DeMarcus Cousins trade leaves Kings in the lurch

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Two weeks ago, Kings general manager Vlade Divac said, “We’re not trading DeMarcus.”

Yesterday, the Kings reportedly agreed to trade DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans.

What changed between?

After leading Sacramento to a win over the Warriors — of whom Kings owner Vivek Ranadive used to own a share and seemingly still idolizes — Cousins flipped the double bird and shouted, “F— Golden State” at a Warriors fan, which drew a $25,000 fine.  Cousins exchanged shoves with a Bulls assistant coach. Later in the same game, he received a suspension-triggering 16th technical foul more quickly than anyone ever. The Kings beat the Celtics by 16 without Cousins, and Sacramento point guard Darren Collison said, “I thought we did an unbelievable job of really coming together. Nobody was complaining about the calls or anything that was going on.” Then, Cousins declared, “I can’t be myself.”

But Cousins has antagonized the opposing side, gotten fined, tangled with coaches (though usually his own), gotten suspended (including for too many technical fouls), ruffled his teammates’ feathers and remained headstrong numerous times already. And Sacramento still sounded prepared to offer him a designated-veteran-player contract extension, which projects to be worth $209 million over five years.

All in all, it seemed like a typical couple weeks for Cousins and the Kings.

Yet, Sacramento now diverges on a new path with its jaw-dropping trade of Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans for a first-round pick, second-round pick, Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway. That’s an astonishingly low return for Cousins, a 26-year-old who has made three straight All-Star games and two straight All-NBA second teams.

The return and the Kings’ willingness to deal Cousins at all speaks to his reputation.

Cousins put Sacramento on his back, averaging 27.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game this season. But he also contributed to a toxic environment that trickled onto the court. Even with Cousins’ superstar production, the Kings are just 24-33, which put them on pace for their best record since drafting him.

The best indicator of Cousins’ negative influence? The team that knew him best just traded him for that package.

Sacramento is banking on fixing its culture now that he’s gone.

The trick: Rebuilding with Ranadive, a talent deficit, a starving fan base. It’ll be something if the Kings pull it off.

Nothing excuses some of Cousins’ behavior over the years, but Sacramento’s problems run deeper than him. They start at the top with Ranadive, who’s not going anywhere. There might be more locker-room tranquility sans Cousins, but Ranadive will have to learn when and when not to intervene. Until then, it’ll be hard to get anything off the ground.

The best owners put the best people around them. Ranadive installed Vlade Divac to helm the front office.

Divac is learning on the job how to be a general manager, and his early miscues dug the Kings’ hole deeper. Trading Cousins’ opens far more possibilities than paying him $48 million when he’s 32 would have. But there are still several steps between Sacramento and a desirable team.

The Pelicans’ first-rounder is reportedly top-three protected this year, which limits Sacramento’s upside. Likewise, the Kings’ own first-rounder this year can’t become the No. 1 pick. First, they must land a pick in the top 10 to avoid conveying it to the Bulls, which seems reasonably likely without Cousins. But the 76ers hold swap rights on a top-10 Sacramento pick, which could wipe out any lottery luck.

Those picks — plus the Kings’ own 2017 second-rounder and 76ers’ 2017 second-rounder, acquired from New Orleans in the Cousins deal — will join Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis and the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic as centerpieces in this new direction.

Hield was the unlikely cog in this trade, the bridge between Sacramento and a Pelicans team that lacked assets around Anthony Davis. The Kings were reportedly enamored with Hield entering last year’s draft. They traded down from No. 8 once New Orleans took him No. 6.

Hield’s specialty is outside shooting, though he’s only one percentage point above league average on 3-pointers. To be fair, at least that’s on a high volume of attempts. But Hield shouldn’t get much benefit of the doubt overall for lackluster production. Already 23, he’s older than Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has already signed his rookie-scale contract extension, and every 2016 first-rounder save Denzel Valentine.

Sacramento badly needs to add talent in the loaded 2017 draft, which is far from automatic given the constraints.

If Cousins was that harmful in the locker room, maybe the Kings will win more without him and send their pick to Chicago anyway. If New Orleans misses the playoffs and gets its digits pulled in the lottery, that pick won’t convey this year. Sacramento could wind up no 2017 first-round picks.

More likely, the Kings keep their own pick as they spend the rest of the season working their way up the top 10 (though, because of Philadelphia’s swap rights, they can’t climb too high in the draft) and get a middle-of-first-rounder from the Pelicans, who win more with Cousins and Davis.

There’s still a lot of potential downside in just this aspect of the trade, considering Sacramento dealt a star.

More troublingly, the Kings must have urgency in a turnaround. Waiting until 2018 to add major talent would be devastating, because they owe the 76ers an unprotected 2019 first-rounder. Remaining bad then and sending Philadelphia a high pick would stifle Sacramento into a Nets-lite situation.

 

When will Ranadive feel fans losing patience, and what will he do about it?

The Kings have gone a decade without reaching the playoffs, the NBA’s second-longest drought behind only the Timberwolves.

Prior to this trade, FiveThirtyEight gave Sacramento a 16% chance of reaching the playoffs, which about seemed to match the eye test. That’s not great, but it’s not nothing — especially for a small-market franchise stuck in the lottery for 10 years. This team had really begun to compete, even it lacked the talent to consistently win.

Now the Kings have less talent and less direction but, more importantly to them, less DeMarcus Cousins. We’ll finally see whether that cures what ails them.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

NBA COVID-19
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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.