For most of last week, the national sports media slammed the Sacramento Kings for trading the man-child otherwise known as DeMarcus Cousins. Arguably the best big man in the NBA, and easily the Kings’ best player, Cousins’ trade to the New Orleans Pelicans was a move the Kings had to make and should have made long ago.
But that didn’t matter in the alternate reality of sports media, social media and sports fandom that portrayed a complex business and financial decision as if it were heresy.
“The Pelicans pulled off a heist and the Kings should be ashamed of themselves!” bellowed ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.
“The Pelicans stole DeMarcus Cousins and might shake up the West,” gasped the headline on an article from The New York Times’ Benjamin Hoffman.
Bay Area sports radio railed about the trade for days, sometimes portraying Sacramento as an outpost and the Kings brass as a bunch of boobs. A local radio guy was taken off the air for a day after calling Kings President Vlade Divac a “moron,” a punishment that inspired the co-hosts of said radio guy to walk off a live broadcast in protest. It was just as goofy on Twitter, where “Cousins” and “Vlade” were trending nationally, but not in a good way.
What follows here is an attempt to sort through some of the details of the Cousins trade that were lost during a week of rants and breathless pronouncements from national “experts” and emotional fans.
To begin with, what to do with Cousins was a riddle that would have flummoxed most NBA organizations, and anyone who says otherwise hasn’t been paying attention.
Based on talent alone, Cousins should have been the first player selected in the 2010 NBA draft but wasn’t because of a turbulent personality and a penchant for conflict with coaches, teammates, media, fans, chairs, walls, mouthpieces, sweatbands and pretty much any object that came in contact with him. Four teams passed on Cousins before the Kings drafted him in 2010 and that reality was still in play last week. In Cousins, the Kings had a valuable asset loaded with liabilities that scared off other teams.
You can’t simply judge Cousins by only noting sterling statistics that made him an All-Star and a member of an Olympic gold medal winning team. But that’s what many media types and fans did with hardly an acknowledgment of several key facts.
This was the season that Cousins was effectively playing for his next contract and a potential $209 million payday. After this year, he had one season left on his current deal. It was his job as a player to maximize his own value. So what did he do? He was leading the NBA in technical fouls by a long shot. He was ejected from a recent game in which he slapped the hand of an opposing coach. He was fined earlier this season for throwing his mouthpiece into the stands after being called for a legitimate foul. He was caught on tape flipping the bird and cursing at a fan at Golden 1 Center.
How smart is it to be engaged in all this negativity and more – and there was more – while supposedly playing for his next contract? It’s not. So the Kings had a decision: Do they invest $209 million in a player who can’t control himself, even when it is in his financial interest to do so?
That leads us to the next fact ignored in the recent coverage. The Kings are not a market that will attract highly-sought-after free agents. So if management continued to build the franchise around Cousins, they faced a future of fishing for second-tier role players to complement him, and that formula has failed for years in Sacramento. So what happened in the Cousins trade was the acknowledgment that Cousins as “The Franchise” was never going to work.
Not only was it never going to work, but Cousins had depleted his own market value to the extent that the Kings were never, ever going to get value in return for him. The Kings brass likely has known this for a while, and it’s probably part of the reason why they waited so long to trade him. They knew were going to get crushed in the deal – and eviscerated by the media – no matter what they did.
But to their credit, the Kings chose not to embrace an even scarier proposition – more years of losing seasons while Cousins put up big numbers.
It’s fair to criticize Kings owner Vivek Ranadive for waiting too long to face up to this fact. It’s fair to criticize Ranadive for creating a revolving door of coaches and general managers before finally settling on Divac as his top basketball guy. That turmoil and lack of organizational clarity delayed the Cousins move until Divac finally had the standing to get his way for the purpose of creating a clean slate. At this point, starting over, getting younger and building from the ground up was the only way forward.
Did the Kings badly bobble the PR ball after Cousins was traded? Yes. Did the Serbian-born Divac shoot himself in the foot when he said he had better deal for Cousins when in fact he meant – in his halting English – that he had discussed deals that potentially could have been better but were never consummated? Yes.
But lost in the past week of knee-jerk-reaction coverage was that, for the first time since Ranadive took over as owner in 2013, the entire Kings basketball operations – owner, general manager and coach – are on the same page. Also lost in the overheated commentary was the fact that the type of plodding, physical basketball that the Kings played with Cousins is out of style in an NBA ruled by speed and fluidity of movement.
Despite a stirring win Thursday in their first game without Cousins, the Kings are going to lose a lot in the foreseeable future – at least at first. Divac faces a critical summer of having to be right about every player he drafts and acquires, or else he and Ranadive will be even more in the crosshairs of fans weary of a dismal show. As it is, those of us with season tickets often can’t come close to getting face value for our seats when we try to sell them. That has to change.
What happened last week was less of a trade and more of a divorce. Despite all the instant analysis, it will take years to determine the success of the deal. In the meantime, as with any divorce, we are left with aggrieved parties pointing fingers.
Late last week, Cousins reportedly called Divac and Ranadive “cowards” for the way they handled his trade. It was yet another example of Cousins’ inability to control himself, and a reminder that while he always will be a big man, he has yet to become the bigger man.