The pairing of DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl can be a philosophical tug of war.
The blending of the Kings’ young All-Star with one of the NBA’s more creative coaching minds was bound to have its moments of tension. Most coaches clash with their best player on some level multiple times during a season.
Last season, Cousins became an All-Star for the first time largely because of his dominance in the paint. But since Karl took over in February, an offensive strategy that satisfies both coach and player remains a work in progress.
Karl believes Cousins can dominate from anywhere on the court. But that takes Cousins out of his comfort zone, leaving him feeling “lost” on the perimeter at times. After Sunday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Sleep Train Arena, he was shooting a career-worst 40.6 percent while averaging 25.0 points.
Is Karl worried? Not at all. He’s excited.
“The thing I’m excited about with Cuz is he’s just got to make some shots, get comfortable moving around,” Karl said before Sunday’s game. “Playing out front, playing at the elbow, playing on the post-up, playing in the pick and roll. There aren’t a lot of players who have the creativity to be good at all those positions.”
Coach and player are working to find a happy medium, one that allows Cousins to use his multifaceted skills in a way he feels fit while giving Karl the flexibility he wants with his offense.
Karl wants a free-flowing offense, but the Kings aren’t at their best when their best player is shooting poorly. In last Wednesday’s win against the Indiana Pacers, Cousins made eight of 19 shots and was angry with himself after some of his attempts from close range rolled off the rim.
What was different for Cousins was more of his shots came when he attacked the basket rather than settled for jumpers.
“I think coaches went out of their way to get me some early looks, even though I have been struggling lately,” Cousins said of the Indiana game. “A little bit of credit to everybody, an overall solid game.”
The Kings cannot expect to reach their goal of making the playoffs if the player who takes the most shots is the least comfortable with the offense. So getting Cousins out of a slump is vital.
“I would tell him like I tell almost any player — start trying to get easy baskets rather than trying to take long shots,” Karl said. “I think sometimes he tries to take the three early to see how the rhythm of the game is going. I’ve told my son, I’d tell any player if you want to kind of start out, go get an offensive rebound, go get fouled, go make something that you’ve got a 75-80 percent chance of making and then let the game come to you.”
There’s validity to that thinking. Entering Sunday, Cousins had attempted 412 shots, with 206 coming from five feet or closer. He was shooting 55.3 percent from five feet and closer.
Cousins wants to test the defense with his shooting range, but the best way for him to get going on offense is not to rely on long-range shots. He doesn’t want to disrupt what Karl wants to do on offense by spreading the floor. Or as Cousins has said lately, he wants to be “coachable.”
Cousins wants to strike a balance between pleasing Karl and demoralizing opponents with his post play. But Karl gives his players a lot of freedom, so Cousins will have the opportunity to find his way.
“Cuz is going to get 15 to 20 shots a night,” Karl said. “There’s no way we’re not going to give him 15 to 20 shots.”
It’s just a matter of where those shots originate that will determine whether both Karl and Cousins are content.