Late Sunday night, the Sacramento Kings dealt away the most talented player in their franchise history. On paper, the assets received in return (rookie SG Buddy Hield, veteran guards Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans, New Orleans’ top 3 protected 2017 1st round pick, and Philadelphia’s 2017 2nd round pick) amount to a slap in the face of Kings fans and pennies on the dollar for a 26 year old, 3 time All-Star who is widely considered one of the top 10 talents in the NBA.
But the story and thinking behind dealing DeMarcus Cousins for that package is so much more complicated than that.
DeMarcus Cousins is by far the most polarizing player to ever put on a Sacramento uniform. On one hand, there is plenty to like about the guy. He played a central role in winning a Gold medal for the US Men’s basketball team in Rio, he is fresh off of his third consecutive All-Star selection, currently leads the Kings in virtually every statistical category, he’s a devastating match-up nightmare for opponents on a nightly basis and is just now entering the prime years of his career. Plus, he’s a saint in the community and has been eternally loyal to the city of Sacramento since the day he was drafted.
On the other hand, he is currently the league leader in technical fouls, yells and complains at referees ad nauseam (routinely destroying the Kings transition defense because he doesn’t get back), has been suspended numerous times, and most importantly, Sacramento hasn’t won with him in seven years and there was little to no sign he was improving in any of those regards.
Since drafting Boogie with the 5th pick in 2010, the Kings have won just 24, 22, 28, 28, 29, and 33 games each year and haven’t come close to the playoffs. One of the most overused clichés used in all of sports is winning cures everything. But there is a lot of truth to it. You can deal with the distractions, suspensions, technical fouls and incessant bitching and moaning if you’re winning games and going to the playoffs, but the success hasn’t been there.
A Multitude of Problems
It would be ridiculous and irresponsible to pin all the blame for losing on Cousins. The talent surrounding DeMarcus has left a lot to be desired, and you’d be hard pressed to find any team who’s drafted worse than the Kings the last six years.
In Cousins’ defense, no franchise has undergone more instability from the top down than the Kings over that time frame either. For three years, DeMarcus and his teammates had to answer questions incessantly about the relocation saga and whether the Kings would remain in Sacramento. There’s the constant hiring and firing of new head coaches, as Boogie has played for six coaches in his seven year career. He’s played under two different ownership groups, plus the front office was reshuffled multiple times as well. All of this just since 2010.
But from the Kings’ perspective, the one place you don’t want to be is in the middle. You want to be either really good or really bad, either firmly in the playoffs every year or with a high selection in the draft with the hopes of adding a franchise-altering talent. With Cousins, there’s a lengthy 7 year sample size that indicates you will win around 30 games, just on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.
The Kings and their instability did no favors for DeMarcus Cousins. But both parties share responsibility in all the losing since Cousins was drafted. In his first few years, Boogie was considered the victim of having the misfortune of landing in Sacramento. An undesirable, desolate wasteland by NBA standards, perennial losers with a revolving door at head coach.
But as his career has played out, the narrative on Cousins has changed. Those who follow the league closely realize he certainly has had a major hand in the Kings’ dysfunction and losing. He earned the title of coach killer as he has clashed with every coach Sacramento has employed over his tenure (with the exception of Mike Malone, that’s squarely on the Kings for inexplicably firing him in 2013).
Fork in the Road
There are the videos of Cousins cursing out reporters, Cousins flipping off and cursing at fans after the victory over the Warriors, and his annual status as league leader in technical fouls and suspensions. Finally, enough was enough. Shortly after that win over the Warriors earlier this month, DeMarcus earned his 15th and 16th technicals against the Bulls and received a mandatory 1 game suspension against the Celtics. The Celtics, currently the #2 seed in the East, were an overwhelming 14 point favorite. But the Kings responded without Cousins with one of their best wins of the season, playing together in a consummate team effort and thrashed Boston 108-92.
This was a fork in the road moment for Kings ownership. Yes, it was just one game, but it showed the Kings brass what life could be like without the mercurial big man, and that culture and team chemistry are perhaps equally as vital as talent to team success.
Now this is not to say that now that the Kings have traded DeMarcus Cousins they are going to be a better team, they’re clearly a much worse roster than they were yesterday. The Kings will struggle to score or do much of anything well the rest of the year without Cousins. There are 25 games remaining for the Kings this season and it would be a small miracle engineered by coach Dave Joerger if they win even 10 of those with the talent remaining in the building. But the Kings are finally thinking big picture, not just a pipe dream to be the 8 seed this year and get obliterated by the Warriors.
In dealing Cousins, Sacramento almost certainly will retain it’s 2017 draft pick from the Bulls (a prior front office dealt away the pick in 2011 with protections, Sacramento keeps the pick if they are in the bottom 10) and they now have the Pelicans pick (which should be around 12-16), and the 76ers 2nd round pick (should be around 33-35) in what is regarded as the strongest draft in five years. The Kings are restocking a war chest of draft picks that was completely bare before yesterday.
DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings had proven to be a bad marriage. He wasn’t going to change in Sacramento, and the Kings were never going to return to the glory years of the early 2000s with him as the franchise player. A divorce was needed. Maybe DeMarcus goes on to New Orleans, makes a deep run in the playoffs and doesn’t rack up the technicals like he did in Sacramento. And maybe the Kings, with this new wealth of draft picks in a loaded draft, grab a future All-Star or two and can finally begin their rebuild and youth movement.
It took a lot of courage for Sacramento to trade DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings will get crucified for the trade, they always do. It is a calculated risk they’re taking, exiting the Cousins roller coaster with all its highs and lows. They’re opting to hit the reset button for a franchise badly in need of a complete rebuild.
A key question is what kind of market was out there for DeMarcus Cousins? Every team in the league knows how skilled he is and every team also knows about his temperament and attitude. A lot of teams were afraid to add Boogie because of what he could do to their harmonious locker room. Did Vlade and the Kings brass truly get the most possible in return for their star player? Or were rival general managers flat out afraid to spend multiple assets on a potentially combustible player who could leave as a free agent just 17 months from now?
From the King’s standpoint, he’s someone else’s problem now.