ATLANTA -- After dealing with the quirky behavior and often destructive immaturity of the most important player in the franchise, the Kings needed an authority figure who would command the attention and respect of DeMarcus Cousins. And no, they weren't hiring his mother.
Instead, they gave a piece of the team to Shaquille O'Neal, and suddenly, Cousins had a boss who was bigger than him -- in more ways than one -- and a person who could relate.
"I was the same as he was when I was 24," Shaq said. "I was stubborn and needed some advice on how to be a leader."
The results of this unexpected but ideal pairing are something to behold. While waiting for a higher brand of basketball to develop in Sacramento -- the Kings currently are basement dwellers in the tough Western Conference -- the polishing of a franchise big man is providing hope. Cousins is causing headaches only for the other team now, delivering big numbers almost nightly and building a case for the All-Star Game in two months.
The talent is unmistakable, and so is the improved demeanor, which is exactly what the Kings needed to see from a player in his fourth season, who recently was handed a four-year, $62 million contract extension. Cousins hasn't been booted from a game or slapped with a suspension or fine, nor has he cursed his new coach or sparred with teammates. Obviously, the season is still young, and fingers are still crossed. Nobody changes completely, overnight. Yet the flipped switch within Cousins is significant enough that the Kings are almost certain he's headed in the right direction, as a player and professional.
"He can be good," Shaq said. "Real good. Like, scary-good."
Cousins is one of the few seven-footers who can play comfortably in the post and on the wing. He's blessed with sticky hands, strong shoulders, smooth footwork and a trusty, 15-foot jumper. How many players can get 15 rebounds and five steals in the same game? It's that versatility that convinces the Kings that, when the light is on, Cousins can be one of the top five centers in basketball, if he isn't already.
He's been held back by two factors. Sacramento continues to lose, which makes you wonder about the impact he really has on the game, and the historical issue of his temper and lack of self-control, which gave him the stigma, fair or not, of being a coach killer and team wrecker.
When Shaq agreed to join the ownership group that rescued the Kings from a relocation to Seattle, he did it partly with Cousins in mind. Shaq was one of the driving forces behind Cousins' extension, despite the warning signs. Some players have rap sheets. Cousins had a gangsta rap sheet. The good news was, his episodes were all confined to the gym; "Boogie" had never been a problem off the floor. His warmth and generosity would shock those who only knew him for his pouty body language and getting T'd-up. The bad news was, he was becoming too high-maintenance for his coaches and teammates.
Last season was ground zero for Cousins, who was suspended three times (twice by the league, once by the Kings) and earned a league-high 17 technicals. He had issues with his last two coaches, argued with teammates and was thrown off the team plane. At the USA Basketball select training camp, chairman Jerry Colangelo said Cousins "needs to mature as a person" and "has some growing up to do."
Shaq watched from afar and shook his head at the spectacle, like everyone else. Then, once he bought into the franchise, he made connecting with Cousins a priority. The mentoring process is ongoing, and Cousins is receptive.
"My role is just sharing personal stories to help him get to the next level," Shaq said. "What I don't want to do is talk to him all the time. When you talk all the time, they don't always respond. A lot of things have to be learned through experience. I'm not about being in his face all the time."
Shaq has built a trust with Cousins, and the words of a future Hall of Famer and four-time NBA champ carry weight. It's unlikely Shaq is saying something different than what Keith Smart or Paul Westphal said; both coaches clashed with Cousins and eventually lost their jobs. But sometimes, the person giving the advice counts more than the advice itself.
"Me and him have a lot in common," Cousins said. "The situations we've been in early in our careers, dealing with the same kind of pressures. He tells me how to deal with it, how to zone some of the things out, how to stay focused on what's important."
Other than refusing to allow Isaiah Thomas to shake hands with Chris Paul after a bitter game with the Clippers, Cousins hasn't done anything this season to dig up the ghosts of his past. He also hasn't lumped new coach Mike Malone in with Westphal and Smart.
"When I took this job, out of fairness to DeMarcus, I wanted to start with a clean slate," Malone said. "I wasn't around for some of those experiences he had in the past. I wanted to give him the opportunity to show me who he is. In my first conversation with him, he said two things. He said he hated to lose and that he was coachable. To his credit -- and I know it's early in the season, and who knows what tomorrow brings -- he has been coachable and has been a leader. My challenge to him is to do the right thing all the time, every day, and let's change those negative connotations. I haven't seen those. He's maturing on the court and, more important, in the locker room."
"We're on the same page," Cousins said, "and when we're not, we're both willing to sit down and talk about it. Everything's been good." Until now, Cousins has been surrounded by authority figures he just didn't respect. Surely you understand. The Kings have been a hot mess ever since drafting him. They never had strong, veteran leadership in the locker room, on the bench or in ownership. He was red-flagged prior to the draft for being immature, and the Kings' instability was a situation that just begged for trouble. But that was then.
Next month, when the coaches fill out their ballots for All-Star reserves, it could get interesting. Based on his per-game numbers and nothing else, Cousins appears to be a lock: 22.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals, one block. However, these things can get sneaky-political. Coaching is a tight fraternity, and the conspiracy to punish players who had run-ins with fellow coaches is real. Josh Smith was believed to be a "victim" of All-Star snubbing for having issues with Mike Woodson in Atlanta.
"The knock on him is, he's not on a winning team," Malone said, "and that's something he can't argue because it's in black and white. An All-Star should make his team competitive, but we're in the Western Conference. As for the other stuff, I will say DeMarcus has proven he's a different person and a far better player than his first few years."
Cousins is a work in progress on two fronts. As a player, he's turnover-prone and often in foul trouble; he's been among the league leaders in both over the past few seasons. As a leader in training, he's learning how and when to approach teammates, what to say to them, the art of leading by example. Just a year ago, the thought of Cousins leading anyone anywhere would have been laughable. Which tells you how far he's come, and how far he still has to go.
At least he has the perfect mentor, who also made mistakes.
"I was always rubbing teammates the wrong way," said Shaq. "I was on Penny [Hardaway]'s case in Orlando and on Kobe's case. I've been there. With him and the social media, it's easy for what he does to get blown out of proportion.
"When I speak to him, I speak from experience. I can have certain conversations with him, big man to big man. We put our heads together and get something done. I'm going to be here for a while. He's going to be here for a while. None of us are going anywhere."
Well, there is one place Cousins is in a hurry to go. "The All-Star Game would mean a lot to me," he said. "That's my goal."