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-SteinMalachi RichardsonSkal LabissiereGeorgios 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.

Watch Stephen Curry’s mother Sonya hit underhand half-court shot

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sonya Curry wins the game of H-O-R-S-E.

It’s all things Curry at All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Father Dell Demps has his number hanging from the rafters in the Spectrum Center (and is now the Hornets’ broadcast color commentator). Stephen Curry is coming home and will play in the big game, his brother Seth Curry will go up against him in the three-point contest.

And the shot of the weekend may go to Sonya Curry, who drained an underhand half-courter to win a family shootout at the unveiling of a refurbished at a community center in Charlotte during All-Star weekend.

Sonya may have the shot of the weekend. I’d say no way Stephen can hit that shot, but I think we all know better.

 

Russell Westbrook doesn’t sound enthused about being All-Star teammate of Joel Embiid

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CHARLOTTE – Is Russell Westbrook cool with Joel Embiid? “F— no,” Westbrook famously said.

Embiid committed a hard foul on Westbrook in the Thunder’s win over the 76ers last month, and Westbrook wasn’t letting it go.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he wanted to pick both players in the All-Star draft, help them resolve their conflict. Instead, Westbrook and Embiid both wound up on LeBron James‘ All-Star team.

Rob Perez of The Action Network:

Embiid:

I don’t care. To me, the whole situation is fine. Who cares? I’m willing to do whatever, but when we get on the court as opponents, I don’t care. I don’t like him. I don’t like anybody, anybody else. But if we’re on the same team, I’m willing to work it out.

Westbrook:

Next question, champ.

A couple years ago, Westbrook-Kevin Durant was the big intra-All-Star-team rivalry. But they still connected on an alley-oop during the game.

I bet Westbrook and Embiid will connect just fine on the court tomorrow. Still, I’ll be watching those two closely.

Anthony Davis: “I never said Boston wasn’t on my list”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If anyone came into All-Star weekend expecting some clarity on Anthony Davis’ situation and where he will play next, they came away sadly disappointed.

Saturday, Davis made things even murkier by throwing the door open to more possiblities.

First, Davis was asked about the leaked list of his preferred destinations — Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, Clippers — and if that was accurate.

“That list that came out, it’s between my agent and the Pelicans,” Davis said, but then added:

“It’s true.”

That list never included Boston, which now is one of the front-runners to be able to trade for him.

“They are on my list, I never said Boston wasn’t on my list,” Davis said.

So, is Boston on your list?

“I never said they wasn’t on my list,” he reiterated.

It went around like that in a circle for a while. When asked about the Knicks being on his list specifically he praised them.

“It’s a great franchise. Playing in, obviously, the Garden, the city,” Davis said, but then he pivoted to a theme he stuck with all day. “But Milwaukee was on that list too. It doesn’t matter about big market, small market. It’s about winning for me.”

Later, on NBA TV, Davis said all 29 other NBA teams were on his list, which felt like him trying to cover himself after his earlier comments. Rather than coming into media day Saturday with a prepared set answer for the inevitable trade questions, Davis seemed to wing it. He was open, but also did muddied the waters.

“I’m just keeping it real, to be honest,” Davis said. “I knew that’s all you guys (the assembled media) wanted to talk about. I just stated how I feel, stated my intentions, and we’ll go on from there.”

One thing Davis was clear about, saying it multiple times through the day, was that winning was his priority — over market size, money, or anything else.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to get to play the game, I want to be able to win. No matter where it is. I have no preferred destination,” Davis said. “I just felt it was time for me to move forward, take charge of my career, and try to win.”

That winning wasn’t happening in New Orleans, which is why a few weeks before the trade deadline his agent, Rich Paul, reached out to the Pelicans, told them Davis would not re-sign with the team and gave them a list of preferred destinations. Paul then leaked the trade request to the media, which both got Davis fined and turned the entire thing into a full-on circus.

Every move Davis makes now is scrutinized as media and fans try to read the tea leaves of his intentions. He’s also been booed by his hometown fans, the first real negativity he has faced in his career.

“That doesn’t bother me,” Davis said. “I have a great team around me making sure I’m fine, always checking on me, there to support me. There’s only a handful of people whose opinions matter to me.”

He also just avoids NBA Twitter.

“The biggest thing, especially nowadays, is social media. I stay off social media, nobody’s opinion (there) matters to me,” Davis said.

The scrutiny even extends to All-Star weekend in Charlotte. For Sunday’s game, LeBron James drafted a team full of potential free agents — Davis, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard — which led to jokes even on the All-Star draft show about tampering. How much are the players talking about their futures with each other?

“Zero,” Davis said. “All that tampering stuff that comes out in the media, nobody really talks about that. At least not to me… When I’m around we talk about games more than anything. We talk about how it’s hard to play in Denver, the air up there, things like that.”

Davis said his plan is to play in the All-Star Game despite leaving the last game before the break with what has been diagnosed as a shoulder contusion, although he will see how he feels on Sunday.

Beyond that, the plan the rest of the season is much the same.

“My intent is to play, to continue to play. And that’s it…

“My job is to play these final 20-something games in New Orleans, then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Davis said.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.