A week after Monday’s stunning trade that sent Kings All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans for rookie Buddy Hield, the Pelicans’ first- and second-round draft choices in 2017, along with Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, general manager Vlade Divac sat down with Bee columnist Ailene Voisin and elaborated on what prompted the move.
Q: Let’s start with the obvious question. Why trade Cousins? You and others within your organization already have confirmed several factors were considered, among them, his profane outburst at a Warriors fan outside the locker room, his record-setting pace of technical fouls and of course, his complicated contract situation. If he had been here this summer, you would have either extended him for five years and $209 million or he would have finished his current deal and become an expiring contract in 2017-18, with his trade value diminishing by the day. My sources also told me that NBA vice president Kiki Vandeweghe and Bob Delaney flew out here and met with DeMarcus a day or so before he was tagged with his 16th technical and that the meeting was not well received. But what finally moved you from pause to pushing the button? Was there a tipping point?
A: It was a lot of things, but basically, I thought it was time to start over. There was a lot of bad stuff happening here the last five years, a lot of bad habits. There were always issues, many you don’t even know about. Now I believe strongly this was the right thing to do for our future. Now I have a clear vision. This city deserves better, and I want to create that. With DeMarcus’ situation, I basically was stuck.
Q: What do you mean by “stuck”?
A: Maybe were going to win a few more games than last year but probably not make the playoffs. Then where are we? Same old place. And we have that contract to deal with. If we keep DeMarcus this summer, we have to extend him, or otherwise he would be on an expiring contract that everyone would be afraid of. Teams don’t trade a lot for a player they aren’t sure will re-sign with you. And if he extended, we couldn’t sign him for an entire year anyway.
Q: Then why tell ESPN two weeks ago that you were keeping Cousins and expected him to be around for a long time - which suggests a contract extension was in the works?
A: Because I really did not have (good offers) for DeMarcus. In all the conversations I was having with GMs, we weren’t going to get anything. People were scared because of his history. So I felt confident he was going to stay with us, and I was going to work with him, and we would do the best we can. But then I got the offer from the Pelicans a few days before the All-Star Game. That was a difference of, what, two weeks from what I had said to ESPN? Everything changed.
Q: Can you explain again what you meant about having a “better deal” two days before the trade? I refer to this as one of your Serbian slip-ups - something lost in translation - and included your clarification in my Sunday column. But you might want to elaborate, because that quote is out there in the ether.
A: When I was first talking with the Pelicans, it was about Buddy (Hield) and two first-round picks. I talked to DeMarcus’ agents (Dan Fegan and Jarinn Akana) to inform them we were having talks, negotiating terms, and they called teams and threatened them, saying that if Cousins was traded, he would not sign an extension. (Only the Kings could offer a fifth year, at a higher percentage of salary cap, because of Cousins’ designated veteran status.) They got scared and dropped it down to a second-round pick. I thought if I waited longer, I would get less. I needed to act.
Q: Though you weren’t saying anything, it was no secret the Kings were testing the market in recent weeks. Most of the speculation centered around Boston, Orlando, Phoenix, the Lakers and Pelicans – the usual suspects who had what you coveted, namely, young players and draft picks – but after speaking with several of those clubs, the market for DeMarcus struck me as surprisingly underwhelming. The Lakers refused to part with Brandon Ingram. The Suns declined to discuss Devin Booker. No chance at Nikola Jokic. I realize that principal owner Vivek Ranadive insisted on having a star on the roster when Golden 1 Center opened, but couldn’t you have gotten back more had you traded Cousins sooner?
A: I think maybe, yes. It’s easy to be smart after everything. But I wanted to take time with DeMarcus, work with a new coach, put some veterans around him. And don’t get me wrong. DeMarcus did a lot of good things here. He played hard. The problem is that I wanted the team to play together. And it just wasn’t working, not for where we want to go. Did we make the playoffs in the six years with DeMarcus? No, the best year was last year. But that’s not enough. We might win a couple more games this year, but we probably still wouldn’t make the playoffs. And then I would have to pay him all that money. So, sure, a lot of fans are angry. But within the league, believe me, I got a lot of support. People are calling and telling me, ‘You did what you have to do.’
Q: Is it true that you approached Cousins’ agents earlier this year about encouraging him to seek anger management therapy? You would not be the first Kings official to make such a request, by the way.
A: Actually, that happened, and this time, they seemed more receptive. But I wasn’t sure if that was because the contract was coming up or what, so I wasn’t sure how to take it. Again, I wanted change, to start over. Acquire assets, build it right. At the same time play hard, play up-tempo, share the ball. Be a team, grow together.
Q: Why waive Matt Barnes? Was this because he was no longer needed to police DeMarcus? Or a response to many in your organization who wanted Barnes waived after his altercation in the New York nightclub?
A: Ailene, I want to build a culture, and he didn’t fit in my culture. Before we were just talking, preaching. But if we’re going to do it, you do it. The good thing about our situation now is that we have some very nice assets, a few more shooting guards, and time to take a look at Willie (Cauley-Stein), Skal (Labissiere) and Malachi (Richardson) when he gets healthy, and Georgios Papagiannis. Ty Lawson has been very good for us, and Darren (Collison) is playing well, and he will be a free agent. Kosta (Koufas) has been good. We have (Bogdan) Bogdanovic coming over next season as another asset.
Q: Well, the pressure is on you now. It’s pretty clear that Divac, not Ranadive, is making the personnel decisions. Some people still can’t believe Ranadive actually stepped aside and allowed you to trade his favorite player.
A: That’s my job, and I take responsibility. And I totally understand why some fans would be upset. They supported DeMarcus, and I like DeMarcus a lot. But 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.