SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Shaquille O’Neal is remembered as a four-time NBA champion, former league MVP and one of the most dominant centers in league history.
So it’s hard to recall a time when winning wasn’t always synonymous with the Shaq brand.
Before O’Neal was a three-time NBA Finals MVP during the Los Angeles Lakers’ dominant run from 2000 to 2002, O’Neal was scrutinized and criticized for failing to win.
His Orlando squad was swept in the 1995 NBA Finals by Houston, and his Lakers teams met humiliating postseason losses against Utah and San Antonio.
Now enter DeMarcus Cousins. The ultra-talented Kings center hasn’t carried his team to the playoffs, much less a winning season.
He’s been criticized for his immaturity, outbursts and how he’s treated coaches and teammates in his attempt to be the focal point of the franchise.
O’Neal, formally introduced Tuesday as a new minority owner of the Kings, said he’ll be available to help Cousins reach his potential on the court and transform the Kings back to the franchise that challenged his Lakers teams for championships.
But it’s monitoring Cousins’ development as a player that O’Neal will concentrate on most.
“I understand everything that (Cousins is) going through,” O’Neal said Tuesday. “We have similar backgrounds. I understand everything he’s going through, and I speak his language. That’s why my conversation with him is going to be easy.”
Critics chided O’Neal for making movies and rap albums while his teams weren’t winning titles. O’Neal said it was a conversation with Lakers and Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson that changed his direction and led him to championships.
O’Neal believes helping Cousins’ approach to the game will be vital in seeing him ascend to an elite level.
What was O’Neal’s first impression of Cousins? He doesn’t even remember playing against him as a rookie during O’Neal’s final season in Boston.
“I don’t remember, and that’s because my mindset was different,” O’Neal said. “I’m going to teach him the same mindset. When you step on the court — I don’t like to use the word kill — but I’m trying to kill you; it doesn’t matter who you are. He has that passion and that ferocity, but I don’t want him to be like Dwight Howard with all that laughing and giggling. I want him to be in tear-your-head-off mode.”
O’Neal said he won’t try to revamp Cousins’ style. Both have very different styles of play. O’Neal, 7-foot-1 and 335 pounds, dominated near the rim, combining supreme athleticism with brute strength underneath to overpower defenders.
Cousins, 6-11 and 270 pounds, doesn’t have the same strength as O’Neal, but he can be physical in the paint and also can score from the perimeter.
Previous coaches have bemoaned Cousins’ unwillingness to listen. O’Neal doesn’t foresee that being a problem.
O’Neal said it took someone who had won — Jackson — to get his attention and believes he will reach Cousins.
“He’s seen me do it. He’s seen all the highlights,” O’Neal said. “He understands, so me tweaking his game a little bit, I don’t think he has a problem with that. I told him (Monday) I’m not trying to make you me; I want you to be DeMarcus Cousins. I know little things you can do to raise your game up.”
O’Neal also expects to share a lot of knowledge with the Kings’ young players.
“I always tell people the secret to my success to becoming a great player wasn’t about working out. It was about conversation,” O’Neal said. “So imagine Isaiah (Thomas), who is left-handed, having a conversation with (adviser) Chris Mullin. Chris Mullin was the man. Imagine one of the other guards talking to (minority owner) Mitch Richmond. I’ve got DeMarcus; I’ve got all the other big men. They know I know what I’m talking about. It’s all about conversations.
“You put all those conversations together, and you get one system and we believe in that system, we master that system, we’ll be a hell of a team.”
The Kings are in talks to make a financial commitment to Cousins that would make him the cornerstone of the franchise.
Cousins is eligible for a contract extension for five years worth approximately $80 million, similar to the deal his friend John Wall reached with Washington last month.
“It’s like every negotiation,” Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro said. “We won’t get too specific about it, but it’s incremental, it’s a process, and we’re going through the process.”
The deadline for a deal is Oct. 31.