DeMarcus Cousins is a problem, or at least perceived as one. Going back to his days as a highly touted high-schooler, he’s been called lazy and immature. He’s had his work ethic questioned. And he’s been a convenient scapegoat for anything going wrong around him. During his time in the NBA, that’s meant being accused of alienating teammates, deposing coaches, and playing a major role in the persistent suckiness of the Sacramento Kings. Boogie is highly emotional, petulant at times, and a strong personality who takes up a lot of space, all of which makes him into a target who—while he’s certainly deserved his fair share of criticism—catches more hell than the average player with a bad rep.
All of this is also a backhanded compliment. On the court, Cousins has always been another kind of problem, a rollicking, hell-bent colossus whose sheer power is matched only by his improbable grace. There are few things in professional basketball as terrifying as the sight of Cousins staring down the lane with nothing but imminent destruction in his path. That he’s just as likely to pull up for a feathery three or dash off a quick move on the drive only compounds things for defenders. And if Cousins gets anywhere near the basket, he’s got the kind of touch that virtually guarantees two points. No player in the NBA—not LeBron, not Giannis, not Kevin Durant—feels as inevitable as DeMarcus Cousins.
For most of his career, Cousins has been perceived as a massive talent who couldn’t get out of his own way. Undoubtedly brilliant, Cousins, for one reason or another, simply didn’t win, which made his story skew negative. When it came to the sport’s most basic metric, Cousins came up short. This demanded an explanation, or at the very least, made appreciating him into a secondary concern that had to first answer to a basic question: Can DeMarcus Cousins win?
Cousins got a fresh start when the Kings dealt him to the Pelicans, but a new conversation—“Can Cousins and Anthony Davis contend for a title?”—immediately clouded his arrival. This year, though, Cousins has arrived. He’s cemented himself as one of the league’s main attractions and has a good shot at starting in the All-Star Game. It certainly helps that Cousins has been on his best behavior. But his redemption saga has less to do with him and more to do with us.
Heading into this season, as with the season before, the league was staring down a crisis. The Warriors were prohibitively good. When they’re firing on all cylinders, Golden State’s four, maybe five (Iguodala?), maybe six (if you count Kerr) Hall of Famers are unbeatable. They’re expected to roll to their third championship in four years, and then do so again next season, and the season after that, and the season after that. For teams, players, and fans alike, a championship is the ultimate arbiter of success, and with no other team expected to realistically play for a title, the league’s master narrative was off the table. If the Warriors are a foregone conclusion, why bother watching for seven months? There was every reason to expect diminished fan interest, if not an outright exodus from the sport.
Instead, the opposite happened. So far this season, NBA ratings are up a whopping 32 percent, the highest they’ve been since the league peaked in popularity in 1998. The league’s surging reputation only makes sense if, rather than ruining the league, this Warriors-dominated moment has rewired, or at least highlighted, emergent changes in the how and why we watch. The basic buy-in of fandom—rooting for a team in hopes of seeing them attain ultimate victory—has given way to an appreciation for the sport across the board. Many self-styled “students of the game” view this as their quasi-professional responsibility. For the average fan, though, it’s the individual stars around the league that serve as the touch-point. Talent-wise, the league is extremely top-heavy (ironic, seeing as the Warriors have shut so many future Hall of Famers out of contention). And while there’s no shortage of high-test product, we should give credit where credit is due. The current health of the league is a direct result of the NBA’s marketing strategy, one that however unwittingly has been laying groundwork for nearly a decade. Our expectations of teams and players are no longer the same.
For roughly the the past decade, the league has elevated individual stars and encouraged others to disseminate the sport along these lines. You see evidence of this in its marketing and programming, which has come to feature a full slate of players instead of being centered around a handful of household names in prominent markets. The NBA realized long ago that it had a vested interest in growing player brands. Contrary to the NFL, the NBA takes a laissez-faire stance toward film rights, allowing highlights to be widely circulated. It’s embraced the meme-happy NBA Twitter community, ceding a certain amount of image-crafting to an online hive-mind. And you see it in the long leash afforded to the players themselves. LeBron James isn’t just encouraged to give thoughtful takes on world events, it’s practically expected of him. Russell Westbrook and James Harden aren’t flashy dressers, they’re fashion plates whose outfits warrant pre-game coverage. J. R. Smith and JaVale McGee aren’t cast-offs who saw the light, they’re well-meaning kooks who found a home. The NBA sells stories and personas as much as it does performance; a stance that would have horrified purists a generation ago is now widely accepted. But for all its foresight, at one point the league wanted to be anywhere but here. They were dragged here, kicking and screaming, by arguably the most polarizing figure in NBA history.