Commentary: Trading Cousins would be panic move by Kings

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 2, 2012 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — DeMarcus Cousins has a rhythm all his own. He takes a few steps forward, then takes a step back. He takes a few more steps forward, then takes a step back. He is the most talented player on the roster, which is why Kings officials immediately — and shrewdly — on Sunday quashed any trade speculation regarding their second-year center.

Trading the former University of Kentucky star would be dumber than the dumb things Cousins does that get him in trouble in the first place. It would be a panic move, not a panacea. It would be an attempt at a quick fix that removes the foundation of a rebuilding franchise.

Two years from now? After Cousins presumably has been surrounded by a more complementary cast, has had time to shed body fat and settle into his 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame, and has had ample opportunity to prove whether he is an underachieving goofball or a maturing veteran gaining control of his life and his career? If the behavior issues persist? Then we talk trade. Now, we talk peace.

But this also begs the question. Since Cousins, 21, stays, how exactly does coach Paul Westphal repair the relationship? Westphal has no choice in the matter. He can issue fines, suspensions and one-game smackdowns — all of which he has done to curb Cousins' outbursts — but the two still have to share the same locker room. As the adult in the room, it's Westphal's responsibility to accelerate Cousins' maturity and establish a better rapport with his young star, because that's usually how it works in this league.

Even the most accomplished coaches rarely win these tussles with players. Gregg Popovich ran off Dennis Rodman in San Antonio, but Jerry Sloan resigned because of tension with Deron Williams in Utah, Don Nelson had a breakdown because of his frayed relationship with Chris Webber with the Warriors, and Phil Jackson once was let go by the Lakers partly for his inability to coax Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal into a peaceful coexistence.

Westphal, who referred to Cousins' recent trade demands and post-game outburst as the "tip of the iceberg," has had a chilly relationship with his young center almost from the beginning. Unlike the soft-spoken Tyreke Evans, who has a more agreeable personality and is not inclined to challenge authority, Cousins is emotional and reactive, quick with the questions and the comebacks. He wants explanations, and when something isn't working, say, like the offense, he presses for answers.

Many of his questions are worthy of responses. This is an intuitive, instinctive player whose passing skills remain terribly underutilized. And while he undoubtedly needs to further moderate his behavior, Kings officials until the past few days were praising Cousins for doing exactly that: arriving at training camp in better shape; running the floor more consistently; concentrating more intently during practices and shootarounds.

With Cousins, the small steps he began taking late last season represent significant progress. Even the trade demands that sent Westphal over the edge Saturday seem subject to interpretation.

"If you come home and complain about something and your wife says, 'If you're tired of the way I cook, then why don't you just divorce me?' do you take that seriously?" Cousins' agent, John Greig, asked after Monday's chat with Kings executives Geoff Petrie and Wayne Cooper. "Didn't Dwight Howard ask for a trade? I'm still not sure what the point (of the one-game sitdown was), or how this thing moves forward."

Is Dr. Phil visiting anytime soon? What about Dr. Ruth? Or what about hiring an energetic big-man coach for Cousins — a common practice among teams with talented young bigs — much the way Kings assistant Bobby Jackson supervises the young guards.

Meantime, before Westphal and Cousins (a) break bread or (b) bang heads, we will say it again and again. Figure something out, but do not trade the kid, do not trade the kid, do not trade the kid.

The Kings are finally starting to assemble intriguing assets. Though not the solution at point guard, Evans is a terrific player with the potential to be a game-changing defender. Marcus Thornton is Vinnie Johnson. Jason Thompson and J.J. Hickson can rebound and run — and should be prohibited from attacking the basket from 17 feet out. John Salmons is versatile and durable. Chuck Hayes is a valuable, subtle contributor, and even more impressive in the locker room. Jimmer Fredette can facilitate and can shoot, and already has developed an on-court chemistry with Cousins, as evidenced by their collaboration on those back-door cuts.

The roster is far from playoff-ready, and trades inevitably need to be made. But Cousins should not be part of any package, period.

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