It was Feb. 15, 2017, and the Kings had just lost by 23 points to the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
Still, there was a strange amount of optimism in the locker room. Sacramento was 1 1/2 games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference and had won five of its previous seven contests.
“We decided to put on the board that we had 25 games left, and we said we needed to go 3-2 in each five-game span and we’d be all right,” recalled Kings guard Garrett Temple, “and then the trade happened. We definitely had high hopes. We had visions of going to the playoffs and we thought we could have made it.”
On Feb. 19, the night of the All-Star Game, DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi were traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for guards Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and two 2017 draft picks, one in the first round.
There would be no playoffs. Cousins would not fulfill his dream of ending Sacramento’s postseason futility that began with a first-round loss to San Antonio in 2006.
The trade shifted Sacramento’s focus and direction in a way many felt was needed. A year later, the Kings believe they accomplished a key part of the mission with the trade.
Cousins represented a culture they wanted to change, and the deal helped land multiple young players. Now the team is filled the kind of personalities the Kings want.
“Winning begins with culture,” Divac said after the trade, “and character matters. It was time for a change.”
The “character matters” line felt like a low blow to Cousins, who believed he did all he could to help the team in a situation that didn’t always help him.
But with Cousins gone, Divac could build the Kings in his vision for success.
A year since the deal, the Kings are, as expected, one of the worst teams in the NBA. But the franchise believes the foundation is in place.
From the new arena to changes in the front office and support systems, the Kings might be headed in the right direction.
There’s still a lot of work to do to prove that. But it wouldn’t have started if Cousins wasn’t traded.
Better, but not good enough
The Kings could have lost hope for the playoffs last season when Rudy Gay tore his Achilles. The devastating injury in January 2017 could have sent the team into tank mode. The Kings’ first-round pick was at stake because of a 2011 trade. If it fell outside the top 10, it would go to Chicago.
But the Kings didn’t plummet, thanks in part to Cousins, who was on his way to his third consecutive All-Star selection. They were nipping at Denver’s heels for the last playoff spot, would face the Nuggets three more times and had a home-heavy schedule to end the season.
Players felt this would be the year Sacramento would escape the NBA draft lottery, reserved for the 14 teams who fail to make the postseason. Privately, there was excitement about the prospect of facing the Warriors in the first round. Sure, the Kings would be heavy underdogs and likely get swept, but that would be progress after more than a decade of instability, bad draft picks and turnover among coaches and in the front office.
“It was definitely changing,” Temple said. “With Cuz, he had to trust you and it takes time to build trust. He was a guy that me and Matt Barnes thought especially, had really got him to trust the process and buy in and I think he was doing it. There was definitely that feeling that we were turning it around, we’re starting to play like we feel we were going to make a move and we’re going to make the playoffs.”
Divac saw something different.
“Could we make the playoffs that year?” Divac said Thursday. “Maybe 50/50, but I think our goal is to build here a future championship team, not just to make the playoffs.”
Divac had made repeated public statements he would not trade Cousins. In spite of that, he decided to part with his best player and plan for the future. Any breakthrough would have to wait.
“Before I made the decision I was here for a year-and-a-half, almost two years on the job, so I know what was going on, a lot of stuff,” Divac said. “In my mind, if you have an All-Star you should get to the playoffs, at least. That wasn’t the case. It was already hard to get free agents to Sacramento because nobody wanted to come. There were a lot of reasons.”
Coach Dave Joerger had never missed the postseason as a head coach in Memphis, including the Grizzlies’ 2015-16 injury-riddled season.
Does he think the Kings would have made the playoffs last season if they would have kept Cousins?
“You just deal with whatever’s in front of you,” Joerger said. “How you felt doesn’t really matter. Whatever is in front of you is the task you’re tasked with.”
Willie Cauley-Stein was buried on the bench most of the season before the trade. Now he’d be playing a lot more.
“I don’t think we were going to go to the playoffs. I don’t think that was the mission, at least that’s the way it felt,” Cauley-Stein said. “Then again I wasn’t playing that much, so I really don’t know. I was kind of checked out, doing my own thing, just kind of grinding in the dark.”
The spotlight on the Kings dimmed when Cousins left town. National media, who had been eager to cover one of the best big men in the league and the dysfunction of his franchise, showed up less frequently.
“Once the Boogie trade went down, everybody’s off us,” Cauley-Stein said. “They just traded their best player, blah, blah, blah.”
The youngest Kings – Cauley-Stein, Hield, Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis – would now be focal points.
“It was an instant culture shift,” Cauley-Stein said. “Just like from a personnel standpoint, it’s a lot more chill, a lot more relaxed, got more productive in practice. We were able to just teach each other stuff. Everybody had a role and everybody touched the ball and could get it going and play for each other.”
That’s what Divac wanted.
“The only right thing to do was to start all over and develop young guys and create a team that was going to play together,” Divac said.
