This story appears in the November 21–28, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
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.
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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.
Together, Cousins, George, Wall and Davis—all former lottery picks under 27—embody the pitfalls of a league where success is driven by the concentration of talent. As Cleveland and Golden State seek to become the first pair of teams to face off in three straight Finals, these four franchise players opened the season fighting like hell to push past mediocrity.
All four play in small markets in front of crowds below the league’s average. Their franchises have yielded more name changes (Royals, Bullets, Hornets) than championship parades over the last 50 years, and they were a combined 11–29 at week’s end. Worst of all, barring a blockbuster trade, all four are locked in with their teams until July 2018 at the earliest.
George, one of the league’s premier two-way players, has at least tasted success before, having played in the conference finals as recently as 2014. Since those heights, though, he sustained a broken right leg that cost him most of the 2014–15 season and watched as president Larry Bird dismantled the Pacers’ plodding, defense-first roster in search of a faster, nimbler style.
The early results under new coach Nate McMillan and with new point guard Jeff Teague are a classic case of whack-a-mole: The offense has improved to average, but the defense has slid from third to 28th. That trade-off left George moaning to The Indianapolis Star after a loss to the Hornets that the “lifeless” Pacers displayed “no trust, no chemistry and no belief.” The situation devolved further four days later, when the hapless Sixers snapped their 0–7 start with a win over Indiana.
Although Wall entered this season dreaming of 50 wins, the Wizards remain gridlocked. Scott Brooks, hired at $7 million per season to make over a grumpy locker room and an underperforming offense, hasn’t had an impact. Wall admitted during the off-season that he and Bradley Beal “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court,” and both ball-dominant guards are off to slow shooting starts. Through eight games the Wizards rank 28th in assist rate, proof that a mucky my-turn-your-turn attack needs a better commitment to ball movement.
Wall’s competitiveness is self-evident, and he spoke candidly this month about a perceived lack of “respect” and “recognition” for his abilities. He was cut from USA Basketball’s 2014 World Cup roster and has yet to earn an All-NBA nod. With just two playoff series victories to his name, he understands that his team’s lack of success plays a large role in how he’s perceived. “We gotta take the next step,” Wall said earlier this month, before lapsing back into indignant beefs with referees that prompted his ejections.
No player, not even Cousins, has suffered through a more demoralizing start than Davis. On opening night he had one of the most impressive stat lines in league history—50 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, five steals and four blocks—yet the Pelicans fell to the Nuggets at home. He followed that up with 45 points, eclipsing Michael Jordan’s record for the highest point total through two games over the last 50 years, and lost again. Six more defeats followed, causing the soft-spoken Davis to declare that losing “sucks.” When New Orleans finally claimed its first win, a clearly relieved Davis pulled point guard Tim Frazier’s head to his chest for an extended embrace.
The Pelicans are hoping that this is as bad as it gets. Point guard Jrue Holiday is expected to return soon after attending to his wife while she underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor. Tyreke Evans, a key complementary scorer, is working his way back after knee surgery. Still, it’s hard to generate much optimism when marquee free agents consistently ignore New Orleans, leaving anonymous forward Solomon Hill as last summer’s biggest addition. At 23, and in the first year of a five-year max contract, Davis is finding that his patience and tolerance for losing are only beginning to be tested.
There is one obvious silver lining: Cousins, George, Wall and Davis will earn more than $74 million combined this season. After emerging as franchise players during their four-year rookie contracts, all four signed lucrative long-term extensions. The collective bargaining agreement is designed to strongly encourage young stars to stay with their home teams for up to nine years. In all four cases the system worked.
At least from the team’s perspective. Unfortunately for the players, maximizing their financial security also meant entrusting their prime years to front offices with shaky track records. Cousins has no recourse when Sacramento trots out six coaches in six seasons. George must go along for the ride if Bird trades Kawhi Leonard for George Hill on draft night. Wall must keep plugging if GM Ernie Grunfeld burns millions of dollars assembling one of the league’s least productive benches. And poor Davis must do it all—even more than he already was—when Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and other veterans scurry for greener pastures in free agency.
Even occasional assistance from the NBA hasn’t helped. Shortly before Davis was drafted No. 1 in 2012, the league purchased the New Orleans franchise to stabilize it, later reselling it to a local group to ensure it wouldn’t be relocated. David Stern was so instrumental in brokering the sale of the Kings and a subsequent public-financing agreement for the Golden 1 Center that Sacramento named a street in honor of the former commissioner. Still, there’s not much that Adam Silver can do if GM Vlade Divac inexplicably uses three first-round picks in two years on young centers who will fight for scant playing time behind Cousins.
The problems facing these stranded stars have been made worse by the NBA’s financial boom. Thanks to strong ratings and a $24 billion media rights deal, the league’s salary cap has spiked sharply from $63 million in 2014–15 to $94 million this season. That surge has had major implications for competitive balance, enabling the Warriors to add Durant without making a sacrifice and the Cavaliers to retain their championship core without encountering prohibitive luxury-tax penalties.
Fans of the Kings, Pacers, Wizards and Pelicans could only watch glumly and explore a variety of unappetizing coping mechanisms. They pray that a youngster, like Indiana big man Myles Turner, makes an unexpected leap. They hope that the right mix of underdogs, like Frazier and Solomon Hill in New Orleans, can fill in the gaps. Or, more grimly, they dream up poaching scenarios—like, say, Cousins teaming up with Wall in Washington. The next labor deal may not offer solutions. While the league and the players are reportedly close to a new CBA, the major elements of the current cap framework are expected to carry over.
As for the stranded stars? They’re more stuck than ever, forgotten and passed over in ways big and small. Their teams will play on national television a combined 22 times, the same number as the Knicks. Often, their only reliable source of attention comes from the trade rumor mill. But until the clock starts ticking down to the end of their contracts and the threat of leaving in free agency becomes real, teams logically conclude that hanging on to one star, even an unhappy one, is better for business than starting over from scratch. Meanwhile, any public indication of discontent from the player is immediately answered with loud charges of disloyalty.
The $557 million Golden 1 Center, which opened this fall, is fit to house a winner. The downtown arena has 4K Ultra HD video boards, 34 luxury suites and a plaza level that opens elegantly to the street with eye-catching glass windows. Just off the main entrance, near an $8 million Jeff Koons sculpture, sits an expansive team store where fans can purchase instantly customizable apparel.
Before they are stitched, the purple-and-white Kings jerseys circle near the ceiling on the type of rotating rail system used by dry cleaners. Stop to watch, and the nameless tops form a hypnotizing blur that becomes disorienting. Now imagine seven years of spinning, of faceless supporting cast members, of countless losses. That’s enough to make anyone look blankly into space, in search of a rescue that’s out of his hands.