Looking for a Sleeper for NBA MVP? Don't Laugh, but It May Be DeMarcus Cousins

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 6, 2015

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 5: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings during the preseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers  on October 5, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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LA JOLLA, Calif. — The topic is the 2015-16 NBA MVP award and whether it could be reachable for DeMarcus Cousins.

"Reachable, man?" Cousins told Bleacher Report, his voice rising high. "It's mine to grab."

Who takes him seriously? Many haven't and still don't, especially after the summertime drama that saw him reportedly on and then off the trading block.

In five previous NBA seasons, Cousins has never gotten even a single fifth-place vote for MVP, and his vertical isn't the kind to invoke visions of such a quantum leap over myriad more established superstars.

Chiang Ying-ying/Associated Press

But let it be known that this is not the same young big man, and there are already actions to back up the MVP-hype words of the only player in basketball who outright frightens opponents.

To go with that uniquely aggressive talent is, at least for the moment, a new professionalism—the intangible that elevates star players to be so much more than impressive stat producers.

For the past month, Cousins has been a different person in his dedication to his craft.

His approach transcends hard work on the court or powering ahead with a limp in camp despite a "real tender" left heel. Cousins has made a totally fresh commitment to being the best he can be, becoming a constant at the Kings training facility late in the offseason in search of every edge he can get for his team.

And if the professionalism continues, Cousins is right to believe he can be the best.

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 5: DeMarcus Cousins #15 and Darren Collison #7 of the Sacramento Kings speak on court during the preseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers on October 5, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User e
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"It's going to take a full team effort," Cousins said. "I'll try to play at a high level and bring my team along with me."

New teammate Rajon Rondo floated the same idea during Kings media day, telling reporters: "Not to put any pressure on him, but I expect nothing less but MVP."

Now, you might not take the mercurial Rondo seriously. Perhaps not coach George Karl, either—even though he's 13 regular-season victories behind Phil Jackson for fifth in NBA history—because Karl carries an 80-105 playoff record with no championships.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and Cousins
Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and CousinsRich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Welcome to Sacramento, the NBA's Island of Misfit Toys.

A collection of castoffs and questionable characters is led by Vlade Divac, a gifted people person who has been ridiculed for his lack of traditional front-office experience.

But let's first be fair and acknowledge that Divac has dramatically upgraded the Kings' talent level. He has given Karl what he wants: a roster of veterans, not kids.

"I don't trust the rebuilding system in the NBA," Karl said. "It has failed about 80 percent of the time."

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive wants to win quickly, too; the franchise moves to a new arena next season.

Most importantly, however, this is what Cousins wants.

He said his new veteran teammates are "incredible."

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 5: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings goes for the lay up against Noah Vonleh #21 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the preseason game on October 5, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"You've got guys who know how to play the game, guys that know the game," Cousins said. "Coming out and building chemistry is even easier. Trying to do that with younger guys? They're trying to figure out their game and learn how to play."

That's a factor in Cousins' buckling down and treating this like a business for the first time in his career. The 25-year-old wants to maximize this opportunity, but he also looks around training camp and sees a shirtless Rondo repeating detailed driving moves after practice until they're perfect or a diligent Caron Butler still doing his extra work despite being 10 years Cousins' senior. The other NBA champion to join the team, Marco Belinelli, just poured in 32 points in the exhibition opener, a Kings victory in Portland.

Even after Cousins had already removed his sneakers to close practice on one day, Divac led him back to the court for a quick tutorial.

Butler also was not above slipping in a quick word to the volatile Cousins that day: The big man had exploded at a referee for a bad call. The moment had been building in Cousins, who not long before had cautioned quietly to the ref, "Missed calls affect the game."

It wasn't exactly a Tim Duncan-style United Nations cooperative chit-chat with officials, but it wasn't zero-to-60, either. Cousins did cut his technical foul total from 16 in 2013-14 to 14 last season.

The anger mismanagement, though, will always draw eyes from a public that Cousins can't stand for craving negativity.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

"I've got to be patient, knowing it's not going to completely change," Karl said. "It's not going to go from a difficult attitude to a good attitude. It's going to be steppingstones."

Even so, and despite their recent discord, Karl, who reportedly worked to trade Cousins over the summer before the team decided to unite behind the young center, can't resist criticizing this facet of Cousins that "cheapened the game" and cost the team key possessions last season.   

"DeMarcus has got to make a commitment just not to allow frustration to cause a disruption in the game," Karl said. "I don't like negative emotion in a game. I think it's a sign of weakness."

The Kings haven't won more than 29 contests in any of the past seven campaigns, and if they fail to turn it up this season, it'll likely be because they ultimately lacked discipline.

Karl's free-flowing offense figures to help Cousins tremendously with spacing on the floor, yet already in camp it has been Cousins often jacking up desperate three-pointers.

In ways big and small, Boogie's poise and professionalism are going to decide this season in Sacramento.

He's completely right about how valuable he could be.

Redemption stories are good sells, and the media voters for MVP can be suckers for the narrative.

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 5: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings defends the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers during the preseason game on October 5, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

And while it has become acceptable for stars to pace themselves through the regular season, Cousins is not about that at all.

His production is going to be massive, and if the revamped Kings rise to a playoff berth in the deep Western Conference, it'll be an inspirational maturation. And that will mean Cousins will have persisted with this new professionalism and will have evolved into a leader his team can trust to avoid doing the wrong thing at the wrong time for the wrong result.

With all that righteousness within reach, the guy cannot wait.

"To have playoff expectations, it's an exciting feeling," Cousins said. "It's one I've never felt."


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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