Making Sense of the DeMarcus Cousins Trade (and the Kings)

Source: https://twitter.com/PelicansNBA

What a weekend for the city of New Orleans.  They hosted the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend festivities on short notice after the NBA moved it from Charlotte, but it’s what happened after the game that topped headlines Monday morning.  Shortly after the game, the New Orleans Pelicans completed a the biggest heist of the past several years to give them the best front court in the NBA by acquiring DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings.  And boom goes the dynamite.

Anytime a superstar such as Cousins gets moved mid season, it creates shockwaves in the league and those who cover it.  However, this seems a bit different, due to the timing and the nature of the trade.  New Orleans sent 2016 number 5 overall pick Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway, and Tyreke Evans along with the Pelicans’ first and second round picks in the 2017 draft in exchange for Cousins and forward Omri Casspi.  The fact that the Kings traded away a franchise player for young and role players left many fans, media, and those in the league absolutely puzzled.  Usually when you trade a guy like Cousins, you can get an established star or starter in the league, and the Kings got neither one of those.

In what has been described as one of the most unbalanced trades in NBA history, alongside others, the Kings seemed to be desperate to move him.  However, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported on Sunday night that Cousins’ agent, Jarinn Akana, was told by Kings brass that there were no trade plans to trade the superstar center.

Kings owner, Vivek Ranadivé, and General Manager, Vlade Divac, seemingly rushed this trade through with questionable judgement.  Just days before the trade, The Ringer’s Chris Vernon interviewed Kings head coach, Dave Joerger, on The Ringer NBA Show.  During the podcast, the two talked of Cousins’ desire to become a Kings legend and have his jersey hang in the rafters of the Kings’ brand new arena.  This makes everything surrounding the timing of statements from Kings ownership, from Cousins, and then the trade itself really just plain weird.  The Kings have mulled trading Cousins for the past couple years, especially this season.  Cousins is due for a new contract after the 2017-18 season, and he has stated his intention of taking the most lucrative contract possible, exceeding $200 million over five years.  The Kings appeared willing to pay Cousins that money, because getting a franchise level superstar like Cousins is very rare (and knowing the Kings’ draft history, there’s not a lot of confidence that they’ll get one anytime soon in the draft).

So why did the Kings move Cousins so abruptly and why did they pull the trigger on this deal so quickly this long before the Thursday deadline?  During the All-Star Game, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Kings were in contact with a couple of teams regarding a Cousins trade.  It was later revealed that those two teams were the Los Angeles Lakers and the Pelicans.  Talks with the Lakers fell through after LA was unwilling to give up rookie Brandon Ingram in the deal, so that left the Pelicans.  There have been rumors of the Boston Celtics being interested, especially with the assets that they’ve stockpiled over the years, but they seemed to be uninterested in Cousins.

Eventually, the Kings decided to accept the Pelicans’ offer and the trade was completed on Monday afternoon.  Breaking down the trade, it’s hard to understand why the Kings would accept so little in return for a superstar in Cousins.  Buddy Hield has potential, but still has a long way to go before he can make a significant impact in the NBA.  Galloway is a backup quality player in the league, and Evans is a rotation player who averages less than 10 points per game this season.  The Pelicans didn’t even have to offer former all-star point guard Jrue Holiday.  The Pelicans’ 2-17 first round pick that they sent to Sacramento is top three protected, which makes no sense from the Kings’ standpoint.  Of course it’s highly unlikely that the Pelicans will land a top three pick in the upcoming draft, but if they miss the playoffs, they’re in the lottery, and anything can happen there.  It’s not worth the risk for the Kings, who are now in full rebuild mode after this trade.

Vlade Divac, left, and Vivek Ranadivé are at the epicenter of yet another Kings’ questionable trade.

After the trade was completed, things just got more bizarre, and of course they did.  This is the Kings, after all.  The rumor surfaced that Vivek thinks extremely highly of Buddy Hield and considers him to be the next Stephen Curry (yes, that one).  The Pelicans reportedly were close to acquiring Sixers big man Jahlil Okafor last week for about the same package, minus Hield.  By the power of deduction, one can assume that Buddy Hield is the difference between Okafor and Cousins, or at least according to the Kings he is.  This isn’t anything against Buddy Hield, but teams don’t normally trade away an established superstar for potential talent.  Maybe Hield becomes a solid starter, maybe he even becomes an all-star, or maybe he never comes to fruition.  And if that happens, the Kings will be wishing they got more for Cousins.

