In the Sacramento Kings’ glossary, the word “indefinite” means two games. Or at least that was the case with troubled forward DeMarcus Cousins, who was “indefinitely” suspended after a profanity-filled halftime argument with coach Keith Smart during a loss to the Clippers on Dec. 21.
Cousins sat out two games before returning to the club for Friday’s matchup with the Knicks and he is expected to start Sunday against the Celtics. It was the latest attitude issue for the gifted Kentucky product whose status has been a major topic around the league.
Would any other team take the momentous risk of acquiring Cousins, taking on the potential off-court headaches in exchange for a chance to tap his limitless potential? Cousins has a post game beyond his years, is unlike other younger players who lack a competitive edge and a mean streak, and is an above-average rebounder.
But the tradeoff is that Cousins has constantly clashed with teammates, coaches, and officials, has consistently gone too far in his behavior toward those parties, and appears resistant to advice or assistance. Cousins’s latest meltdown occurred with former Celtics big-man coach Clifford Ray on the staff. Smart hired Ray last season with the express purpose of mentoring Cousins.
If it’s even possible that he can be mentored.
The Kings didn’t exactly discipline Cousins severely for cursing his coach. He missed two games (he was technically reinstated for the second, though he did not make the trip to Portland) and was in the starting lineup against the Knicks after being apologetic.
Cousins recently fired agent John Greig, who was his biggest defender until he began to call out his client for his missteps lately.
Smart, the former NCAA Tournament hero, was hired as Kings coach in part because of his close relationship with Cousins. Now that Cousins has turned against him, many wonder whether Cousins’s time in Sacramento is done.
Smart doesn’t think so.
“The one thing is we want to get this behind us,” Smart said. “It’s time to move forward. We’ve gone through what has happened. We just want to get back and focus on the basketball and not the other things that are besides basketball.”
Smart said he has forgotten the incident with Cousins, and he understands that a byproduct of the one-and-done approach by college players is an increasing amount of immature and not-ready-for-prime-time players on NBA rosters, some of whom have never faced the adversity of constant losing or the scrutiny that comes from the pressure of being a lottery pick.
Having played for Bobby Knight at Indiana University, Smart understands the rigors of playing for a demanding, discipline-oriented coach, but what was tolerated by young players decades ago isn’t today.
“When I came through [the NBA], they told me what to do, and if I didn’t do it, ‘Bye bye, here’s your plane ticket,’ ” Smart said. “But unlike today, you have to do more of the player development, total body work, from the skill development on the floor to trying to grow their minds mentally and getting guys ready to play.
“I went four years in college; we don’t have that anymore. Guys come in pretty early and you have to do a lot of the development they would normally get in a college setting. Also how to deal with people, how to function with people. That’s that the new NBA right now with so many [young] guys coming in.”
Cousins is considered a potential superstar if he has the proper attitude and guidance, but a lack of veterans in the Kings locker room may be stunting his development.
“They’re not good enough yet,” said former Kings star Chris Webber. “They’re not going to make an impact yet. They’re not [Oklahoma City] or any young team that’s grown together. They have been in the midst of coaches fired, rumors, and it’s been really tough for them.
“OKC has a player by the name of Kevin Ollie. Kevin Ollie keeps that locker room together. Kevin Ollie tells them to shut up after the game. And Kevin Ollie will beat up anybody on that team. And Kevin Ollie is the nicest guy on the team and everybody respects him.
“If you don’t have those [veteran] players in the locker room, no [you can’t grow]. You need somebody you can trust. You need those guys in the locker room. No, there’s no way it can be done, I would love to hear an example.”
With a lack of veterans surrounding Cousins, it has been up to Smart and the coaching staff to instill guidance. His prickly attitude has not helped.
“The value of strong veteran leadership on a basketball team is very important,” Smart said. “It’s good to have that mix. We all want one thing for that young man and that’s to succeed, coaches included. We want one thing great for him to happen and that’s for him to be the player he wants to be.”
As for Cousins’s trade value, it’s confusing. The last thing the Kings need are more younger, underdeveloped players and draft picks. They need a cornerstone veteran, an already established player who could be the face of the franchise.
