By Jesse Blanchard
On Sunday night, the Sacramento Kings finally rid themselves of their headache, trading DeMarcus Cousins, along with Omri Casspi, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Buddy Hield, the Pelicans’ 2017 first round pick and the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2017 second round pick.
The disease, however, still remains within the Kings’ organization.
DeMarcus Cousins may have been difficult to deal with, but a headache is still merely a symptom—the body’s reaction to warn that something within it isn’t operating normally—of a much larger disease.
Perhaps alleviating the symptom will provide enough relief and clarity to diagnose the problems and move forward with a better picture. But any hope for building successful foundations likely requires excising owner Vivek Ranadive; or, at least, putting him into remission.
The return on Cousins was so meek, in part, because the combination of the DeMarcus’ own volatility coupled with upcoming unrestricted free agency following next season. Given the package the Kings got, the Boston Celtics, the team flushest with trade assets, could have easily topped the Pelicans’ offer without cashing in all of their best trade chips.
In retrospect, the Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets or any number of teams either young and on the verge of playoff contention, or established and looking for one final leap, could have topped the return the Kings got without gutting their core. And yet, Cousins is going to New Orleans.
Perhaps the Celtics, led by Cousins’ former teammate in Isaiah Thomas, had enough intel from their All-Star to make them skittish about pulling the trigger on a deal. That would be fair. But Thomas himself wasn’t a valuable commodity in the NBA before leaving moribund organizations with horrible ownership in Sacramento and Phoenix. It’s hard to evaluate a player’s mindset when working under such conditions.
Sacramento ownership runs the dangerous combination of wanting to be viewed as cutting edge innovative while being completely rigid in their decision-making process.
They’ve quit on personnel and schemes that showed promise, constantly seeking a replacement for Thomas even as he put up All-Star numbers for the Kings or firing Mike Malone, the only head coach who seemed to make progress with Cousins, because neither seemed to fit the vision the organization had despite the sparks of success flickering.
There appears to be an obsession from Ranadive to recreate the Golden State Warriors, trying to force pieces into the equation that simply don’t fit.
Source familiar w/ Kings’ thinking: "Vivek thinks Buddy [Hield] has Steph Curry potential.” Am told that fixation was a key driver in deal.
— Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) February 20, 2017
Whether under the Maloof family or Ranadive’s vision, Cousins never really had a chance to be successful. This is an organization that, in need of shooting and defense on the wings, passed on Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard in favor of Jimmer Fredette and John Salmons.
This is a team that traded a pick and Casspi for J.J. Hickson, only to waive Hickson a few months later. Their lottery picks since drafting Cousins have included Fredette (10), Thomas Robinson (5), Ben McLemore (7), Nik Stauskas (8), Willie Cauley-Stein (6) and last summer’s haul of Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere.
To be fair, Robinson and McLemore were lauded at the time of the draft. Even Stauskas, to a lesser extent, was viewed as a reasonable selection that fit the Kings’ needs. But those players’ failures should be viewed as the Kings’ inability to develop anything as much as they’re viewed as failures of talent evaluation.
It’s fair to question whether a Thompson or Leonard would have developed into what they are now in the wasteland that is Sacramento basketball. Given how quickly the Kings have given up on developmental prospects and head coaches, and Klay and Kawhi’s own humble beginnings, would either of those players have lasted when a Rudy Gay or Rajon Rondo were made available to the team?
The Kings’ front office has been a laughing stock, replete with reports that General Manager Vlade Divac didn’t know some of the most basic nuances of the collective bargaining agreement (via Adrian Wojnarowski):
D’Alessandro left the Kings for a front-office job with the Denver Nuggets two weeks ago. Around the draft, several front-office executives and player agents expressed frustration about dealing with Divac on instances involving the trading and drafting of players. Divac is largely unfamiliar with the collective bargaining and salary-cap rules, causing him to struggle with grasping the machinations of negotiating and completing deals.
Not to mention a trade that cost the Kings Stauskas, an unprotected 2019 first round pick and force them to take the lesser of the two first round picks between themselves and the 76ers this year, provided they don’t lose the pick outright to Chicago if it falls outside the top 10 (which seems unlikely)—all for one-year rentals of Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli.
The entire basketball world has taken pot shots at the Kings’ front office, yet they expect Cousins to dutifully fall in line and pretend everything is perfectly fine?
Basketball players are still human beings and the frustrations of being in incompetent work environments can wear on anyone. Ironically, one need look no further than Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson’s escape from the Pelicans and revitalization with the Houston Rockets to see how a positive work environment can lead to better production.
This is a team that used Cousins’ bout with viral meningitis as an excuse to fire his best coach while Ranadive reportedly pitched playing 4-on-5 on defense, leaving a cherry picker back for easy scores.
Sacramento once had a head coach in Keith Smart who stationed Cousins at the elbows, declaring he wasn’t a post player yet, which fed into Cousins’ worst early habits of settling for jumpers. The Kings once told Cousins they wouldn’t hire Malone’s replacement until the season finished, promptly hired George Karl, then sat back as Karl immediately feuded with Sacramento’s franchise player. It’s an organization that drafted and spent money acquiring center after center, to the point that Cousins tweeted for God to give him strength after Divac spent last summer’s lottery pick to acquire rookie Papagiannis.
