This is the year, the six-year itch, the season Kings center DeMarcus Cousins proves to the world — and to himself — that he is more than just a prodigious, tantalizing talent.
This year he wins.
Is that crazy, or what? Totally. Perhaps. Maybe not.
For the first time in his career, the 6-foot-11 center begins the season with an experienced supporting cast and a proven coach who is just quirky and charismatic enough to make it all work.
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Then there is the stability factor. Cousins, 25, was still in high school the last time Kings executives and the coach tipped off the season with a toast, the practice facility oozed congeniality instead of paranoia, and there was enough talent on the court to at least hint at a .500 season.
The bolts are in the ground. The exterior is stitched together. The arena is rising.
As an All-Star on a team that has missed the playoffs since 2006, Cousins’ next move is the one that defines all bona fide stars: He becomes the player who makes his teammates better, who shares the wealth while shouldering the largest part of the burden.
That means sharing the ball, curbing his carping at the referees, extending himself at practices, nurturing the atmosphere in the locker room. If he doesn’t, the Kings will falter again, the locker room becomes a toxic waste dump, the dramatic roster makeover goes for naught, and drastic change becomes inevitable.
"I expect a great year from DeMarcus," Kings first-year general manager Vlade Divac said, "and not just because he's in the best shape of his career. I look at the way he practices, the way he acts. I don’t even know any other DeMarcus. And what I need from him — and he understands this — is to be a guy who keeps everyone together."
Amid all the drama and despite being limited to 59 games last season because of illness, Cousins established career highs in scoring (24.1 points), rebounding (third in the league at 12.7), assists (3.6), free-throw percentage (78.2), blocks (1.7) and minutes (34.1). A vastly improved defender, his two issues are turnovers (4.3) and his constant battles with the referees. He is the exact opposite of Rajon Rondo, the veteran point guard who shields his thoughts and emotions with a stoic, unflinching expression.
Cousins is raw, animated, unfiltered — his feelings served up nightly on a national platter. Yet throughout the off-season and a 5-1 preseason, he was one stubborn, committed Cuz. Notwithstanding the occasional venting about the officiating, this is what he has shown: He wants to win, and he is determined to guide a franchise out of the dumps and into a sparkling new building.
"The potential is there," Cousins said. "You can see it. We know how we want to play and we should be able to do it with whoever is on the floor. We're pressuring the ball. The guards are doing a good job staying in front. Us bigs, we got a tough combination at the rim right now. It's tough to get in there and score."
The mood around the practice center has been upbeat, energetic, encouraging — a sharp contrast from much of 2014-15, when the Michael Malone-Pete D'Alessandro-Chris Mullin conflict transformed the Kings into the latest NBA version of Team Dysfunction. Divac not only has restored a sense of sanity, but he has adamantly refused to part with either Cousins or coach George Karl, who appear to be on the mend; they often have been seen chatting or joking around.
Instead, Divac swapped youth and draft picks for proven veterans, acquiring Rondo, Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos, improving the defense, playmaking, shooting and overall depth. Additionally, when Croatian star Mario Hezonja was picked by Orlando with the fifth pick in the draft, Divac drafted long-limbed Willie Cauley-Stein at No. 6, thinking the 7-foot-1 rookie’s size and length will complement Cousins' immense skills.
"With Rondo and Willie, our defense is so much better now," Divac said. "But it's all about chemistry. Everything else you can fix. George has to do his thing. Rudy (Gay) has to be Rudy. The role players have to understand their jobs. It’s not just about DeMarcus."
So it begins again, with Cousins not alone on an island, but again in the middle, being asked to grow his portfolio, further his reputation. It’s about victories, not individual stats. His Kings have never won more than 29 games. But in his sixth season, he has an opportunity to put Sleep Train Arena — and all that has transpired these past few seasons — into the books.