NBefore DeMarcus Cousins makes his All-Star debut, his Kings teammates catch their breaths, and George Karl moves into his office at Sleep Train Arena, the questions have gone global.
How is this pairing of Cousins and Karl going to play out? Can it survive? Can it thrive? There is only so much air in any building, and the fifth-year center and his fifth NBA coach both have big, booming personalities with strong wills and immense skills.
Fans would be advised to set the DVR. Or buy season tickets. Drama is coming to a soon-to-be-constructed arena near you. The Kings’ dumpy old arena will close in 2016 with a bang, not with a whimper. In the interim, there will be arguments, emotional outbursts, locker-room drama, trades and threats of trades. There will be losing streaks and backward steps. There will be bumps and bruised egos and several servings of humility.
The old boss can’t be the same boss. Principal owner Vivek Ranadive has to empower his coach and entrust his basketball executives to make prudent and necessary decisions. General manager Pete D’Alessandro has to upgrade the roster and persuade his owner to curb his meddlesome urges. And Karl, who has coached his last three teams (Seattle, Milwaukee, Denver) to the playoffs in 20 of 21 years, who transforms slugs into sprinters, just has to be George.
That’s almost enough. Once the chatter about the causes of Michael Malone’s dismissal, the awkward timing of Tyrone Corbin’s exit and the degree of influence of Cousins’ agents in coaching decisions subsides, the Kings can gradually, perhaps even grudgingly, transition toward changing and winning.
That won’t happen this season. That possibility ended when Malone was fired and his confused players waged a veiled protest. Teams that refuse to compete never win, and the Kings, who went 7-21 under Corbin, all but forced management to make a pre-emptive strike instead of putting off its coaching search until the offseason.
But about that other element, the Cousins element. Does he buy into Karl or force his way out of town?
It has been said many times that Cousins is a load, and five coaches are a handful. If the 6-foot-11 veteran isn’t receptive to a demanding coach with a Hall of Fame portfolio, this pairing has zero chance of succeeding.
So here’s a prediction: The Cousins/Karl dynamic will be fascinating and fruitful. Karl is a winner. Cousins desperately wants to win. Together, they will initiate the return of the earplugs, the cowbells, the foot-stomping, the spontaneous, prolonged cheering.
Former Seattle star Gary Payton agrees. The Hall of Fame guard, who led Karl’s SuperSonics to the 1996 NBA Finals, envisions the Karl-Cousins union as this generation’s version of Karl-Payton.
“George was the best coach I ever played for,” said Payton, who also played for Phil Jackson, Stan Van Gundy and K.C. Jones, among others. “I love the man. People don’t understand. When I got to Seattle, I had two bad years. K.C. Jones had coached (Larry) Bird, (Kevin) McHale and (Robert) Parish in Boston, and he just let them play. But I was a kid. I needed to learn the game.
“George got hired and forced me to understand the game, to see the game. And we got into it a lot. We both have strong personalities. But he wasn’t a coach with a big ego. He would yell at me, force me to work harder, train harder, and yet would invite me to dinner, or just into his office to talk. He would say, ‘You get better; we all get better.’ Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, we all learned.”
Payton predicts Karl will trap, double-team and force turnovers to create transition opportunities. In half-court sets, he said his former coach will move the gifted Cousins around the low and high post and ask him to move the ball before double and triple teams converge.
“He will teach DeMarcus to go early, go fast against one-on-one coverage,” Payton said, “and then move the ball and re-post because defenses always react more slowly than the ball. I look at the two of them, George and DeMarcus, and, man, I think they will be great together.”
Cousins, whose only glaring weaknesses are a tendency to dribble through double or triple teams and force passes in an offense that has lacked spacing and movement, is not there yet. The effect of Malone’s abrupt firing lingers, and Cousins remains wary, if somewhat curious, about his new coach, whom he has not met or talked to.
As he walked down the narrow hallways of a Manhattan hotel midafternoon Thursday, participating in broadcast interviews and preparing for an early-evening taping of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the Kings’ best player was subdued and thoughtful, yet noncommital.
“The only feeling I had about whole thing … I just wanted a decision to be made,” Cousins said. “There was too much talk going around, and it was pretty overwhelming for all of us. It was extremely crazy, a real roller coaster. We just wanted to get past that. The rest will really help. Let’s just see how it goes.”