On top of Vivek’s praise for Hield, on Monday Vlade Divac announced that just days earlier he had a better offer in place for Cousins.  This begs the question, why didn’t he pull the trigger on a deal before and settle for this?  Rumors surfaced that the Detroit Pistons offered center Andre Drummond and a first round pick, and the Kings turned that offer down.  Vlade probably had the intentions to wait for other offers up to the Thursday deadline, then choose the best one.  That would make sense, but the Kings still made the trade on a Sunday night, so why did they accept this trade early and not the others?  Perhaps the Pelicans gave the Kings an ultimatum of “now or never” and the Kings felt too pressured to make a deal, alongside their immense confidence in Hield, and hastily accepted the offer.

Also, in a statement announcing the trade, Vlade said that “winning begins with culture and character matters.”  It’s a bit ironic that the Kings can preach about character when they went behind a player and his agent after they told the player that he would not be traded.  Of course Cousins is not without his issues on the court and in the locker room.  He’s not the NBA’s golden boy when it comes to image and roster harmony.  He just became the fastest player to reach 16 technical fouls, warranting a one game suspension.

During that one game, the Kings convincingly defeated the Celtics, a top team in the Eastern Conference.  That Celtics team features Isaiah Thomas, one of the top players this season, a former King who the franchise let walk away in free agency after his rookie contract.  If Cousins can find success in New Orleans, it’ll be another dagger in the heart of Kings fans, who will have to watch yet another former player succeed out of Sacramento.  Perhaps the Kings saw the potential in that Celtics game without a Cousins distraction that led them to strongly pursue a trade.  Still, many will think the Kings could have gotten more in return.

Isaiah Thomas (22) and DeMarcus Cousins were once teammates in Sacramento, until Thomas’ departure in 2014.

How exactly does this trade rank in awful trades in NBA history?  A few comparable trades come to mind.  The Thunder trading MVP frontrunner James Harden for pennies on the dollar, opting to keep Kendrick Perkins in Oklahoma City in favor of Harden.  In defense of that, no one saw Harden becoming what he would eventually become today.  Still, that has become an example of an extremely one-sided return on a trade.  Most people criticized the Memphis Grizzlies for trading away Pau Gasol in his prime to the Lakers, which allowed the Lakers to win two straight titles in 2009 and 2010.  Memphis got the draft rights to Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, who ended up becoming an all-star and one of the top big men in the NBA. However, at the time, that trade was seen as a robbery.  Of course when it comes to bad trades, the Brooklyn Nets’ debacle sits at the top.  In exchange for aging veterans Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry, the Nets sent Boston a few lesser players along with unprotected first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, as well as the right for Boston to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017.  Boston has turned those picks into Jaylen Brown in 2016 and Marcus Smart in 2014, two useful players with potential, and are looking to be favorites to land the top three pick in the 2017 draft.  Meanwhile, the Nets plan never panned out, and they’ve been stuck with an inept roster with no assets to rebuild.

The Kings-Pelicans trade should (and will) be mentioned in the same breath as those previously mentioned trades.  It probably won’t turn out to be as crippling as the Boston-Brooklyn trade, but it lies somewhere between the Lakers-Grizzlies and the Thunder-Rockets trades; only time will tell.  If Hield turns out to be a pretty valuable building block, it’ll look more like the Gasol trade, but if Cousins finds immense success in New Orleans and Hield never reaches his potential, this will look a lot like the Harden trade that the Thunder made.

Cousins and new teammate Anthony Davis make up potentially one of the most formidable front courts in league history.

So what’s next for both franchises?  The Pelicans have a scary front court duo that will be tough to stop.  They are 2.5 games back of the eighth seed in the playoffs, which will likely result in a first round matchup with the Golden State Warriors.  The seventh seed seems a bit out of reach, as they are currently nine games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the eighth seed seems very likely at this point.  The Pelicans will create matchup nightmares for many opponents, and if Cousins can play well with Anthony Davis, this team won’t be going away any time soon.  Guard depth will be something to watch out for, and perhaps they will not be done making moves before the Thursday deadline.

On the other side, the Kings are in full rebuild mode.  The Kings have a top 10 protected draft pick this season, alongside the Pelicans’ first rounder, should it fall outside the top three.  In a loaded draft, the Kings will be looking to get some talent in the draft this year and trying to build around young players.  The Kings also may be looking to deal Darren Collison before the deadline approaches.

The already loaded Western Conference somehow got even better after this trade with the addition of Cousins to the Pelicans.  This was a league-altering trade, and while the winner of the trade seems to already be set in stone, it is still yet to be seen how much the Pelicans won this trade.  For now, there’s a new duo to be reckoned with in the NBA, and on paper they look pretty damn dangerous.

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