a game.
DeMarcus Cousins has a temper. This much is certain. The question is: Can a player with his kind of temper lead a team to the promised land?
The question remains a murky one. Two of the most recent hot-tempered players in the NBA, Rasheed Wallace and Metta World Peace, both won NBA titles during their careers. For those who would argue that Wallace mellowed with age, check out this classic Sheed moment from last season, when he was 38 years old.
But Wallace and World Peace won their titles surrounded by veteran teammates, playing under coaches with Hall of Fame resumes (Larry Brown for Wallace, Phil Jackson for World Peace). Those situations are very different than the one faced by Cousins, who is playing on a young team under the direction of a first-year head coach in Mike Malone.
For what it's worth, Cousins now has a valuable mentor in a former Sacramento tormentor, Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq, who now owns a piece of the Kings franchise, has taken Cousins under his wing, according to Sports on Earth's Shaun Powell. Shaq even sees a bit of himself in the young forward.
"I was the same as he was when I was 24," Shaq said. "I was stubborn and needed some advice on how to be a leader. He can be good. Real good. Like, scary-good."
Per Powell, Cousins' coach, Mike Malone, is cautiously optimistic about his demeanor so far in the 2013-14 season.
When I took this job, out of fairness to DeMarcus, I wanted to start with a clean slate. I wasn't around for some of those experiences he had in the past. I wanted to give him the opportunity to show me who he is. In my first conversation with him, he said two things. He said he hated to lose and that he was coachable. To his credit -- and I know it's early in the season, and who knows what tomorrow brings -- he has been coachable and has been a leader.
In the end, it doesn't matter how Cousins acts, so long as he wins. His most controversial moment of this season came when he pulled his teammates away from a postgame handshake, drawing criticism from Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
But was his act any different than what the Bad Boy Pistons pulled on the Chicago Bulls after losing the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals? Players from that team, like Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman, made the Hall of Fame for their play on the court, not for their sportsmanship.
Before the Cousins Kings can win like the Thomas Pistons, all of the Kings must learn to defend. Sacramento is ranked 27th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. But Sacramento's defensive problems aren't really the fault of Cousins, who has been the team's best defender by far.
Per Basketball Reference, Cousins leads the team with 1.4 defensive win shares, while no other King has more than 0.3.
If Cousins and point guard Isaiah Thomas continue their inspired play, the Kings will have a strong foundation for the future. But the Kings will need a stronger roster, particularly on defense, before Cousins can lead the Kings to the playoffs.