In roughly a year and half, DeMarcus Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent. And by now, we’ve seen this movie play out with star-level players enough times to know exactly what that means. There’s a good reason why the league is talking about a potential Cousins trade right now.
Simply put, the Kings have to move Cousins before the February deadline if they want to receive anywhere close to comparable value in return, or the other outcome is to risk losing Cousins in unrestricted free agency during the summer of 2018.
Teams heavily favor trading for star players the year before they become free agents since this gives them time to convince the player to stay with other personnel moves or selling the player on culture and the team’s chance to compete for a title. With less than a year to go, most teams who think they could have gotten the star player to stay in free agency are happy to wait until summer to sign him since the teams who think they can get a star free agent to stay are also teams that believe they can sign that player in free agency without losing multiple assets (young players and draft picks).
Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony have all gone through the same process during the past five years. And while there were differences in each of those cases, the basic premise was the same – for whatever reason the likelihood of them re-signing with their original team started dwindling, whether it was because of a lack of team success or general unhappiness with their situation.
Unfortunately for the Kings, they fit that bill perfectly. With a record of 7-13, Sacramento is tied at 10th in the Western Conference and three and a half games behind the eighth seed. The team ranks 26th in defensive rating and has been outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions, good for 24th in the league.
The future doesn’t look too bright either. If the Kings improve slightly from where they are now, they will lose their Top 10 protected first-round draft pick to the Bulls and the team is out an unprotected first rounder in the 2019 draft.
Dumping Nik Stauskas (who is shooting 41.5 percent on three-pointers this season) and draft picks to the Sixers for cap space, which the Kings used to fail to sign Wesley Matthews, is probably the most baffling trade made in recent NBA history. Not only because the Kings gave up on a lottery pick after a year and because dumping draft picks to not successfully sign a player is stupid, but because of timing.
Sam Hinkie, for all the hate he gets, won this trade by a margin that is almost impossible to describe. If Cousins leaves in the summer of 2018, that 2019 pick is a lock to be Top 4, and will probably the first pick in the draft. We are living in a universe where a realistic scenario is the Sixers draft a future superstar with the first pick in the 2019 draft because the Kings wanted to get rid of Stauskas to sign a player they didn’t get.
With the optics surrounding the Kings and craziness that has gone in the organization, the path to 50 wins is hard to imagine. The Kings aren’t picking at the bottom of the lottery and haven’t done in the draft recently. There isn’t a superstar in the NBA currently just waiting to hit free agency so they can sign with the Sacramento either.
Cousins as the Franchise Player
If you look through recent trades of stars in similar situations as Cousins, the results have been a mixed bag. The Nuggets are in a fine place with their rebuild after moving Anthony, and have had a 57-win season since then. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are still important parts of the team, and Timofey Mozgov was moved for two additional first rounders. Denver selected Jamal Murray with one of the picks from the Knicks and have a pretty nice young core, but still lack a star talent.
The Magic received Nikola Vucevic and flipped the Dario Saric pick for Elfrid Payton, but have at least somewhat failed in their rebuild by giving away Moe Harkless for nothing to the Blazers, and recently trying to accelerate their timetable by moving Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Serge Ibaka.
The Jazz are the best team right now of the group after trading Deron Williams and receiving Derrick Favors – who, if healthy, is a near All-Star level contributor – but are still a step outside the top of the Western Conference, and the Timberwolves basically lucked into Andrew Wiggins when LeBron James decided to go back to Cleveland after deciding not to trade Love the year before.
Cousins is better than any of those guys, especially considering how quickly Howard declined with injuries. Cousins should be a much better bet going forward because of his offensive versatility.
