Happy DeMarcus Cousins Day!
We have reached the moment in time when the grand experiment is finally realized. Cousins, after sitting out nearly 10 months with a ruptured Achilles tendon, will finally make his debut with the Golden State Warriors.
While the rest of the league prepares to see how he fits with the Champs, it’s as good a time as any to reflect back on the transaction that changed the landscape of basketball in Sacramento.
Cousins, a four-time All-Star and widely considered one of the best big men in the league, was the cornerstone of the Kings franchise from the moment he was selected with fifth overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft.
He was slated to sign a mega-extension with Sacramento in February of 2017, that would pay him more than $200 million over the length of the contract. Whether he’d be sidelined with the injury or not is nothing more than guesswork, but the Kings would be paying him upwards of $35 million this season, not the $5 million the Warriors are on the hook for.
Sacramento was at a crossroads. Things weren’t working with Cousins, but his undeniable talent was too much to give up on. And then Vlade Divac did the unthinkable.
On Feb. 20, 2017, and with the Kings just outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, Divac pulled the plug on the Cousins era, shipping the center to New Orleans for a package that included Buddy Hield and a first and second-round pick.
Cousins was informed of the transaction by Kings director of media relations, Chris Clark, moments before the big prepared to field questions following the All-Star game.
The trade was one of the more stunning moments in Kings history. One day the Kings were fighting for the eighth seed. The next day, it was a complete rebuild.
Divac famously said at the time, “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.”
We have almost reached the two-year mark and this is as good as any time to assess the work Divac has done since making the difficult decision to deal away Cousins.
While the 28-year-old center is ready to resume action with the Warriors, things have not gone as planned for the star big. After a year and a half with the Pelicans, he is looking to reboot his career with Golden State and rebuild his value before entering free agency this summer.
Due to the injury, it’s unlikely Cousins will ever make up for the money that he missed out on by not signing an extension with Sacramento.
He wasn’t able to put the Pelicans over top in his time with the club, but they were playing extremely well when he went down. New Orleans received nothing in exchange for Cousins when he left in the summer of 2018 to sign with the Warriors.
The Kings were 24-33 when they traded Cousins during the All-Star break. They were just outside of the playoff hunt at the time of the transaction but fell apart down the stretch. Sacramento struggled to an 8-27 record over the final 35 games of the 2016-17 season, finishing with the league’s eighth-worst record.
Buddy Hield played well for Sacramento after coming over in the deal. He finished out his rookie season averaging 15.1 points per game in 25 games wearing a Kings uniform. In his third season, the 26-year-old has become one of the best shooters in the league and he’s averaging over 20 points per game as the Kings’ starting shooting guard.
New Orleans struggled down the stretch after acquiring Cousins, which worked out perfectly for the Kings. They took the 10th overall selection from the Pelicans and traded it to the Portland Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th picks in the 2017 NBA Draft.
With the 15th pick, the Kings selected Justin Jackson out of North Carolina. He has become a valuable part of the team’s rotation as a reserve wing and he is showing major improvements in his second season.
Divac selected Harry Giles with the 20th pick, and then redshirted the talented, but injured big man in year one. Giles has worked himself into the rotation and has high-end potential in the post.
Sacramento also received the 34th pick in the 2017 Draft as part of the trade. They used the selection to take Frank Mason, who has been in and out of the rotation in his first two seasons with the team.
In addition to acquiring Hield, Jackson, Giles, and Mason, there was an expected secondary result from dealing Cousins. In fact, it was one of the motivations behind the trade.
Sacramento owed a top 10 protected pick to the Chicago Bulls as part of the 2011 trade that sent Omri Casspi to the Cleveland Cavaliers for J.J. Hickson.
The transaction hung over the Kings’ head for years, but 2017 was the final summer that the Bulls could receive the pick. If it wasn’t relayed during that season, it converted to a second-round selection.
By falling apart down the stretch, the Kings retained the pick. On draft lottery night, Sacramento moved from the eighth spot in the lottery to the third pick, before dropping back to fifth as part of a pick swap with Philadelphia.
With the fifth overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft, Divac selected De’Aaron Fox out of Kentucky. In his second NBA season, he is the centerpiece of the Kings’ franchise.
Divac gambled and the early results are shocking. He basically turned Cousins into Hield, Jackson, Giles, Mason, and Fox. He went young last season and that resulted in another lottery selection, which became Marvin Bagley.
In Cousins’ six-plus seasons with the Kings, the team never made it to Jan. 1 with a .500 record. The team currently sits at 23-22 on the season and they are in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Sacramento did their best to build a team around Cousins. Every summer they focused on bringing in the right fit to match with their star. It never worked out.
The rebuild hasn’t been easy. The Kings have made some mistakes and there were plenty of ups and downs, but Divac has reinvented the team as a young and exciting club with plenty of talent.
He and his staff have also used the cautious approach to the cap and have the financial freedom they wouldn’t have had with Cousins in tow. They are walking into the trade deadline with $11 million in cap space and $37 million in expiring contracts.
If Divac and his group take a cautious approach to the deadline, they can walk into the summer with most of their rotation under contract and upwards of $60 million in cap space.
Trading DeMarcus Cousins was about as bold as it gets in the NBA world. Divac put himself on notice with the move and he’s found a way to come out ahead.