No one doubts the talent of DeMarcus Cousins. He’s an All-Star-caliber big man capable of dominating a game anytime he steps onto the court.
His physical gifts aren’t what teams are concerned about with the 6-foot-11 center. It’s what goes on inside his head that gives GMs around the league pause when contemplating a deal for the mercurial superstar, if the Sacramento Kings were ever inclined to make him available.
We know what Cousins can do at his best: a nightly double-double threat who routinely throws up 20-and-10 performances. Yet anyone that has followed his career is well aware of what he can be like at his worst: the temper tantrums, the suspensions, the often tumultuous relationship with teammates. Cousins has been called a head case, a coach-killer and a locker room cancer.
Doesn’t exactly sound like the type of guy you want leading your team to the promised land, right? Contending teams need stars with the talent Cousins has, but a personality like his has the potential to derail the chemistry of a team with championship aspirations.
Unless, that is, he finds the right environment. According to Isaiah Thomas, Boston is the perfect destination for Cousins to thrive. The Celtics point guard recently told the Sporting News that what Cousins needs is a teammate he respects that isn’t afraid to speak up to him to keep his erratic temperament in check.
“If he came to Boston, that would be good, really good,” said Thomas after a preseason game in Brooklyn. “The thing is, I’ve got his respect. I’ve always had that.”
Thomas would know, having spent three seasons in Sacramento alongside Cousins. The duo got along as well as Cousins has with any teammate in his career, with Thomas serving as one of the few that was able to calm him down following one of his patented outbursts.
The 27-year-old Thomas has never shied away from voicing his opinion, even as a younger player. He quickly established himself as a leader here in Boston after the Celtics acquired him midway through the 2014-15 season, and he made the leap to becoming an All-Star last year for a team that won 48 games.
His talent established Thomas as a star, but his leadership qualities add another layer of value to this team by creating a culture that can withstand the temperament of a player like Cousins.
“When I was with him, I didn’t back down,” explained Thomas. “I’m a point guard and that was my job. No matter if we did or didn’t get along off the court, on the court we were going to get along, and I was going to hold him accountable. That’s just how it is. It’s how I’ve always been. And he respects me for doing that.”
Having someone to hold him accountable for his actions is what Cousins has been lacking in Sacramento. The Kings have been in a constant state of rebuilding ever since Cousins entered the league and have failed to create the right environment to contain his emotions.
Reuniting with Thomas could help put Cousins back on the right track, but this responsibility wouldn’t be all on the star point guard. This Celtics team is a cohesive unit that has added another star in Al Horford, who comes with a reputation of an unselfish player who puts the team first. Is there a better example than that for Cousins to follow?
While the Kings have cycled through coaches on an annual basis, the Celtics have a long-term plan mapped out under Brad Stevens, who has been praised as one of the best young coaches in the game. Sacramento has hands-down the most dysfunctional front office in the NBA, while Boston offers stability under the guidance of their leadership, from the owners down to Danny Ainge and the coaching staff.
Cousins has a bad reputation for being a malcontent, but his outbursts stem from the frustration of constantly losing for a franchise that lacks direction. The Kings have had a losing record in every season that Cousins has been in the league, topping out at 33 wins last year. Losing is all he has known since he was drafted, but that would all change with a move to Boston, where the 17 banners hanging from the rafters serve as a daily reminder of the winning culture this franchise is built on.
A trade to Boston would give Cousins the opportunity to play for a contending team heading to the postseason for the first time in his career. We’ve seen how productive he can be when he’s not even fully engaged, going through the motions for a perennial bottom-feeder. What would his ceiling be if he were sparked by a winning culture supported by stable leadership?
We can’t truly know the answer to that without ever having seen Cousins in an environment remotely close to that at the NBA level. What we do know is that you need stars to win in this league, and Cousins is a star. The Celtics have made tremendous progress to reclaim a spot among the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, but they remain a step below the level that will bring them banner 18. Cousins could be the missing piece that puts them over the top, and with leaders like Thomas around to keep him in line, it’s worth rolling the dice on him.