For years they have tried to stockpile lottery picks and allow them to grow, taking a page from the Oklahoma City playbook, but it has failed miserably. Tyreke Evans has regressed, Cousins is a disciplinary case, Thomas Robinson hasn’t cracked the playing rotation, and Jimmer Fredette has no true position.
If the Celtics wanted to acquire Cousins, they would need to offer a veteran in his prime, and the Kings would likely need to add a bad contract to facilitate the deal. But the Celtics lack a true star in his prime besides Rajon Rondo, so they may not be a good match.
The Kings have yet to open up the bidding for Cousins, but if he continues to lock horns with his supportive coach, the market may percolate.
Net results doom Johnson
There was brewing unhappiness with Nets coach Avery Johnson, whose team had lost 10 of 13 games and slipped behind the Celtics in the Atlantic Division. After the Celtics pounded the Nets, 93-76, on national television Christmas Day, and Brooklyn then got hammered the next night at Milwaukee, Johnson was fired.
The Nets had gotten off to a blazing start, looking like a contender in the Eastern Conference, but they were consistently being pounded on defense, and Deron Williams appeared either disenchanted by Johnson’s offense or bothered by a lingering wrist injury.
Williams is getting the reputation as a coach killer; he was blamed for the resignation of Jerry Sloan in Utah two years before the club shipped him to the Nets for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, and a slew of draft picks. Now just two weeks after complaining about his limited offensive role, Williams watches another coach make an unceremonious exit.
Not many league experts agree with the sudden move. But there were issues with Johnson’s handling of the roster. The most glaring was his treatment of MarShon Brooks , the second-year guard from Providence who was an all-rookie team member before being relegated to garbage-time play this season.
Johnson also reduced the minutes of just re-signed power forward Kris Humphries, whose numbers have declined greatly from last season, when he averaged 13.8 points and 11.0 rebounds. He now is averaging 7.1 and 7.4 in 10 fewer minutes per game.
Those issues, along with the inability to consistently score, caused dissension among the Nets players. Johnson was fired by the Mavericks for some of the same reasons and has gained a reputation as a coach never quite good enough to maximize a team’s potential.
“It’s something I definitely didn’t see coming, especially after our pretty good November and then obviously we lost a few games in December,” Johnson said.
“This is what we sign up for. This is part of our business — fair or unfair, it doesn’t matter. It’s time for a new voice.
“You’re not always going to get a fair shake. If I was owning the team, I wouldn’t have gotten fired today. But it just doesn’t work that way.”
Williams vehemently denies that he had any part in Johnson’s dismissal. What’s more, he said he would have supported Johnson if approached by management.
“We have a great team. We had a great coach,” said Williams. “We had some good things going. It was just a matter of us putting it together.
“I don’t feel responsible. I was never consulted. If they would have asked, I would have said he needs to be our coach. If I would have played better as a player, then we would have won a lot more games and he’d still be here. As far as that’s concerned, I feel responsible.
“Nobody feels worse about the way that I have been playing than me. I have been trying to figure how to get it going, how to play like I’m used to playing. It hasn’t clicked yet. My confidence is gone and I have to play my way out of it.”
Williams is averaging 16.6 points and shooting a career-worst 30.5 percent from the 3-point line. His wrist hasn’t been completely healthy for years, and he voiced his displeasure with Johnson’s offense.
“I just thought as a team we didn’t have confidence,” he said. “We didn’t have that same swag [we had] in November when we were winning. We felt like when we came on the court, we were going to dominate. It just kind of feels we don’t have that individually, and as players, and we’ve got to get it back.
“I wanted to be there with coach Avery. He is a big reason why I came back here.”
Newly acquired Joe Johnson has not blended well with Williams. Johnson is accustomed to those Mike Woodson-influenced isolation plays, where he dominated the ball and found space for a jumper. In Brooklyn, Williams handles the ball most of the time, forcing Johnson to shoot without many dribbles. Johnson is shooting 42.1 percent, his lowest in nine years.
