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.

Cavaliers officials reportedly joke about LeBron James: ‘The tread is off his tires’

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LeBron James has played more minutes, regular season and playoffs combined, than Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and John Stockton did in their entire careers. Last year alone, in his age-33 season, LeBron played 3,947 minutes – the most by anyone since LeBron in his first season with the Heat and the most by anyone so old since Michael Jordan in his last season with the Bulls.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Cavs officials have privately joked that “the tread is off his tires” as James transitions to L.A. after playing so much last season.

I wonder how much genuine thought is behind that joke. I’d bet some, though I bet it’s also some self-perceived true belief masking a coping mechanism.

If LeBron wanted to sign a five-year max contract last summer, the Cavaliers would’ve jumped to do it. Instead, he left them for the Lakers.

I also wonder how LeBron feels about that joking. He takes his training seriously and has defied typical aging curves.

This is why LeBron was right to leave for Los Angeles if that’s what he wanted to do. For players with power to do something about it – LeBron definitely qualifies – NBA careers are too short to work with people whose vision doesn’t align with theirs. I’m not sure whether this qualifies as a divide, but there was already plenty of acrimony between LeBron and the organization in Cleveland.

That said, the Lakers unconditionally believing in LeBron’s staying power could do them in. He is in his 16th season and will turn 34 in December. He’s not worn down yet, but the clock is ticking.

Jeanie Buss: Phil Jackson fired by Knicks because ‘people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back’

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When he hired Phil Jackson as team president, Knicks owner James Dolan infamously said he was ceding control “willingly and gratefully.”

But New York kept Steve Mills, who had been running the front office, on staff as general manager. Mills also replaced Jackson as president after Jackson got fired.

That served as a lesson for Jeanie Buss, Lakers owner and Jackson’s former fiancée.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

Jeanie had learned from Jackson’s mistakes in New York, where he took that job as the head of the Knicks front office in March of 2014 and was fired three years later after, as she saw it, he fell prey to the internal politics that have plagued that franchise for decades.

“He should’ve made sure (to control) who was surrounding him, because the people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back,” she continued.

Buss doesn’t name Mills or anyone. But it’s hard not to jump to man who was both Jackson’s predecessor and successor. After regaining control, Mills said he tried to steer Jackson in other directions (which, hopefully).

This reflects poorly on Dolan, whose poor leadership has cast a shadow over the organization for years. There is a toxic culture within the Knicks, from the top down.

But it’s not as if Jackson were simply a victim of that culture. With the notable exception of drafting Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson failed miserably in roster-building. He contributed to the malaise with a comedy of incompetence.

Maybe Mills stabbed Jackson in the back. But Jackson was his own problem, anyway.

Report: Knicks, Lakers, Clippers will pursue Kevin Durant in free agency

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The Warriors are reportedly bracing for Kevin Durant to leave in free agency next summer.

Just because of the New York rumors? Maybe. They’re spreading like wildfire.

But the Knicks won’t be the only team chasing Durant.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will take a run at the back-to-back Finals MVP, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, every team wants Durant. But not every team will actually pursue him. Many teams believe they have no chance of signing him and won;t waste their time.

It’s probably not coincidental this early list of suitors includes only the very biggest markets. Durant already plays for the best team in a desirable location. How do you differentiate yourself from Golden State? Maybe by being in an even bigger market.

The Clippers are reportedly the frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard. Could they get Durant, too? That’d be intriguing.

The Lakers are definitely looking to get LeBron James a star teammate, and Durant’s name has at least come up. But Durant is already dogged by the perception he’s just riding the Warriors’ coattails. He wouldn’t change the narrative by joining LeBron.

The Knicks don’t even project to have max cap space, though they’d rush to move Courtney Lee or someone else to get Durant. But this is already the worst team on the list. New York is going to further deplete its assets while remaining appealing to Durant? Hey, it could happen.

Or maybe Durant will look at these teams and see has it pretty good in Golden State.

It could also go the other way. If Durant gives even the slightest indication he’s interested teams not yet planning to pursue him, they’d jump to get into the race. So, don’t assume Warriors, Knicks, Lakers and Clippers is anything more than the preliminary pool of vying teams.

Report: Jimmy Butler trade talks ‘mostly dormant’

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly raised his asking price for Jimmy Butler after the star’s explosive return to practice.

Unsurprisingly, potential trade partners – who already weren’t offering enough to satisfy Minnesota – didn’t rush to meet Thibodeau’s new demands. Not even close, apparently.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

For now, Minnesota’s talks with teams around the NBA are mostly dormant, league sources told The Athletic.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Butler reached an agreement: Minnesota would continue to try to trade Butler, and Butler would be a good teammate and play hard.

But how long will this détente last if the Timberwolves aren’t making progress on a trade?