Like most things in life, the NBA is all about timing. What have you done for me lately?
Within a matter of weeks, DeMarcus Cousins has done plenty: He turned around his season, thrust the Kings into the playoffs conversation and ensured his selection to his second All-Star Game.
The coaches’ votes are in. The reserves will be announced Thursday. But barring some unforeseen and catastrophic development — let’s just say Cousins should leave the fistfights to Blake Griffin — even the coaches who can’t stand the sixth-year center can’t ignore his accomplishments the past few weeks.
Leaving Boogie off the Western Conference roster would be a travesty, though a month ago sending him a ticket to the Feb. 12-14 festivities in Toronto would have been a crime. The former University of Kentuckyk star’s transition has been swift, dominant, consistent and, most importantly, it translated into victories.
Though the Kings arrived in Portland bruised and battered from their double-overtime loss Monday to the Charlotte Hornets, they had won five of their previous six games and were 8-4 in 2016. If not yet the toast of a town that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in a decade, and while still recovering from a 1-7 start that contributed mightily to their sub-.500 record, they have gone weeks without stinking up the joint.
The second-half meltdown against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Dec. 28 feels like a lifetime ago. The humiliating defeat to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers two nights later in Sleep Train Arena — the low point of the season — seems almost unfathomable now.
After the champagne was popped and the calendar skipped into 2016, the Kings took their first baby steps toward respectability. Teams that win on the road can win, period, and victories at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers hint at grander possibilities, particularly in a weaker-than-usual Western Conference.
This is a start, but it isn’t even a conversation topic if Cousins hadn’t emerged from his early-season sulk and started performing like an All-Star. Since that miserable end to 2015, a year in which he cursed out his coaches in the locker room, was ejected in the third quarter against the Warriors and labored to run the floor because of poor conditioning, he changed direction and kick-started the Kings’ revival.
In his 12 games in January, he is averaging 34.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from three-point range. He is breaking records and establishing franchise standards almost nightly, joining such luminaries as Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson. His points (104) and rebounds (25) in consecutive outings against the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte have been equaled or surpassed only by Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Antawn Jamison.
Cousins also is seventh in ESPN’s player efficiency rankings, trailing only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul.
“He’s understanding the game, staying patient, staying strong,” Kings Coach George Karl said, “and I think our team has done a good job getting him the ball, (Rajon) Rondo especially. He’s converting at a high, high level. But I’ve enjoyed his maturity from the standpoint of not forcing it. We’re just not shooting the ball very well, maybe not finding open shots on the perimeter as much, probably not moving the ball as well as I’d like to see us move it. As a coach, you probably want more balance.”
Imagine if Cousins was surrounded by better perimeter shooters? How much more damage he could inflict if his teammates were more proficient from three-point range, thereby improving the spacing and discouraging opponents from double- and sometimes triple-teaming?
Kings general manager Vlade Divac swung and missed on veteran Marco Belinelli, who attempts an inordinate number of off-balance jumpers and has been inconsistent even on clean catch-and-shoot opportunities. Third-year guard Ben McLemore is a gifted athlete and relentless worker, but he’s an erratic performer and chronic tease at both ends. And the Kings would benefit from another wing defender to plug the holes in the pick-and-roll.
But back to those baby steps. Rondo has been a tiny dancer to Cousins’ bruising presence, a forceful playmaker who can chastise his moody center and get away with it — and that alone represents enormous progress.
“The thing that most impresses me with DeMarcus now,” Divac said, “is his leadership in the locker room. He is very positive, just the way he talks about things. I don’t see how they can possibly leave him off the All-Star team.”
No, they shouldn’t, though Cousins’ issues haven’t completely disappeared. His physical conditioning is much improved, but it’s not what it should be; several NBA coaches and scouts believe he would benefit from losing another 15 or so pounds, and until he does, the game plan is to run him into exhaustion.
The other major concern is his constant feuding with referees. Cousins, 25, already has received 10 technical fouls. A 16th technical brings a $5,000 fine and a one-game suspension.
Divac is confident Cousins will curb his fiery enthusiasm. The worst-case scenario for the Kings would be a must-win, end-of-season game with their best player unavailable.
But he’s rolling now, and the city is starting to rock.
He deserves to be an All-Star.
“Not even a question,” said Brad Miller, the Kings’ last All-Star center, in 2004, before Cousins. “Nobody can stop him. There’s no one like him in the league.”