THE CURIOUS CASE OF DEMARCUS COUSINS
In the 2008 film, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Brad Pitt plays a man who ages backwards, instead of forward, with bizarre consequences. Enigmatic young star Demarcus Cousins, now in his third year in the league, seems to be following a similar aging pattern.
Cousins came into the league with plenty of baggage, but extraordinary talent. In high school, he was suspended for the second half of his sophomore season for an incident involving a physical altercation with a baseball coach/high school bus driver. Nonetheless, he was named to the 2009 McDonald's All-American team his senior year. His college recruitment was a wild one in which Cousins verbally committed to both the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Memphis University before eventually following coach John Calipari to the University of Kentucky where he would average 15.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in his only season in Lexington. Yet, Cousins was a mercenary of sorts, as everyone at Kentucky knew that his college career was going to be one-and-done, and he could often be seen in animated discussion during games with Calipari, much like he used to do with his high school coaches.
Following his lone season at Kentucky, Cousins entered the 2010 NBA Draft. Fairly or unfairly, Cousins was a labeled a malcontent or even the second coming of Ron Artest or Dennis Rodman. The Sacramento Kings, in desperate need to turn around their struggling franchise, took a chance on Cousins with the No. 5 overall pick in the NBA Draft. By all accounts, Cousins was a model citizen during his first year in Sacramento, and he rewarded the team by being named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Yet, the good vibes would be short lived:
* On January 1, 2012, then head coach Paul Westphal sent Cousins home from the Kings' home game against New Orleans, saying that Cousins was "unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team; it cannot be ignored indefinitely."
* On January 5, Westphal was fired from the Kings, leading many to speculate that the head coach's tumultuous relationship with Cousins was a factor in his being replaced.
* Cousins finished the 2011-2012 season second in the NBA with 12 technical fouls, yet averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds for the year and was invited to participate as a member of the USA Select Team, top young players chosen to scrimmage and challenge Team USA in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games.
* After the 12-man Olympic roster was named in July, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo was asked about Cousins and responded: "He needs to mature as a person (and) as a player if he's going to have an outstanding NBA career…He has a lot of growing up to do."
* The problems began in earnest to start the 2012-2012 season as a postgame verbal altercation with Spurs broadcaster Sean Elliott led to a two-game suspension from the NBA after he confronted the former player about statements made during the telecast. The specifics of what was said between the two men remain in dispute, but Cousins clearly erred in his decision bypass team security and leave the team's locker room at Sleep Train Arena and address Elliott directly.
* On Dec. 11, Cousins was suspended one game by the NBA for punching Dallas' OJ Mayo in the groin during a game the previous night.
Finally, the tipping point. On December 21, Cousins engaged in a heated verbal altercation with head coach Keith Smart, one of Cousins' biggest supporters, during halftime. According to reports, nothing physical occurred between the two men, but Cousins reportedly used excessive profanity while expressing his latest frustrations. Cousins was ordered to remain in the locker room for the second half. The following day, the Kings suspended Cousins indefinitely "for unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team," according to Kings GM Geoff Petrie. At the time of the suspension, Cousins led the NBA in technical fouls (seven) but averaged 16.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
The Kings seem to be fed up with Cousins' continuous antics, and they acted swiftly in imposing punishment on Cousins. The standard NBA player's contract contains a "Conduct" clause. In it, the player agrees, "not to do anything that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of the Team or the League." This clause allows a team to terminate a player's contract if the player's conduct and actions do not comport with team's material interests and standards of "honesty, citizenship, and sportsmanship." Teams have also used this clause to impose punishment for player transgressions. Generally, if a player engages in nebulous "conduct detrimental to the team," he can be fined or suspended at the team's discretion, though penalties imposed by a team may be appealed to the league's grievance arbitrator if the financial impact (from a fine and/or lost salary due to a suspension) is $5,000 or greater.
Cousins is hardly the first NBA player suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team." A quick review of other suspensions for similar detrimental conduct shows that most result in a mere one or two game leave of absence for the guilty player. This October, Dallas suspended troubled guard Delonte West indefinitely for his conduct during the preseason. Previously, West was suspended for the first 10 games of the 2010-11 season after pleading guilty to weapons charges, yet West was only suspended one game for the latest incident. Similarly to Cousins' situation, Orlando forward Glen Davis was suspended two games for detrimental conduct over a verbal altercation with a coach during practice in February.
Likely, Cousins' most recent suspension will result in him missing only a few games. Despite his past issues, anything longer would result in a case where the punishment doesn't fit the crime. While this should be welcome news for fantasy owners in the short term, the questions regarding Cousins' immaturity remain. The odds of the latest incident inspiring the Kings to trade Cousins are likely slim, as he is considered the centerpiece of their prolonged rebuilding effort. But according to a person with knowledge of the Kings' plans, "he's not untouchable." There are no guarantees a less patient coach than Keith Smart would be willing to put up with Cousins' antics.
Further complicating matters are the reports that Cousins recently parted ways with his agent of the previous two seasons, and is expected to work with agent Dan Fegan. Fegan is one of the most powerful agents in the NBA and was instrumental in Dwight Howard's exodus from Orlando last summer. The last thing Cousins needs right now is another distraction in his life, but that is exactly what Fegan could bring after this latest incident if agent and player decide Cousins' best opportunity could be outside of Sacramento.
As such, fantasy owners should proceed with caution. Cousins will likely be back in uniform shortly, and as one of the young stars in the league, he offers tremendous upside. However, the next incident will likely result in a much stiffer penalty as it is clear the Kings are becoming increasingly weary of his antics. Risk-adverse fantasy owners should hope he resumes playing at his currently high level, and if he is able to do so, he could certainly be a sell-high candidate. But for those hoping that Cousins can eventually find some maturity to go with his imposing on-court game, it might be wise to catch the Benjamin Button flick because if the movie taught me anything, aging backwards can cause more problems than its worth.
Justin Fielkow is an attorney at the Franklin Law Group in Northfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Justin attended Tulane University Law School and obtained a Certificate in Sports Law. He has been writing for Rotowire since 2008, first while at the University of Wisconsin, then and still as the beat writer for the New Orleans Saints, and now as a featured columnist providing insight twice a month into the legal side of sport with a fantasy spin.