When do you break up with someone? You can’t do it at Thanksgiving. It’s cruel to put someone else through those conversations around the dinner table, much less to do it to yourself. Christmas is out, because who wants to be alone then? Same goes for New Year’s. And then comes Valentine’s Day, of course. And springtime is, naturally, for lovers.
This is how relationships outlive their sell-by dates, how couples hang on well past the point where them being together makes sense, and it’s how the Sacramento Kings ended up trading DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans on the night of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game for approximately 40 cents on the dollar.
It was a trade so bad, the artificial intelligence in NBA 2K17 refused to make it: DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and New Orleans’ 2017 first- and second-round picks. As part of all the machinations, the Kings also had to waive Matt Barnes, plus will likely waive at least Langston Galloway. With the Pelicans’ hovering around the bubble in the Western Conference and with the addition of one of the top ten players in the league, that first-round pick is likely to be around the end of the lottery in 2017, so it’s hardly a difference maker. Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive apparently believes that 23-year-old rookie Buddy Hield – who is shooting under 40 percent and averaging 8.6 points per game – has Steph Curry potential. In Curry’s rookie year, when he was two years younger, his PER was 16.3 and his box plus-minus was 1.0; Hield’s PER is currently 9.9 and his BPM is -3.8.
In short, this isn’t even a garbage fire, because a garbage fire at least gets rid of garbage.
Kings’ GM Vlade Divac more or less admitted as much when he said after the fact that he had a better offer than this one two days before the deal was made, but it was rescinded. Faced with nothing but diminishing returns for an All-Star for whom the market was thin, Sacramento at last parted ways with Cousins after years of trade rumors for less than they probably could have gotten for him at any point prior to this one.
So was Cousins so much of a problem that this was really all they could get? Or is Sacramento so badly run that they couldn’t get anything better? As it is in any relationship that goes bad before it ends, it’s a little of both.
Cousins has long been personally problematic, a moody superstar who collects technical fouls like nerds collect Funko Pops. Despite being one of the best big men and likely the best offensive center in the league for years, Cousins hasn’t (according to his doubters at least) put the team on his back the way a superstar should. Sacramento’s win totals each season during his career there have been nothing to write home about: 24, 22, 28, 28, 29, 33 and 24 so far this season. Simply put, the Kings have never been able to build successfully around their mercurial star.
But is that his fault, or the team’s fault? At one point, the Kings had both Isaiah Thomas (who’s blossomed into a two-time All-Star and clutch finisher with the Boston Celtics) and Hassan Whiteside (who’s a massive defensive force for the Miami Heat) alongside Cousins, but let them go for little to no return. Perhaps even more damningly for the Kings, the team began the 2014-15 season under Mike Malone with a bang, going 9-6 before Cousins was sidelined by viral meningitis. Cousins appeared to be buying into Malone’s work ethic and defensive emphasis, but by the time he returned, the team had fallen to 11-14 and Malone had been fired.
The ugly truth is that over six and a half years, both Cousins and the Kings organization had squandered opportunities and chances to become better together, instead settling into a kind of complementary dysfunction where it hardly mattered whose fault it was anymore. By this past Sunday night, the Kings had figured out how to go up and down with Cousins, but not back in time. And so they tried to figure out how to make the fall matter.
With picks already owed to other teams on previous bad deals, the team is likely the worst-positioned team in the league when it comes to rebuilding over the next few years. They own their own pick in 2018 – and it’s likely to be – but they also have to make something out of it after drafting fair to middling players like Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nick Stauskas and Willie Cauley-Stein in the last several years. It doesn’t inspire confidence.
For his part, Cousins joins Anthony Davis to form what should be one of the most formidable frontcourts in the league today and possibly of all time. But New Orleans has their own problems after mortgaging their future for players like Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik, none of whom helped turn the Pelicans into a contender for Davis’ early prime. Prior to the trade, Cousins let it be known he would not be re-signing wherever he was traded after next season, so although New Orleans had to give up little, they still need this pairing to be epically successful for it to look like a good move for them in the long run.
In short, a toxic relationship that both parties long needed to get out of has finally come to an end. It came too late to let anyone out cleanly, and so instead it’s come apart loudly and violently, right in the middle of the season. If Cousins can pull a Rasheed-Wallace-in-Detroit and be the crazy glue that knits together a contender, his time in Sacramento will become a footnote in the career of a tremendous basketball talent. For the Kings, their immediate future is likely much darker, with an eerie resemblance to the fate of most kings on Game of Thrones.