The Nets have a plethora of problems that Avery Johnson couldn’t solve. It was general manager Billy King who traded a first-round pick for all-purpose forward Gerald Wallace and traded most of their core to Atlanta for Joe Johnson.
Because of a bevy of big contracts, the Nets are stuck with the roster they have for at least the next couple of seasons. So under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, the onus will be on the players acquired by King to resurrect their season.
“I thought [Avery Johnson] was doing a great job of preparing us,” Joe Johnson said. “It’s been a tale of two different months. Us as players, we really have to look in the mirror. I don’t think we’ve been having fun for quite some time.
“It’s up to us to get back to playing hard, playing smart. Early in the season we were playing super hard because we didn’t know what to expect and we wanted to be a really good team. We just have to pick it back up.”
A footloose feel for Curry
Stephen Curry darted toward the basket and saw Derrick Favors, 10 inches taller, quickly preparing for a blocked shot. Curry spun his diminutive body and flipped a backhanded layup off the top of the glass for a score. The Warriors guard is a magician with the basketball, one who has lived up to his billing when healthy.
But Curry has been besieged by ankle sprains, so much so that he required invasive surgery. After missing 56 games last season, Curry is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 20.0 points, 6.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds without missing a game for the much-improved Warriors.
The organization made a commitment to Curry by trading emerging star Monta Ellis to the Bucks in the deal that netted Andrew Bogut, who has yet reach 100 percent health. Curry says his ankles are stable, allowing him to perform such acrobatic moves as the one against the Jazz without concern.
“To play consistent minutes and not have to worry about my ankle, it opened up everything for me,” said Curry, “because I have the utmost confidence in it now. And it’s kind of been the catalyst for me to have confidence and to worry about my game and not so much my body and if my ankles will hurt if I do a certain move.
“I think just getting back to focusing on the game itself and how to improve and getting consistent reps, that’s a huge difference in what I have experienced the last two years having gone through so many episodes.”
Curry’s game is built more on guile than athleticism, but he is a master at attacking the pick-and-roll. The recurring ankle injuries were robbing him of his ability to turn the corner to the hoop, and there was major concern that the condition was chronic.
“It’s extremely important,” Curry said of his peace of mind. “There are so many things you have to worry about throughout the season, especially with being a point guard with different guys we have on our team learning how to get chemistry up, figuring out where guys want the ball.
“You have to be on the court to be able to do that and it takes a lot of focus to improve that. And I think that’s a whole lot easier to manage when you come into practice and games you’re able to be 100 percent, and put in the practice and preparation for it and not be in the training room.”
Fisher’s status a bit uncertain
We may have seen the last of Derek Fisher, who was waived by the Mavericks after relaying to the team that he missed his Los Angeles-based family. Fisher suffered a strained knee tendon that would have cost him two weeks, but instead of rehabilitating the injury, Fisher decided to go home. Fisher’s sudden departure has left doubts about his sincerity, given that he played the last few months of the regular season and had a full playoff run with the Thunder last season. Fisher also said that he did not plan to retire and left open the door for a return. But for now, he’s gone.
It seems the Michael Beasley experiment in Phoenix is already over, as he has been replaced in the starting lineup by former Boston College standout Jared Dudley. Not only was Beasley struggling offensively (37.9 percent from the field) but he wasn’t able to match up with other small forwards. The Suns were hoping Beasley would develop into a dependable asset given a fresh start, but they saw why he was jettisoned from Miami and Minnesota. Beasley has to prove that he can defend and play with passion . . . The Pistons are dangling some players in trade talks, including swingman Charlie Villanueva, who has been playing extensively of late. The Pistons are also looking to move former first-round pick Austin Daye, who has never found consistent minutes for coach Lawrence Frank and is still backing up 32-year-old Tayshaun Prince, who signed a three-year extension in the offseason. Daye has skills but is too slight to play power forward and too inconsistent to play small forward . . . The Timberwolves are seeking a small forward replacement for Josh Howard and have had former King Donte Greene in for a workout. Greene is out of the NBA after four uneven seasons with Sacramento, where he turned into a swingman more interested in launching 3-pointers than developing other parts of his game.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.