‘Altruistic’ is the only positive way to view the Sacramento Kings’ decision yesterday to trade away DeMarcus Cousins.
There were two small-market NBA franchises floundering despite having a superstar big man, and now there is only one.
Both Sacramento and New Orleans were in purgatory, but the former, in sending itself to hell has given the latter a shot at heaven.
Cousins in a top-10 player in the NBA, the most imposing big man in the game, a rare marriage of wrecking ball and violinist. Cousins is a brawler, someone who crushes his way to the hoop and rampages over the little humans that get in his way.
But he’s also an artist. Once he’s conquered lands and burnt them to the ground on his way to the hoop, he’s every bit as likely to sing softly with a delicate pass or a graceful finish as he is to roar in violent triumph with a thunderous dunk.
The argument for trading away Cousins is that he was never good enough to make Sacramento anything resembling a basketball kingdom, and instead lapped it up as the best dressed of the court jesters in California’s capital the past seven years. Only once in that time did Cousins get to 30 wins, quietly one of the most improbable stats in NBA history, unprecedented for a player of his talent.
The argument for not trading Cousins, especially for what the Kings received, is everything else in life. The haul for Boogie ended up being Buddy Hield (who may or may not be good), Tyreke Evans (a free agent to be), Langston Galloway (sure), a top-three protected 2017 first round pick and a second round pick this year too. For the layman, this is the equivalent of one starving man trading a ham sandwich to another starving man and accepting in return a broken plastic bag.
If this is the best offer the Kings had for Cousins (and at this stage I’m not giving Vlade Divac the benefit of the doubt that he has Danny Ainge’s number correctly keyed into his contacts), then you have to keep him. Cousins is a generational talent, and while giving a $200-million extension to someone who might always be poisonous to a team’s culture is a bitter pill to swallow, it’s a higher percentage play to hope Cousins figures it out than it is to start again from below nothing.
For years the NBA has wondered who’s to blame in Sacramento: the organisation or the malcontent superstar. Does Cousins do the things he does – set a horrible example for teammates, obliterate referees and reporters, generally behave like an unstable human being – because that’s the way he is, or because that’s the way Sacramento made him?
The simplest answer is always to blame the individual. Often our expectations are unreasonable – we sometimes think of NBA superstars as somewhere on the spectrum between cultural revolutionaries and Gods – and we believe that players should be able to thrive independent of circumstance.
But the more time passes, the more ‘playing basketball in Sacramento’ seems to feel like an untenable existential crisis. Management is incompetent, run by a general manager who doesn’t know the league’s rules and an owner who makes James Dolan look statesmanlike and astute in comparison.
Outside of a couple gems – getting a first round pick for Marco Belinelli was a steal (but also, brilliantly, not a substantially better return than what they got for Cousins) – the Kings have been a catastrophe at the trade table and the draft, with moves so bad you half expect Adam Silver to jump in and yell ‘STOP THE FIGHT’.
Whether it was trading a first round pick to Philadelphia to create the cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos and Belinelli, letting Isaiah Thomas walk for nothing, firing Michael Malone for reasons unknown to man, or drafting 27 players who play the same position as Cousins, the Kings have spent the Cousins era drifting between tragedy and farce.
Trading Cousins away was a fitting exclamation mark on the era, a final roar of stupidity. Ultimately, it ended not with laughter but with pure calamity. This is just sad.
The Kings are a 14-year-old who’s watched three episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent and thinks he’s a better lawyer than the other men in the room who have all gone to Harvard Law School (except for Dolan, who’s seen 12 episodes, and thus has the slight edge on Vivek Ranadive). If this were a bad movie, the Kings fans would have gone to court by now and triumphantly removed the organisation’s management for demonstrating a lack of mental fitness.
DeMarcus Cousins, though, gets to walk away from this burning franchise. He gets to go to another one, and his arrival in itself puts the flames out for a little while. Will he mesh with Anthony Davis? Who knows, but for the Pelicans this trade was a no-brainer – when you can get a top-10 player in the league for 15 cents on the dollar, a calibre of player who hasn’t been traded since James Harden, you do it and figure the rest out later.
At best, they have the league’s most dominant frontcourt and a pathway to basketball’s next revolution – away from small-ball. At worst, they have a tremendous asset and hope for a bright future, one that seemed bleak and impossible just 24 hours ago.
That’s the only silver lining in the grim playbook of the Sacramento Kings – at least others are allowed to profit from their profound cluelessness.