The tone of the Sacramento Kings locker room, before Monday's 113-99 loss vs. the Wizards, wasn't about basketball. They were debating whether or not Tupac Shakur possibly faked his own death.
Is there any real wonder why they're falling fast while the Wizards, with just a seven-man rotation, ran them out of Verizon Center? The lack of a serious tone and focus, when compared to that of respectable teams, has existed ever since DeMarcus Cousins was taken in the lottery behind Kentucky teammate John Wall in 2010.
Marcin Gortat had one of the best games of his career with 27 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.
"It's one of these games where you have to be aggressive and go at a guy like DeMarcus," said Gortat, who also bested Andre Drummond in a win vs. the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 21. "I know he's going to go at me so I definitely had to focus and go at him. Try to make him tired, make him work defensively and on the other end, hopefully he's going to be tired."
Cousins, who is supposed to be a better talent and often gushed over in what-if scenarios in reference to joining the Wizards someday, couldn't make it past half-court most of the time, took contested shots over the Polish big man and missed 14 of 22 shots.
"He ran all night long. Four or five layups just by outrunning (Cousins). That’s what he did consistently all night," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said of Gortat, who made all of his first six shots and ended 12 of 19. "He didn’t get a layup every time he did it but he made Cousins run up and down the floor, made him work at the other end. He’s a load to deal with. March did a heck of a job in his movement, activity from his offensive standpoint."
The Kings (11-17) are a mess defensively. Their coverages were so confusing that Jared Dudley, Garrett Temple, John Wall and Ramon Sessions couldn't really answer what they were doing. They did a lot of switching but without much though of the mismatches they created for themselves.
"They're one of those teams that switch a lot of stuff. They were doing different schemes," said Sessions, who was traded from Sacramento during the 2014-15 season. "I can't sit here and tell you one exact thing they were doing. I think they went to a zone at one point."
The Kings never made much of an effort to run out on three-point shooters, which is why Kelly Oubre was 2-for-2, Temple 5 of 10, Kris Humphries 3 of 3 and Dudley 3 of 5. It appeared that their only strategy was to collapse on Wall with double-and-triple teams on his drives and allow the Wizards to shoot uncontested. Driving lanes were clear.
"He did a great job of when they missed shots or when they made shots, or Cousins was getting shots, he was able to outrun him and beat him down the floor," Wall said of Gortat. "Guys were so worried locking into me that guys like Garrett Temple and Dudley had an opportunity to get a lot of easy layups.
"We've told Marcin, the more you screen, the more you get yourself open. Sometimes we're going to get up and make the shots early on but at times guys are going to start helping and you get easy layups. He's got to understand when I penetrate to the basket he's going to get the ball most of the time or it's going to be our wing players getting kick-out threes because guys collapse. He was able to finish. He was being aggressive, trying to dunk the ball more than he has in the past. That's when he gets his nickname, The Polish Hammer, back."
For his part, Cousins was in no-man's land. He sagged too far back on the pick-and-roll plays. And even when the Kings made shots, Cousins, clearly more skilled and with potential that goes through the roof, was no match in keeping up with Gortat who actually is the better athlete.
"That's our game plan always. Gortat, that's what he does best is run," Dudley said. "Get the ball out but on this team they're great offensively but defensively they turn their heads.
"You have somebody like Rudy (Gay) who's playing power forward for the first time. You have a team that don't really have any great defensive players. I don't know what their situation is, but I'll take it all day. You got to credit John. John puts a lot a pressure, he's coming at you 100 miles an hour, puts you on your heels. Gortat was rolling, scoring so much so now you put the guy who's supposed to defend the roll in a bind. Do you sit (back)? Do you guard Gortat? He hit the pick-and-pop, he had the rolls. The only thing he did (wrong) is he missed a couple dunks. Besides that when you have that rolling it's very tough to defend us."
It's not all Cousins' fault, of course, but like Wall he's his team's franchise player. He's not a bad guy and hasn't gotten into any off-the-court trouble. But he's the centerpiece that everything has been built around for better or worse. As Wall will easily admit about himself, when he's not showing the requisite effort defensively, the other four players on the court with him tend to follow suit. It's a negative chain reaction and that responsibility for Cousins comes with the four-year, $62 million contract he signed in 2013.
Cousins, who has quality players around him in Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli, could benefit from tough love. That method has caused tension between Wittman and Gortat at times, but in the end he responds.
Wittman would lay his team out publicly (and rightly so) if they play the way the Kings did Monday after showing such a blase attitude in the locker room before a game -- with his star player in the middle of it -- and ruining the momentum they had after beating the Toronto Raptors on Sunday.
It's hard to defend the idea that Cousins, who has never shot better than 50% for his career despite being 6-11 and attempts the same number of shots per game as Stephen Curry, is the type of center that the Wizards ever would need with Wall and Bradley Beal. And in his sixth season, Cousins has never led them to more than 29 wins.
The fact is, Gortat, who earns $12 million per year (about $3.5 million less per year) on a four-year deal worth $60 million, is averaging 13.4 points and 9.3 rebounds on 53% shooting. He takes an average of 10.5 shots per game. Cousins averages 24.3 points and 10.5 rebounds on 42% shooting. He takes 20 shots per game. Granted, Gortat isn't the first option so he'll take fewer shots naturally but the efficiency gap is glaring.
And yes, Gortat is a better defender. That was the case before Monday and will long be the case afterwards. It's not always about talent but fit. Just as Dwight Howard didn't fit with Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers, Cousins would have to undergo a total makeover to fit in D.C. or most locker rooms where more than statistics are valued.
"You know that bothered the (expletive) out of me," Cousins said about Gortat's performance. "He had a great game. I'm following defensive schemes."
That's a thinly veiled shot at Kings coach George Karl. Before him, Paul Westphal was the problem because of his isolation-heavy offensive sets that annoyed Cousins. Then under Keith Smart, after Patrick Patterson was traded from the Houston Rockets he was astounded to see players texting from their phones during film sessions.
This isn't to say Cousins is wrong in his assessments. In his sixth NBA season, he should know there's a better way to address internal problems and help eradicate discontent in the locker room rather than contribute to it. It's just unfortunate for him that Sacramento hasn't done anything to assist with his growth.
It's also unfortunate that under this current model with the Kings, Tupac will be found alive before Cousins can lead this rudderless ship back to the playoffs.