Product of surroundings: The Davis and Cousins dilemma
After yet another loss Saturday night, a 126-99 defeat to a much-improved-yet-still-pretty-average Los Angeles Lakers team, the New Orleans Pelicans fall to 1-9 and the worst record in the NBA.
In that game, superstar big man Anthony Davis scored 34 points in 35 minutes, on 50% shooting. He did his thing. He always does his thing. But no other starter scored more than seven. No other starter did their thing. No other starter ever does their thing.
The only significant absences the Pelicans have right now are starting point guard Jrue Holiday, who is not yet back from personal absence relating to his wife’s health, and swingman Tyreke Evans, who continues to rehabilitate his knee. Both are significant absences and proven quality players. But even with that, this is pretty much the team that the Pelicans are running with.
They just haven’t built a good one.
In the offseason, New Orleans let Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson walk in free agency to the Houston Rockets. The Holiday/Gordon/Evans/Anderson/Davis quintet of the past three years should have been an offensively potent and versatile unit – however, due to endless injuries and a lack of cohesion (none are selfish players, necessarily, but none of the backcourt three do enough without the ball in their hands), the potential was never realised. It was time to let it go.
Gordon and Anderson, however, were barely replaced. The supporting cast around Davis is pretty ramshackle, not especially cohesive and with a serious talent deficit. $100 million was spent on four players, and yet there is not a starting calibre player to be found amongst them.
Big money free agent Solomon Hill (four years, $52 million from Indiana) is a fine eighth man, a good sized, good disciplined wing man who does nothing especially well but everything fairly competently, like a young Adrian Griffin with slightly better three-point range.
But Hill came into this season off of the back of only 4.2 points per game and a 12.2 PER, both career highs. Nothing suggested he was fit for suddenly becoming a 30-minute per game starting small forward – indeed, everything suggested he was instead fit for the role he had just given up, that of a bench player who doesn’t rock the boat. Hill is now struggling, thrust into a role demanding of greater talent than he possesses, and his 31% shooting speaks to the problems.
Similarly, Langston Galloway (two years, $10.6 million from New York), Tim Frazier (two years, $4.1 million, re-signed) and E’Twaun Moore (four years, $34 million from Chicago) have been asked to step up in the absence of Holiday. All three are good little guards who fit roles. The ultra-little Frazier makes plays out of the pick-and- roll, finds Davis regularly, moves it around, knifes through the lane where he can and hits some floaters of his own, while Moore and Galloway did well last year as backup guards capable of scoring, adequate point guard play, timely driving and sufficient defence. However, Holiday is the starting point guard, and lottery pick Buddy Hield will be the starting shooting guard. The trio were signed as – and, with respect, ideally have the talent level of – backup guards. All three are doing fairly well in stepping up, particularly Frazier, but they currently represent the second, third and fourth best offensive creators on the team, when they should be about fifth, seventh and eighth.
Gordon and Anderson, however, were barely replaced. The supporting cast around Davis is pretty ramshackle, not especially cohesive and with a serious talent deficit.
Up front, Omer Asik is a shell of his former self. In his early Chicago Bulls days under Tom Thibodeau and in his two years spent with the Houston Rockets, Asik was an absolute wall defensively – even if he was underskilled offensively, Asik was always in the right position on the other end, a monster of a man who provided a large obstacle between ball and basket, doing so with acceptable foul rates and some of the league’s best rebounding. However, now 30 and in what should be his prime, Asik has very little impact on the game. As teams increasingly look to stretch the floor, dragging defending big men to the free throw line and beyond, Asik struggles to cope on perimeter defence, while his offensive skill level has regressed rather than developed to leave him now amongst the league’s worst. He is also much less of a deterrent around the rim than he was, and the rebounding rates continue to decline. Lacking talent, often injured and having a crisis of confidence, Asik embodies the Pelicans roster around Davis.
Elsewhere up front, Terrence Jones was a good free agency pick-up on a year minimum salary, but he was available for a reason. The once highly promising Jones lost his spot and his lustre at Houston to Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela, and often benched for Michael Beasley. Whereas he had prior been one of the league’s better young inside/outside power forwards, he became sufficiently surplus to requirements as to be left unrestricted and available for the minimum, and there are reasons for that beyond Capela’s improvements.
Jones is limited, an ineffectual defender these days and an increasingly lackadaisical rebounder who wants to be a stretch big, but who currently lacks the jump shot with which to truly do so. Backup center Alexis Ajinca is off to a particularly slow start, Quincy Pondexter remains injured, Dante Cunningham remains a three-and- D role player with little else to offer, and Cheick Diallo is absolutely not ready to contribute.
And that’s it. That’s the team. That’s what Davis has to work with.
