Sacramento Kings v Detroit Pistons

Once Both Wasted By Their Organisations, Cousins And Davis Can Now Change The West

In prioritising a shift in their culture, did the Sacramento Kings neglect to acquire talent?

The NBA All-Star Game is invariably held the weekend before the NBA trade deadline. In tandem, they make for quite the week.

Anyone can be traded at any time, of course. Such is the business. But rarely do so many players enter an All-Star game with uncertainty as to whether they will still be going home with the same team they just spent the weekend representing.

In the build-up to the game, Chicago Bulls wing Jimmy Butler was rumoured to again be the target of heavy trade interest from the Boston Celtics, just as he had been around the time of the draft. His team-mate for the night, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, has been considered to the on the bubble all season, in a unique and truly awkward situation whereby his team’s president wants to trade him, but a full no-trade clause in his contract prevents it from being easy to do.

And then there is Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins. Or rather, soon-to-be ex-Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins.

In last night’s game, Cousins played the lowest minutes of any All Star since Kobe Bryant in 2008, appearing in only a lowly two. It immediately looked suspicious, especially alongside concurrent Twitter reports from Adrian Wojnarowski and others about significant progress having been made towards Cousins finally being dealt. And then afterwards, this happened.

With this, the seven year Cousins/Kings saga is over. Two weeks after calling him unavailable – as if consistency was to be expected from their front office – the Kings have finally moved by far and away the best player on their team, and one of the game’s great talents, for little more than a mish-mash of bits.

That wording “includes Buddy Hield” would imply that Hield is the centrepiece player. The other Pelicans players involved in the deal, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, are two backup guards at best, and that is if the oft-injured Evans can even take the court for his new/former team. (It is darkly ironic that Evans is being moved for Cousins in this deal. At the start of their time together with the Kings, those two were supposed to be the NBA’s next great young duo. But now, one is mere salary filler for the other want-away.)

If Hield really was the centre piece, this is a worry. It was reported that the Kings were not looking for a talent equal or roughly equal to Cousins in return – which was rather inevitable, considering that there are only about 10 players in the world who meet that bill – but for Hield to be the best returning player is eye opening.

Golden State Warriors v New Orleans Pelicans

Hield is off to a slow start in his career. In his first 57 games of his career – with 37 starts – Hield is averaging 8.4 points on 39.2% shooting, with a net rating of -14 and a PER of 9.9. There are signs of a good career as a scorer there and a couple of good outings, but for the most part, Hield has struggled thus far. And while his high draft stock (and ridiculous collegiate efficiency) certainly strongly suggest there are much better things to come, Hield is not considered to have all that much upside, with an average physical profile and little offensive creativity. Comfort will come and greater production will come with it, but star or superstar potential will not just appear.

It could be argued that, given the relative dysfunction of the Pelicans thus far this year, and their lack of offensive options and creativity outside of the great Anthony Davis, Hield was never in the greatest spot to achieve much. But he is coming into the same sort of situation in Sacramento right now, if not worse. Hield is a shooter and shooting will translate, but with an upside of Voshon Lenard, this is not the ideal centrepiece for a generational talent like Cousins.

There are however the picks, which have some usage going forward, as well as some value. The Pelicans gave up picks with some immediacy, including both a first and a second round pick in the deal, both in the next 2017 draft. And with those picks as well as their own, Sacramento now has some good picks heading into the draft, which by all accounts should be a good one.

Prior to the Cousins deal, the status of its own pick was still uncertain – it technically is owed to the Chicago Bulls, but with top 10 protection, and if the pick landed within the top 10, a second round pick would be conveyed instead. Having lost their only star talent, this will now almost certainly be the case, thereby allowing them to keep their first rounder. And while Philadelphia has the right to swap this pick with its own, its own pick will also be almost certainly in the top 10. Thereby, with this deal, the Kings pretty much guarantee themselves as having two top ten picks this year, plus the aforementioned second round pick acquired in the Cousins deal, initially from Philadelphia, that should land in the 30s.

However, that is pretty much all they have. A look at the Kings roster finds mostly a list of role players who have no roles to play. The other starters on the team had been Kosta Koufous, Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, and any one from an assortment of off-guard candidates (Arron Afflalo, Ben McLemore, Garrett Temple, Ty Lawson). None of those veterans move the needle at all. Gay should now be on notice that he is likely to be traded very soon, but then, he should already have been on this notice anyway. They all should. The store is open for business to anyone willing to buy.