It’s an organization that assured Cousins they wouldn’t trade him, then told him to stay in New Orleans during All-Star weekend.
To be frank, given all the Kings have done around Cousins, to not be a head case—to not be something of a headache—should lead to honest questions over a player’s passion or investment in what’s happening on the basketball court. It would be far easier, and more than a little disheartening, to simply collect checks, put up 26 and 12 and never complain. But it wouldn’t be productive.
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That’s not to say Cousins is completely innocent or couldn’t have handled it better. But if your primary concern is with Boogie’s attitude, you’ve either never worked in an absolutely incompetent environment, or didn’t give a damn about your craft when you did.
Cousins is a more than viable building block, if still an admittedly difficult one. The Kings absolutely had to deal Boogie because they’ve proven time and again they’re incapable of working with anything but the most simplistic of tasks and Cousins isn’t that.
That the Pelicans were the team that jumped on the deal, with what they gave up, is both curious for the rest of the NBA and fortunate for New Orleans.
Boston, for instance, should probably feel pressured to get a deal together for Jimmy Butler or a similar player, or pray the Brooklyn Nets’ picks turn into franchise-level players. But the odds of either aren’t exactly favorable. Contention windows are short, precious and require luck and taking advantage of opportunities. Passing on Cousins won’t stall the Celtics, but it’s the kind of move that might prevent something greater from igniting.
For the Pelicans, whatever risks exist are more than offset by how much they needed this deal and how few alternative options they had.
When New Orleans won the rights to Anthony Davis, the possibilities seemed endless. But once a team finally lands a franchise cornerstone, the clock is ticking on a window of fluidity the franchise has to shape the franchise.
The Pelicans went all-in prematurely on the likes of Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday, then doubled-down on those decisions by eschewing any window of flexibility they had. Not everything was their fault. Injuries to Gordon, Anderson and Holiday stunted the team’s development, but the team left itself few outs when the team was at its most malleable.
Cousins resets all of that by opening up new possibilities to General Manager Dell Demps. Pairing Cousins and Davis gives the Pelicans two of the 10 best players in the NBA. Jrue Holiday provides an above average starter from the point guard position with versatility in skill set, defensive ability and role.
In basketball, one player can make all the difference in the world, shifting players and schemes into their proper places in a way that that catalyzes into something remarkable. Three-fifths of the Pelicans’ lineup is now as potent as most NBA teams’ best trios, with enough stylistic differences to provide intrigue against the few teams it doesn’t hold up with in terms of firepower.
Cousins and Davis are an enthralling duo, blending some classic frontcourt values and modern sensibilities and skill sets.
Anthony Davis is a devastatingly efficient player capable of scoring 50 points on any given night, but he’s also done a lot of his damage drawing the defense’s attention with his shooting, length and mobility, then finishing the plays his teammates create against stressed defenses.
DeMarcus Cousins works as more of an on-ball hub, dominating defenses as the point of attack while averaging a career-high 4.9 assists with less than middling talent around him.
Jrue Holiday is capable of facilitating the offense, getting Davis and Cousins the ball in advantageous situations, punishing defenses for sagging off with his 39.3 percent three-point shooting, or attacking the defense head on; all while being a solid defender for the position.
Anything that can shade Davis even slightly further towards the periphery of a defense’s attention can produce devastating results.
Furthermore, the gravity and versatility of the Pelicans’ main trio should allow the front office to hone in and develop the type of specific, limited role players that contribute to most contending teams but struggle elsewhere.
Visions of Cousins and Davis running high-low lobs, or big-to-big pick and rolls equip Head Coach Alvin Gentry with the type of sets most defenses aren’t accustomed to seeing. Staggering their minutes some affords the Pelicans to mask a thin roster until more help arrives.
Defensively, it will take some time for Cousins and Davis to master the chemistry bigs need to pass off assignments and rotation responsibilities. But the natural talent is there to hold up enough on that end to punish teams offensively for going small.
Specifically, the Golden State Warriors should be able to run the Pelicans off the floor, but Head Coach Steve Kerr probably doesn’t want to give Draymond Green and Kevin Durant too many reps battling inside with Cousins or Davis over the course of a first round playoff series for wear-and-tear purposes.
At the very least, it provides an interesting counter to league trends while still complying with enough of them.
The other bit of fortune the Pelicans have backed into is by the Kings trading Cousins, he’s no longer eligible for the $200 million contract as part of the CBA’s new designated player max extension, which will keep Cousins at a great contract value relative to some of his peers.
Meanwhile, the Kings no longer have to tend to Cousins, but they’re far from healthy. Even if they land a star player in the upcoming draft, they’re short a likely top 10 draft pick in their reset timetable, with a track record that suggests they’ll be hard pressed to take advantage of any picks they do have.
Ranadive sees a bit of Stephen Curry-like potential in Buddy Hield. Of course, optimism was high with Fredette. The team would be lucky for Hield to approach J.J. Redick in terms of production and style, considering their comparable rookie seasons.
If Ranadive overinflated Hield’s value in a rigid attempt to try and recreate the Golden State Warriors’ style, this is more than a little problematic.
For the Kings, the headache is gone, but the team is still out of its disease-addled mind.