Being a Kings fan is an exercise in managing constant, crushing disappointment. Aside from one anomalous stretch in the early 2000s, the team has never been worth a damn, and even then, their high watermark was getting owned in humiliating fashion by the Lakers. Last night’s disastrous DeMarcus Cousins trade is just latest in a never-ending string of fuck-ups.
Since their regular stay in the playoffs ended in 2006, the Kings have fired eight coaches, drafted an endless parade of incompetent shooting guards, run Isaiah Thomas out of town on flimsy pretenses, passed on Kawhi Leonard for Jimmer Fredette, publicly wet themselves over Nik Stauskas (size like Klay! shoots like Steph!), traded possibly two first-round picks just to get rid of Stauskas, used the cap space created by the Stauskas trade to sign two players who are already gone and another who stinks, watched their old arena fall apart in front of them, gotten mocked for proposing 4-on-5 basketball, stocked the front office with incompetent legacy hires, swapped an ownership group full of malignant saboteurs for an ownership group full of disagreeable morons, traded a first-round pick for J.J. fucking Hickson, shown that they don’t understand what the salary cap is, suffered through a 17-win season, paid John Salmons an embarrassingly large amount of money, gotten publicly rejected by Andrea Bargnani, hitched their wagons to one of the most odious public figures in California politics, allowed George Karl to use them to reach the all-time wins record (then got laughed away when they tried to get him to resign and give up $10 million), traded their only Rookie of the Year winner for 18 games of Greivis Vasquez, and, somehow, acquired a transcendent, franchise-defining player in DeMarcus Cousins.
The NBA is star-driven enough that one superstar can radically alter the trajectory of your franchise, even if you can’t do anything else right, which the Kings can’t. Sacramento never won with Boogie, but make no mistake, he has been one of the best 15 or so players in the NBA for a few seasons running now. Sure, he’s a pouting mess who can derail a game for his team with a single tantrum but he’s also unguardable when he wants to be. Big guys who can shoot and pass and rebound like Boogie are extremely rare, so of course the Kings traded him for a shiny bag of nickels, passing up better offers to do so.
Much has been made of how badly the Kings got swindled, here and elsewhere, but it cannot be emphasized strongly enough how disastrous this trade is for Sacramento. The Kings gave up one of the best centers in the NBA and perhaps the best player of the Sacramento era for a bad backup point guard, a bad backup shooting guard, a perfectly average shooting guard, and two inconsequential picks. There’s an asymptotic chance that Buddy Hield turns into a foundational player (his best-case projection is that he becomes Anthony Morrow), and Tyreke Evans is no All-Star, so the big return here is the draft pick. Thing is, the Pelicans are now going to be much better at basketball, thus turning that draft pick into crap. Even if Cousins kamikazes their team chemistry and they dip back into the lottery, Vlade Divac agreed to top-three protection on the pick. Timofey Mozgov fetched a higher price. So did Mo Williams. The Kings should have gotten at least a promising young player and a high draft pick and instead they got shoddy facsimiles. Their owner—who should not be making trades at all!—is delusional enough to think he traded for the second coming of Steph Curry.
This upcoming draft is a neat encapsulation of all the failures of the present-day Kings braintrust: They owe the Bulls their pick if it falls outside of the top-10, Philly can swap picks with them if they want to, and the best return they can get from the Pelicans is the fourth pick. The most likely scenario is that the Kings just traded DeMarcus Cousins for, say, the 15th pick in the draft. That is beyond disastrous, and it doesn’t even begin to erase the Kings’ draft pick deficit. The Kings have no foundational players left and a crop of middling picks to show for it. Mid- and late-lottery picks do have a value and good players can be found after the first five picks, but if you trust Divac and Vivek Ranadive to use their stockpile of draft picks deftly, prepare to be disappointed. After all, Divac reached at 13 to draft Georgios Papagiannis, a player nobody had in their top-50.
For all the legitimate gripes about Cousins’ attitude, the Kings had no other option but to ride the last year of his contract out and try to convince him to re-sign. And he was very clear about his desire to do so! Last month, James Ham reported that the Cousins camp was cool with the massive pile of money he could have gotten from the Kings this summer. This week, he told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that he wanted to stay in Sacramento. Assurances are not ironclad guarantees, but $30 million is decent motivation. The Kings are never going to convince a free agent of DeMarcus Cousins’s caliber to sign in Sacramento and the casual observer can safely assume that the front office is too incompetent to trade for one. The less said about the team’s horrifying player development record, the better. The draft is the only path, and even then, finding someone like Cousins who wants to stay is as good as it gets.
Instead of a dysfunctional team buoyed to fringe contention for a playoff spot (at worst!) by their All-Star center, the Kings will now be a rudderless group of average young players and middling vets filling out a roster spot for a paycheck. The Kings have neither the ability to select elite draft picks nor turn their later lottery picks into good players. Barring an unforeseen home run in the draft, they don’t have the means to turn this around. They will be bad for a very long time. They will be bad and they will still give up their draft picks afterward. It is all their own fault and they deserve what’s coming for them.
Post-trade reports have emphasized that the Kings made the trade for the sake of team chemistry. Cohesion and culture are important, but they cease to matter if your team can’t win basketball games. Seeking chemistry at the expense of talent will leave you with neither. It’s a higher-level need, something you consider after you assemble a roster capable of winning more than 20 games.
If the Kings have a chemistry problem, perhaps it starts at the top, maybe with their trigger-happy owner or their mathematically incompetent GM. Maybe “culture” is a team-wide characteristic, and not something that only plays out on the court. Is it good for culture to cycle through three coaches in one season and fail to consult your team’s only good player when doing so?
As for Cousins, he now has a chance to play on a real NBA team next to this generation’s best big man. He and Anthony Davis could form a terrifying front court or it could all turn to shit, but the Pelicans are now the odds-on favorite to nab the eighth seed. Cousins’s career is now no longer a sideshow on the periphery of the NBA, it’s finally started in earnest. My only wish is that Cousins thrives in New Orleans and destroys the Kings at every opportunity.