Potential realized is one of the most satisfying aspects of watching sports. It’s the reason we have embraced Peyton Manning as a national treasure and also why Derrick Rose could end up being the inspiration for a Greek tragedy. What we have seen from DeMarcus Cousins this season already far surpasses the monumental steps he has taken each year since his days at Kentucky, and the Sacramento Kings are a delightful surprise as one of the best teams in the West coming out of the gate. Elsewhere, history repeats itself for LeBron James, and watching Rajon Rondo is always fun – always.
1. DeMarcus Cousins, former tantrum-in-waiting, has led the Kings to a 4-1 start: Cousins has always been the sort of player at whom people, knowledgeable or otherwise, looked and said, “If only he can put all the pieces together, then he’d really be something!” It looks like he has finally opened the puzzle box rather than throwing it out the window and blaming it on his coach. Attitude and mindset are as important as raw skill; Just ask Tracy McGrady. Cousins has always had the latter but, more often than not during his first four seasons, lacked the former. One of the great antidotes to instability in sports is to represent one’s own country, which Cousins did this summer, leading the US to gold at the FIBA World Cup. Being around the best of your peers, not to mention some excellent coaches, provides an opportunity to learn and grow in a way that the NBA regular season cannot. Cousins seems to have honed his leadership skills while refining the things he does best: scoring in the paint and from the midrange, rebounding and wreaking havoc on defense. Through five games, he is averaging 24 points per game in 29 minutes, a positively effervescent rate. He seems to be jelling with his teammates as well:
Boogie is Boogie, but this Boogie may be a different Boogie than the Boogies from seasons past. For that reason, watching the Kings may provide for some of the unexpected fun we had last season with the Phoenix Suns. Keep one eye on Sacramento. Coach Mike Malone’s boys are shining.
2. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 1-3, so PANIC ON THE STREETS OF CLEVELAND: The proxy Princeton offense was supposed to place the King of Cleveland in a perfect position to succeed. His running mates were younger and, arguably, more suited to his style than the gentlemen he left behind in Miami. Kevin Love and LeBron were to dish 75-foot outlet passes to a streaking Kyrie Irving, and David Blatt would be hailed as the latest genius to amalgamate European style with American skill.
Things fall apart. Cleveland has lost to, among other teams, the New York Knickerbockers, who themselves are trying to sort out the intricacies of a new offense, and LeBron James has been seemingly withdrawing from games, taking a less aggressive approach so as to engender an atmosphere of growth for his new Clydesdales. Kyrie Irving scored 31 points against the Jazz in a loss, which was only a loss because Gordon Hayward deemed it so. People criticized him for not recording a single assist, never mind his efficiency (34 points on 23 shots). In a true display of taking things out of context, ESPN ran a story with the headline “LeBron, Irving exchange words” and taking until the second paragraph to mention that “The discussion was seen as healthy, sources said.” Teammates talked to each other in a productive matter. How bizarre.
Remember the 2010-’11 Miami Heat? LeBron coming to Miami in an elaborate, poorly-executed media display, guaranteeing countless championships and delivering two, along with four straight Finals appearances? Okay, great. So the 2010-’11 Miami Heat started off in spectacularly disappointing fashion. They were 9-8 to start the season before holding a players only meeting, after which they rattled off a twelve-game winning streak, holding each of those opponents to under a hundred points. They made the Finals that year and lost before netting two in a row.
Cleveland, basketball media, fans, onlookers who check in every week or so, extraterrestrials learning about basketball for the first time: do not be alarmed. These things take time. LeBron has said it in every press conference, his bland starspeak sounding perfected by rote, but it’s true. The process of putting three legitimate, bona fide offensive stars together while creating a manageable defense essentially on the fly can take time. Most NBA players insist that the instillation of a working team design takes at least a year. That was the case in Miami, and it may be the case in Cleveland. The Cavaliers will figure it out, sooner rather than later, and the Eastern Conference gives Blatt a more than suitable platform on which to experiment ahead of the playoffs.
3. The Boston Celtics are not great, but Rajon Rondo is: I’ve said it before, in conversation and in writing, and it holds true: on any given night, there are only three NBA players who can put up a triple-double, and it wouldn’t be as surprising as anyone else. Those players are LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. Here’s a fun stat: Rondo leads the NBA in triple-doubles over the last five years, with 30, and that includes basically missing a year over parts of the last two seasons.
If Pete Maravich was the NBA’s first jazz artist, Rondo is its Miles Davis. The 28-year-old point guard is the Greek god of passing, a visionary who sees things that would not otherwise exist. He could turn a stone into an eight points per game small forward simply by bouncing the ball off its surface and into the basket. Hell, that might be better than his own jump shot. With trade speculation mounting, how Brad Stevens manages the lineup around Rondo, and what direction the front office chooses to pursue, will have a lot to do with where the Kentucky product chooses to play for the next stage of his career, but for now, just appreciate the excellence Rondo displays night after night.