When Keith Smart took the reins from Paul Westphal almost one year ago, he put his faith, energy and focus in and on DeMarcus Cousins. In retrospect, that's like tossing your stack on Don't Pass at the craps table. Victory might come at the expense of all else. And so it has: Cousins played really well in 2011-12, but has fallen off of the Joy Wagon in 2012-13. That's reportedly caused consternation among players, and this weekend it caused Smart to suspend Cousins after what appears to be a nasty little yelling match between the two.
Smart cast the dice himself. He made a decision to do what Westphal hadn't: let D.M.C. reign. Smart gave Boogie the ball, let him get T'd up left and right without benching him, and watched him reach the highest point in his career. By the end of his first season under Smart, Cousins looked like a near-future All-Star. Maybe a 2012-13 All-Star. That helped Smart get his contract in order. Smart will get paid through 2013-14 precisely because he bet on DeMarcus and in 2011-12, that bet paid. So to a certain extent, now that the bet has stopped paying, this is about Smart taking his losses, licking his wounds and learning.
But in my mind, Smart didn't have much of a choice. Westphal was fired because of the awful losses, because he'd never been able to turn the personnel he lobbied for into anything successful and because he was at loggerheads with Cousins. Smart couldn't change the personnel or guarantee the team would immediately improve. But he could sure tear down the wall between the team and Boogie. And so he did. It was really the only thing he could immediately do to separate himself from Westphal, and while the wins didn't pile up, it worked. Later, Smart further imprinted himself on the team by replacing one of Westphal's vets, small forward John Salmons, with one of Westphal's point guards, Tyreke Evans.
I mean, when you take the wide view, what a crummy situation Smart entered. An awful roster, a top prospect who has little idea how to harness his passion (which often manifests into frustration and anger), no real point guards, few shooters, little athleticism. And now, Smart's forced to take a stand against Cousins -- the halftime benching is the coach's version of a suspension -- and D.M.C. is back before the week is out.
Read how the suspension was lifted, via The Bee's Jason Jones:
In announcing the suspension Saturday, Smart had said he and Petrie were setting a standard for behavior. By Monday morning, no one in the organization seemed to be taking responsibility for the reinstatement, and it wasn't clear when Cousins might return to action.
"He's been reinstated, yes," Smart said after Monday's practice. "That doesn't mean he's playing right away, but he's back around the team and came back (Monday), apologized to the team and to me as well, and we'll just move forward."
In announcing Cousins' reinstatement, the team issued a press release without attributing the decision to Smart, Petrie or the Maloofs, which is not the norm.
Smart and Geoff Petrie collaborated on the initial punishment. No one is responsible for ending that punishment much earlier than seemingly all observers thought was appropriate. It's amazing, innit?
Clearly, Smart isn't responsible for lifting it. That warning that Cousins might be back but not playing is a signal, I think, that the coach isn't on board with bringing D.M.C. out of the corner just yet. We'll see Wednesday night when the starting lineups are announced and when the bench unit comes in. My assumption, based on those quotes, is that Cousins isn't playing Wednesday so long as the Kings are competitive. But we'll see.
In the meantime, we wonder what options Smart has left. Tyreke remains out. Smart's embraced the Isaiah-Jimmer backcourt more, and that's a successful unit for the team. But no matter what happens with Aaron Brooks, Jimmer, Tyreke or any of them, at this point, Smart's fate is aligned with that of Cousins. That's the path he chose -- the only path he could choose -- and now it's up to Boogie to determine where it goes.