In terms of youth, there is little of note. McLemore has flamed out – given plenty of opportunity over four years, he is at best a streaky catch-and-shooter with huge limitations inside the arc. Behind him on the depth chart, Malachi Richardson has barely had a chance to play thus far – with Hield now in the fold, as well as the useful Galloway and a possible redux from Evans, those chances will be no easier to find.

Up front, Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis have played only 70 minutes in their NBA careers combined, and while this deal (and the significant balancing of the depth chart it provides) will finally give them an opportunity to play a bit more, they will still have to do so alongside Koufos (a good role player but one caught out somewhat by the small ball revolution that he absolutely does not fit) and Willie Cauley-Stein (who, after a good rookie campaign, is struggling with physical play, fouling much more often, and has gone back to the small-forward rebounding numbers of his college career). All other youth can only be found in the form of as-yet-unselected draft picks.

Prior to the deal, the Kings had Cousins and a whole bunch of not much. They still have the not much. But now they no longer have Cousins.

Sacramento Kings v Washington Wizards

The argument for it seems to stem from some addition by subtraction. Cousins’s volatility often seems to go before his tremendous talents when discussing his impact and his future, and surely was considered to be a huge factor in his value on the trade market. Every other NBA team either placed a call on Cousins, or took one, yet if Sacramento could not get a better offer than this, then it follows that few wanted Cousins at all, let alone at a price. (The Kings also might want to look at the process of what happened and what they did, so as to ascertain why this was the best offer available. They certainly never gave off that they could deal from a position of strength.)

Whether or not this is a fair assessment of Cousins as a person and a presence is for others, specifically those others with information on the topic, to decide. There are certainly stories in the public domain on the dysfunction within the team and Cousins’s role within it, not least of which is in this great profile by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. Regardless of how truly impactful all of that has been, though, the “headache” or perceived headache that is Cousins is now gone. The Kings have long maintained they are looking forward, even though they have not been very good at it (short-sighted moves such as the salary dumping of Nik Stauskas and Jason Thompson, combined with consistently poor post-Cousins draft picks). Now, looking forward is the only option.

Going forward, the Kings have the solid-but-should-be-backups point guard duo of Collison and Galloway (if kept), alongside Hield, who now gets the opportunity to make the leap McLemore never could. Gay remains at small forward, for two more days at least, while Afflalo, Barnes et al might pursue pre-playoff buyouts. The store is open for business, but only amidst a closing-down sale.

In making this deal, the Pelicans have done what the Kings never could. They too had one huge shining light, a Hall-Of-Fame talent in Anthony Davis, yet nothing to pair him with. The previous attempt to flank him with an offensive super team in the form of Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson failed in part due to the pieces being ill-fitting, but also due to injuries. Yet with that unit now disbanded, little else has filled the void.

Until now. Now, they have a super duo. The Cousins/Davis duo will from day one rank up there with any other all-time great pair of talents you can think of. Talent does not automatically equal results, of course, but it is also the first thing to acquire. The Pelicans bought low. And that is what you are supposed to do.

Earlier in the year, I looked at a comparison between Cousins and Davis, using the two as barometers for the always ill-defined concept of “leadership”. Davis’s quiet demeanour and Cousins’s excessively loud one gave birth to very different narratives regarding their leadership abilities, but no different of results. Neither led their team anywhere, because neither had anything to lead. In light of their now pairing up, it will be interesting to see if, both on and off the court, the pairing works.

Team USA Showcase

For it to work, the Pelicans now need to keep Cousins. For them to keep Davis, they need to keep Cousins. And for them to keep Cousins, they need to keep Davis. For any of it to work, they need to flank this duo with scorers, shooters and play-makers, especially at the point guard spot, where Holiday is headed for his first ever unrestricted free agency (and who himself was party to the occasional rumour this month, albeit likely now abated). There is no point having a pair like this and wasting it with replacement-level talent elsewhere.

But those are questions for down the road. Any trade leaves questions for the future. As of right now, New Orleans have made a firm decision to go forward, and to improve the team immediately rather than any more long-gaming via the draft. Apart from buying low on Rudy Gay and hoping he would turn into Carmelo Anthony, Sacramento never truly did this.

Instead, the Kings floated, hoping to placate DeMarcus and find some diamonds in the rough to go with him, and never managing either. In the end, they had to get rid of him, trust the lottery balls, trust themselves to draft better than they ever have, and hope Voshon Lenard is revised to something more like Klay Thompson. Wanting a cultural shift is fine, but there has to be some talent to cultivate.

All the concerning questions therefore are about Sacramento. And when aren’t they?

NBA All-Star Celebrity Game 2017

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