The veterans weren’t happy about being relegated to the bench. Split into two groups that alternated sitting out, they made a game of it, seeing which set of vets could win the most.
They privately enjoyed every victory they could muster, because they took no joy in helping the Kings find their possible replacement in the draft.
“That was the first time doing that, personally,” Temple said of resting. “It was difficult for me, but it was what it was. I took it on and did whatever I could to try to help.”
Of their three acquisitions in the trade, Hield was the only player who mattered to the Kings.
Hield, who starred in college at Oklahoma, described last February’s trade as a chaotic time.
“I was getting ready to go out, actually, and my phone had an alert on it, and I saw I was traded to Sacramento,” Hield said. “It was one of those deals, unexpected, nobody knew it was coming. You had your whole family there, chilling at the house and then bang, that’s what happened.”
Many criticized Divac for making the move Sunday when the trade deadline wasn’t until Thursday. The Los Angeles Lakers’ interest in Cousins was no secret, and waiting might have yielded more assets, critics said.
But, according to an ESPN report, Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive saw Hield as having the potential to be the next Stephen Curry.
Hield still scoffs when asked about the report, as he was Friday during media availability for the Rising Stars game.
“C’mon man,” Hield replied. “You’re gonna come with that question?”
Hield, however, said he felt no added stress as the key piece in the deal for the All-Star center.
“No pressure; I love this,” Hield said. “This is what I do. This is what we do. You want to be big time, you’ve got to enjoy the responsibilities that come with it. I haven’t gotten what I want to yet, but hopefully this year or next year.”
He made the All-Rookie First Team and averaged 15.1 points in 29.1 minutes in his 25 games after the trade.
That’s not to say the last 12 months have been easy.
Hield opened this season in a slump, but has since proven to be one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooters. His 42.5 percent accuracy ranks 14th in the NBA.
It’s been hard to settle in, Hield said, with his playing time fluctuating. His averages have fallen to 12.5 points in 23.7 minutes this season.
“No, I don’t know what my role is going to be,” Hield said. “Everything is inconsistent right now, it’s just up-and-down. You can get 17 minutes off the bench, you can’t find that (rhythm), you don’t know what your role is. If you’re a 17-minute guy, 28-minute guy, 30-minute guy, there’s still a lot of inconsistency with that.”
Divac said it’s unfair to put all the pressure from the trade on Hield.
Trading Cousins helped ensure the Kings would be in the lottery to draft De’Aaron Fox fifth overall. The pick from New Orleans (10th) was traded to Portland for the 15th (Justin Jackson) and 20th (Harry Giles) selections. The second-rounder became Frank Mason III.
“That’s one piece of the whole picture,” Divac said “… Basically we got Buddy, Fox, Justin, Harry Giles and Frank Mason, and other assets in the future. We’re trying to let those guys play, let them show us what they can do, and we are happy with that.”
One more year?
After the trade, Divac said if the Kings weren’t a “better” team in two years, he’d step down from his position.
But was does “better” look like in a year?
“We want to be a team that will be 30-plus wins,” said Divac, who received a contract extension through the 2019-20 season this fall. “Close to the playoffs, and a healthy environment and a team that can grow – and I think we are right there. We still have a lot of things to do, but we are going towards that goal.”
Much of that optimism hinges on the draft class from last year and Bogdan Bogdanovic, the 25-year old rookie from Serbia who has impressed teammates and league observers.
Giles hasn’t played this season as he recovers from knee injuries, but hopes are high that he will be an impact player.
There will be plenty of scrutiny on Divac over the next 12 months. That he waived Papagiannis, a lottery pick in 2016, is a mark against the plan.
Can the Kings develop talent, and will they be able to attract impact free agents if needed?
TNT analyst and former Kings guard Kenny Smith said the two paths to success in the NBA are through player development or free agents, and that you can’t “dabble in both.”
The Kings did that during the Cousins years, from 2010-17.
“Maybe they felt like they couldn’t attract people to Sacramento with him,” Smith said. “I think that was part of it too. ... When Chris Webber was there, guys were like, ‘I want to go to Sacramento to play with Chris,’ and they had a helluva team.
“I played there and I haven’t been back. It’s not a destination location. I’m not bringing my bathing suit to Sacramento. Chris Webber was able to do that.”
In fairness to Cousins, players had other reasons to avoid Sacramento. The Kings’ reputation for dysfunction did just as much, if not more, to steer some players away.
Before tearing his Achilles last month, Cousins was named an All-Star starter for the first time, had the Pelicans on course to make the playoffs and perhaps was proving he could be a part of a winning team.
The Kings, who at 18-39 are tied with Orlando for the fourth-worst record in the league, need to prove they can win, too.
“We’re going to go into the summer focusing on our young guys, but we created some flexibility,” Divac said. “We can make some smart moves that are there to help the team, not just for one year, but moving forward. We’re not going to make some crazy move that’s going to set us back from what we’re trying to do, moving forward.”