The NBA’s Stranded Superstars

Written by Ben Golliver at

The whistle blew to signal a timeout, and yet DeMarcus Cousins stood statue-still near the free throw line in Sacramento’s palatial new Golden 1 Center, as if hoping a tractor beam would lock on his coordinates and take him… anywhere, rather than grapple with the closing minutes of another loss to the Lakers. The same Lakers who dealt the Kings their most heartbreaking defeat, in the 2002 conference finals, and are already bouncing with promise in the first season of the post-Kobe era.

As Sacramento finished squandering a 19-point lead and Cousins’s 28-point, nine-rebound effort, the league’s most-talented center could no longer contain his exasperation. At the buzzer he beelined for Los Angeles power forward Julius Randle to air his grievances, only to be met by a united front of Lakers, many of whom laughed in his face. Cousins then retreated to the Kings’ locker room, where his gaze turned glassy. Beat reporters whispered that he would probably be too angry to take questions. Coaxed into talking, he bemoaned the opposition’s overly physical treatment and his own team’s “tender” play, knowing full well that he had voiced the same sentiments many times before.

Moments later TNT commentator Shaquille O’Neal, who owns a small stake in the Kings, blamed Cousins for their stagnation, calling him a “hothead” who lacks “great leadership qualities.” O’Neal even hinted that the franchise “may be looking to go in a different direction.” The Hall of Fame center never points out the guards’ soft entry passes and lackadaisical transition defense, management’s atrocious draft record—or the fact that Sacramento’s 10-year playoff drought predates Cousins. Even to Shaq, who spent his 20s targeted by critics, Cousins is the franchise’s major problem, and his ouster the only solution.

This cycle of losing, frustration and finger-pointing continued the next night in Portland. Despite repeated hacking, Cousins put up 33 points and grabbed nine rebounds, uncorking three-pointers, brilliant dribble drives and ferocious dunks. Then on the final play, small forward Rudy Gay ignored his repeated pleas for a pass and instead hoisted a contested jumper that rimmed out. Cousins stomped off the court, dejected if not disgusted, as the 122–120 overtime defeat dropped the Kings to 4–7.

Elsewhere, other members of the NBA elite are enjoying predictably rosy seasons. LeBron James had a triple double on opening night and led the Cavaliers to a 6–0 start. Steph Curry set an NBA record by hitting 13 three-pointers. Blake Griffin, looking fully recovered from a leg injury and a damaged reputation, teamed with Chris Paul to guide the Clippers to a franchise-best 9–1 start.

But there is another group of marooned All-Stars who, like Cousins, spent the first two weeks of the season kicking and screaming for help. In Indiana, wing Paul George was ejected and fined for booting a basketball into the stands, where it smacked a woman in the face. In Washington, point guard John Wall was tossed from back-to-back games for bumping a ref and dragging Celtics guard Marcus Smart to the ground. And in New Orleans, power forward Anthony Davis put up record numbers, but still endured an 0–8 start that has his playoff hopes on life support.

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