Davis knew what he was getting into when he re-signed with the Pelicans, certainly. He knew the team around him was not particularly good, and (at that time) capped out. He knew attendance would be down, that this was a small market team that had already moved once, that the effects of Katrina were still there, that the Pelicans were always out of the spotlight, and that little existed around him to help propel them to the heights. But never did he really have a choice. Due to the extremely polarising vehicle that is the NBA Draft, Davis never chose to go to New Orleans, and due to the antiquated relic that is restricted free agency, any free agency deal he signed elsewhere would have been matched anyway.
Anthony Davis didn’t choose this situation so much as he was given it, and as he continues to put up 31/11/3 in losses that nobody watches, that is truly a shame.
Davis knew what he was getting into when he re-signed with the Pelicans, certainly. He knew the team around him was not particularly good, and capped out.
A similar situation can be found in the case of DeMarcus Cousins, who this week suffered a great indignity. The part-owner of the Sacramento Kings, Shaquille O’Neal, in his other job as a national TV pundit, called out Cousins, claiming he was “hearing talk” that the Kings, the team Shaq owns a piece of and that Cousins is the best player on, may be “looking to go in a different direction” away from Cousins.
Notwithstanding the fact that this is a pretty terrible breach of protocol by Shaq - there is a small chance that he forgot he was an owner of the Kings and a much bigger chance that he simply didn’t care in his continued attempts to mimic the IDGAF attitude of Charles Barkley – it is not a surprising truth. Cousins has been the Sacramento Kings’ best player in the six plus years that he has been there, but they have not been six good years for the team, cracking the 30 win total only once with last year’s 33-49 effort. Of course Shaq has been hearing such talk. When your team is perennially poor, you should hear talk of all kinds of plans.
Shaquille O’Neal, in his other job as a national TV pundit, called out Cousins, claiming he was “hearing talk” that the Kings, the team Shaq owns a piece of and that Cousins is the best player on, may be “looking to go in a different direction”
The Kings’ myriad problems and discomforts in that time, from the ownership level on down, have been well documented in other places and are not for this space. Rather, this is an exploration of Cousins’s “leadership”, the perceptions surrounding him and it, and how that juxtaposes and commingles with the situation of Anthony Davis.
As Shaq said, Cousins is a hothead. He is an emotional man, particularly when viewed in relative terms to those around him. The NBA is not an ostensibly especially emotional league – for all the love of “heart” and “passion”, we don’t especially take to seeing emotions on the court, except in celebration after the fact – and with that in mind, Cousins looks particularly emotional. Even when compared to the average person, Cousins seems emotional. Overly emotional to many.
However, hotheadedness is often inextricably tied to one’s maturity level. This assumption is quite wrong but remarkably persistent. It is not immature to lose your temper, to feel emotions, to show emotions, and to want to show emotions – you are supposed to feel emotions. There is certainly often a value in not showing them, particularly in a sport where showing them is an instant $5,000 fine and a point to the opposition. But to want to show them, or to struggle to contain them, is very, very normal. Some feel it more than others, yet that is not a sign of maturity, but of personality.
The NBA is not an ostensibly especially emotional league – for all the love of “heart” and “passion”, we don’t especially take to seeing emotions on the court
“Leadership” in sport is often quantified by expressiveness. The number of huddles convened, players-only meetings called, fiery speeches given, the unrelenting stoicism in post-match press conferences. Screaming after dunks is a form of leadership – you lead there with your passion and fire. You can basically be emotional when it’s going well, and must be completely stone-faced and resolute when it’s not, and that’s your leadership template. If you can’t do those things, you can’t lead by example.
To hear it told by Shaq and others, then, this is the problem with Cousins. Cousins doesn’t do that. Cousins scowls, sulks, explodes, yells, and generally feels persecuted. By virtue of the way he plays, Cousins takes and gives a lot of contact, and it frustrates him. What his critics want to see is for him to suppress that frustration, just as Shaq always did when he got fouled. The causative chain seems to be; losing his temper is a sign of emotional immaturity, emotional immaturity cannot constitute good leadership, and as the best player, a lack of leadership will undermine any on-court ability.
It might be true, up to a point. It is certainly a conclusion that can be reached from external perceptions alone, and so with Shaq’s inside knowledge stemming from his ownership role. The causative link, however, breaks down when viewed through the prism of Davis.
Davis is about as calm in his on-court demeanour as can be, and yet he cannot lead his team anywhere either. Neither player here has ever led their team anywhere, nor can they without more help. Kevin Durant won only 20 games without Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden; even with Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder won only 23. Jordan didn’t win without Pippen. LeBron couldn’t do it with Larry Hughes. Kobe needed Shaq or Pau. Etc etc etc.
Screaming after dunks is a form of leadership – you lead there with your passion and fire. You can basically be emotional when it’s going well, and must be completely stone-faced and resolute when it’s not
Right now, with the supporting casts being as they are, neither player will lead their team anywhere any time soon. Not without help. But supposing for a moment, they had adequate help – which one is the better leader? How do we know? And if we don’t know, why do we assume? What does it mean to be a leader?
