Ailene Voisin

Kings face critical decision on Cousins

At a time when Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac should be linking arms and assuring their patrons that (a) there is a plan to fix the pathetic product and (b) they intend to execute said plan, they are hunkering down or hiding out.

Which is it?

Can they even agree on the distinction?

Within the past several weeks, the following events have occurred, yet prompted nary a public peep from the powers that be: All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins was fined for berating a journalist in the locker room. Matt Barnes was charged with misdemeanor assault for an incident that took place in New York. Rudy Gay suffered a season-ending torn Achilles’. The team assembled to make a run for the eighth playoff spot entered Saturday’s game against Golden State with a worse record than last season, tied for 11th in the Western Conference with New Orleans and Minnesota, and in a race for the cellar.

Hello? Anybody home? When games in the sparkling Golden 1 Center end – or when any of the above occurs – Ranadive (and bodyguards) and Divac (alone) sprint for the parking lot like twin Usain Bolts. They repeatedly decline interview requests with local and national media, and though consistently portrayed as keepers of the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise, continue turning the other cheek.

Well, this franchise needs to provide answers – soon.

The Feb. 23 trade deadline is approaching, and anyone with a television, an iPhone or even a transistor radio has heard the growing chorus of speculation involving Cousins. As always, much of this is white noise. As always, there is far more substance than the parties ever care to share.

But this Cousins chatter is becoming louder, harder to ignore, partly because the Boston Celtics (and all those draft picks) play here Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns (and a GM openly pursuing a star) won here Friday, and with national television money soon to be boosting already exorbitant salaries, team executives are more active and aggressive than usual for this time of the year.

While most major trades occur during the offseason, coinciding with the draft and free-agency period, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Jimmy Butler have been mentioned in possible deals.

For the Kings, of course, it all begins and ends with Cousins. The franchise has a gut-wrenching decision to make. Setting aside the center’s mood swings, late-game turnovers and tussles with the referees, he is an immense talent who is playing the best basketball of his career. Long a stats machine – among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding – he is an improved rim protector and increasingly adept and willing passer. His career-best assists average (4.6) is largely attributable to quicker decisions, his recognition of double teams and a conscious decision to be more of a facilitator.

But here is the first part of the Kings’ dilemma: While Cousins, 26, continues elevating his game, the team’s record is stuck in place.

Care for Boogie? Don’t care for Boogie? Those are not the critical questions. The overriding issue, the wins-and-losses bottom line, is whether the Kings possess the assets to build a contender around their centerpiece. And the answer is … no.

The franchise is paying the price for the questionable personnel decisions of three successive general managers. With Gay out indefinitely, Cousins’ supporting cast is a collection of aging veterans who would fill complementary roles on playoff teams but lack the star power to impact the present or near-future Kings.

The second part of the equation includes two significant elements: Cousins could return and fulfill the final year of his contract, but were the Kings inclined to trade him, some teams would be reluctant to swap major assets for a max-type player who could be a free agent at the end of 2017-18. And no team other than the Kings – his current team – can offer five years at maximum (estimated $210 million) salary.

Additionally, if the Kings reject all trade offers this month, they, too, will feel enormous pressure to extend Cousins this summer for fear of losing their most significant asset in the ensuing offseason to free agency. The kicker: Players who qualify and sign the five-year extensions cannot be traded for (gulp) an entire year.

That means the Kings and Cousins would be married at least until July 2018, after another season, after more tinkering, though presumably the same coach for a change.

The plan of attack should be obvious by now. Divac should be immersed in conversations with those of his peers intrigued by Cousins and burning up his cellphone battery working over the skeptics. Celtics. Lakers. Cavs. Mavs. Suns. Magic. The list surely will expand before Feb. 23, with Boston, L.A. and Phoenix armed with an array of young assets to facilitate a prudent, deliberate, long overdue Kings rebuild.

“We don’t talk specifically about conversations with other teams,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough said Friday at G1C, “but I do inquire about any star player that either is available or we think is available, and we’ve built an asset base of draft picks and young players to work with. We have all of our own draft picks going forward, and we have two of Miami’s first-round picks. We also have $13 million in cap space available, so we’ve positioned ourselves to be in the mix for elite players, though it’s more likely to happen in the offseason. But we’re open to it. We’ve been patiently waiting.”

Speculation about a Cousins-Suns pairing generated such a buzz in Phoenix last week, the Arizona Central website polled its readers. Asked if the Suns should trade for Cousins, the 400 respondents replied accordingly: 43 percent voted yes, 32 percent said it depended upon the deal, 17 percent said no, and 8 percent said the Kings would not trade him.

If you are the Kings? Unless McDonough at least mentions Devin Booker’s name – and he didn’t – you table the chat for the next day and the day after that. A combination of T.J. Warren, Alex Len and at least one first-round pick is nothing more than an appetizer. But you keep calling. This is another grueling campaign. When they go low, the Kings need to go high.

And they have to stay on message. Within the past two weeks, three different team executives complained the Kings once again were sending mixed signals. Divac was receptive to moving Cousins, while Ranadive was still meddling and still leaning toward keeping Boogie.

Enough of the nonsense. Three weeks is a very short time, and no time for shrinkage. Figure out a plan, go with it, and get it right.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

Related stories from Sacramento Bee