Two wondrous years have passed since the Kings traded brooding big man DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Cousins loomed ominously over this organization for nearly seven seasons, scowling, glaring and glowering at anyone who bleated a whistle or pointed criticism in his direction. Cousins was charitable in the community and immensely talented on the court — undoubtedly one of the best players in team history — but general manager Vlade Divac changed the franchise’s fortunes for the better when he sent Boogie to the bayou.
“That was basically one move, but with a big plan,” Divac told The Bee on Wednesday, the two-year anniversary of the trade, while the Kings (30-27) prepared to face Cousins for the first time as a member of the Golden State Warriors (41-16) on Thursday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland. “I would say we execute very well, almost perfect.”
On Feb. 20, 2017, the Kings traded Cousins and Omri Casspi to the New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and two 2017 draft picks, including a first-rounder. Divac explained why he made the move when the deal was announced.
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“Winning begins with culture and character matters,” he said.
Those words should be carved in stone somewhere outside Golden 1 Center if Divac ever brings an NBA championship to Sacramento, but Vlade’s vision was hard for many people to see at the time. The decision to trade Cousins divided the fan base and invited vicious criticism from outsiders who portrayed Divac as a bumbling doofus who had just been undressed by New Orleans general manager Dell Demps, stripped of his most valuable asset.
The New York Daily News wrote “this franchise is a mess” and “the Kings are making the Knicks look like a properly functioning organization.” Deadspin opined that “the Sacramento Kings are run by a remarkably incompetent group of dinguses” whose belief that Hield could be something special was “(expletive) stupid.”
The scrutiny only intensified when Divac told reporters he “had a better deal two days ago.” The critics howled. They didn’t bother to find out what he meant and Divac didn’t bother to tell them. He just went about his business, telling The Bee: “I believe we are going to be in a better position in two years. I want to hear again from these same people in two years. If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, I’ll step down. But if I go down, I’m going down my way.”
Well, here we are — two years later — so let’s see who looks stupid now.
Casspi was promptly waived by the Pelicans. Evans and Galloway left Sacramento via free agency the following summer. So the Kings essentially traded Cousins for Hield, a first-round pick and a second-round pick.
Cousins played 17 games to close out the 2016-17 season and 48 games to start the 2017-18 season before tearing his left Achilles. He underwent season-ending surgery and then left New Orleans as a free agent to join the Warriors.
Meanwhile, Hield has emerged as a potential All-Star and one of the game’s elite 3-point shooters. The Kings received the No. 10 pick from the Pelicans and traded it to the Portland Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th picks, which were used to select Justin Jackson and Harry Giles III. They used New Orleans’ second-round pick to acquire backup point guard Frank Mason III.
Then, just two weeks ago, Divac traded Jackson and Zach Randolph’s expiring contract to the Dallas Mavericks for Harrison Barnes, making a major upgrade at the small forward position.
Oh, and there’s this, too: If the Kings had kept Cousins, they were on their way to losing their own top-10 protected pick in the 2017 draft to the Chicago Bulls. Because they traded Cousins, they lost enough games down the stretch to secure and retain the fifth pick.
Cue the commissioner.
“With the fifth pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the Sacramento Kings select De’Aaron Fox.”
So the Pelicans got Cousins for 65 games.
The Kings got Fox, Hield, Barnes, Giles and Mason.
“Everything went our way,” Divac said.
Last week, the Pelicans fired Demps as Divac was jetting into Charlotte, N.C., to watch four of his team’s most talented young players participate in All-Star Weekend festivities. The contingent included Hield, who finished third in the 3-Point Contest, and Fox, who had 16 assists in the Rising Stars game.
The Kings came out of the All-Star break with 30 wins, one game out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race after 12 losing seasons. They never won more than 33 games with Cousins. Now, they’re one of the youngest, fastest, most exciting teams in the league.
The Kings were never this fun, this free or this good with the brooding big man who clashed with coaches, cussed out opposing fans and menaced members of the media. Cousins was assessed 113 technical fouls during his seven seasons in Sacramento. He led the league with 17 in 2012-13 and had 20 in 2016-17. Last season, their first without Cousins, the Kings had 21 technical fouls as a team, the fewest in the league.
Winning begins with culture. Character matters. Divac changed the fortunes of the franchise and he did it his way.
“You can see what’s out there,” Divac said. “Our kids are playing beautiful basketball. They are working hard. We clearly changed the culture and we clearly are going in good direction, so we are all happy about it.”