Leadership, as ever, does not come from ability. You want the best player to be the best leader, because you’re looking up to him anyway, but they aren’t automatically one simply by virtue of being that. Nor is a definition of leadership arrived at purely as a measure of results. The better teams and better players might not be the better leaders – perhaps with better leadership, they could be even better still.
Leadership is certainly more than just on-the-court, skillset matters. But there is a certain degree of honesty required in leadership that must not be taken for granted. Leadership is not platitudes or soundbites. Rather, it is an honest understanding of where the team and its composite parts are at, plus the vision and drive to take it forward. This, again, is not to say that Davis is in any way dishonest. It is instead to say that, in being down on himself and the team, Cousins reflects the truth. His face and his temper speak to a tough few years in basketball’s doldrums – nothing was good around him, yet there was always the narrative that the lack of the franchise’s development was in large part his fault. I’d be angry too.
If leadership is to be done by example, then the hard-working Cousins ought to perhaps be viewed far more highly as a leader than he is. If leadership is hard work, focus, drive, and getting everyone else to want to do the same, then Cousins stands tall. If leadership is saying the right thing all the time, ask someone else. But if it is passion and fire, look to Cousins.
If leadership is overcoming adversity – and while his occasional on-court martyrdom can be grating, having peers, coaches, part-owners and national TV pundits infer that you are a bad guy or a negative influence when all you ever try to do is what is best must surely be excruciatingly difficult to deal with – Cousins should rate a lot higher than he does now. Leadership is not measured by meekly accepting foul calls. Getting frustrated at calls is not a learnt behaviour that everyone else will suddenly start copying. He’s not leading them astray when he does this. The Sacramento Kings are not a litter of puppies.
If leadership is to be done by example, then the hard-working Cousins ought to perhaps be viewed far more highly as a leader than he is
None of this is to say that Davis should receive some form of criticism equitable to that of Cousins. He absolutely should not. It is hard to fathom how Davis could even do much more on the court for his team than he does - better than all bar maybe three players in the world, he is simultaneously the best small forward, power forward and centre on his team, and would probably be the best shooting guard too if needed - and off of it, he has not kicked up any form of stink at the bad teams put around him as best as can be ascertained. He might not have the inspiring soundbites or natural demeanour more befitting of the leaderly stereotype, but he’s 23. It can develop if needed.
Indeed, when his rookie contract was up for extension, Davis signed without fuss, even taking the full five years when he didn’t need to. Even when his team’s lottery status almost certainly cost him a spot on an all-NBA team (and thus an extra $24 million due to the 2011 CBA’s “Rose Rule”), he took it on the chin. Only 23, Davis hasn’t had any of the indiscretions of youth that Cousins has had, doesn’t lose his temper, doesn’t have his demeanour, and thus certainly doesn’t have his reputation.
However, it is hard to know to know what to make of Davis as a leader, because he has had little to lead. His teams, as seen, have not been good. The results, as seen, have not been good. He has done as much as he can on the court, but the miracles end somewhere. Cultural shifts must permeate the entire franchise, and Davis cannot take accountability for that. Nor can he take accountability for the talent dearth. He did his best in that area when he re-signed for five years. The rest is on others.
Cousins, too, has had little to lead. Aside from fits and starts from Rudy Gay (who currently looks to be in a contract year push), he has had no second star, nor more than about two good role players alongside him at any one time. The frustrating thing about Cousins is that, when he loses his temper, everything is about him. When he feels persecuted, it becomes Cousins versus everyone – the refs, the opposition, his own teammates, and his own front office. It’s a dark place, and it’s hard to channel. But it is a far stronger place than being impassive would be. Cousins cares and Cousins tries, and for as long as that is true, he will enhance his talent rather than threaten it.
In Cousins and Davis, two of the NBA’s best are being made irrelevant by the teams they are on. In Cousins’s case, commentators are quick to point at certain aspects of his personality and cite them as reasons why his team is mediocre, but no one can or does do that to Davis, and yet his team is worse. Cousins is derided for a perceived lack of leadership, but an unquantifiable term such as that can and should be delineated from his emotional response. And leadership skills should be separated from results.
If the Kings had a couple of extra ball handlers, a significant upgrade on the Matt Barnes/Omri Casspi pairing and some guards who could shoot, Cousins would all of a sudden look far better as a leader. Similarly, if Anthony Davis’s Pelicans had a supporting cast even as strong as Cousins’s weak one, he would be given a national platform to showcase his ability that one so transcendentally good should be court-ordered to have.
Davis is individually better, but Cousins’s Kings are better, and if we lament the fact that things have been allowed to be so poor around Davis, we ought to give credit to Cousins for the fact that his things are slightly better.
Whether we do this or not, however, let us separate being emotional and being a good leader. You can be both.