For the season, DMC is shooting 41.5 percent on three-pointers attempting over four per game. Cousins turned 26 years old last summer and is under an unbelievably under-market value contract at roughly $16 million per year. The raw numbers keep going up every season, and Cousins’ PER of 28.0 and True Shooting Percentage of 55.8 percent are both the best numbers of his career. In fact, Cousins (with Russell Westbrook, which is another level of remarkable) is on pace to become the first player to average 29 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists since Shaquille O’Neal during the 1999-00 season. The Kings have been outscored by 12.8 points per 100 possessions without Cousins on the floor, compared to 0.4 points with him on the floor, the equivalent of dropping from the Memphis Grizzlies to a number worse than the Sixers.
Unlike most big men in the league, he can cause different problems at center and power forward. Kristaps Porzingis’ shooting becomes a bigger threat at center than power forward, but the Knicks can’t rebound with Porzingis as their lone big. Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan don’t shoot from outside of three feet. Al Horford doesn’t rebound or protect the rim at the center position.
Cousins at center means a fully stretched floor for driving lanes to the basket, and he’s skilled enough to go with two dribbles all the way from behind the arc to the basket. At power forward, Cousins is mobile (if not motivated) enough to stay with stretch bigs and switch onto guards. And at the other end, there are only one or two power forwards who can stay with Cousins on the glass and in the post.
The few weaknesses Cousins does have are things that could be corrected playing for a better team and in a different situation. He has always had a slightly lower field goal percentage than you’d hope (currently at 45.5 percent). Cousins takes some tough mid-range pull-ups in traffic he doesn’t need to every game, and by cutting down those and receiving the ball in better spots his efficiency could jump from just good to elite.
By the advanced metrics, Cousins has been a surprisingly good defender in his career. Cousins gets steals, rebounds and is mobile, huge and smart.
There are frustrating bits to Cousins’ defense, particularly this season he hasn’t shown any effort getting back in transition. Either complaining to the referees or admiring the arc of his shots has taken priority over getting back, and it’s not a surprise the Kings rank 27th in transition points allowed for opponents.
Cousins stops to admire his shot while Wizards get a wide open three-pointer in transition
Cutting down the lazy transition defense and the constant angriness that starts from the first play of the game and creates a generally unhappy vibe around him on the court could make Cousins a player who is good enough to be the star on a championship contender. The numbers are already there, but at the very top of the NBA, where the margin of error is nothing, being excellent at the little things becomes just as important.
Potential Trade Partners
The Celtics are thrown around in every trade rumor, and for good reason. A team that looks to add Cousins expects to win at least 50 games with him and either be in title contention or one move away from it. Not many of those teams have the assets to not completely strip themselves off of picks and torpedoing the rest of the roster.
It’s hard to say how motivated Boston might be to trade for Cousins, but it’s probably safe to assume they would be interested in pulling the trigger on a deal if Sacramento accepted a reasonable offer. Most likely, this would mean this summer’s pick swap with the Nets, another first rounder and one of their best young players – either Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart – with additional pieces like Tyler Zeller to match salaries involved.
That package, depending on which draft picks and who the players being included are, is the best the package the Kings can bargain for, and mostly this trade would depend on what the Celtics are comfortable with.
Sacramento may be in complete denial about trading Cousins, moving into a new arena recently and probably with unrealistic expectations from ownership to succeed short term. But if that’s not the case, the Celtics are the team to call and see if a deal can get done.
John Wall and Cousins have talked about playing together in the NBA all the time, according to Washington Post, but if a reunion is to happen it likely won’t be on the Kings, since the team has absolutely nothing to trade for a player of Wall’s caliber. The Wizards have all their first-round picks, and could put together a package with Bradley Beal, Otto Porter (or both) mixed with a first-rounder. Washington’s roster would be pretty empty on the wings after a trading Beal, and the Kings may be hesitant to agree to a deal when the pick(s) they are getting back would likely be out of the lottery.
As we head closer to the trade deadline, the chances of a trade with the Wizards go down quickly since Washington needs the talent upgrade as soon as possible to compete for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs race. If a trade doesn’t happen soon, the Wizards should be more likely to wait a year until free agency to try and bring in Cousins.
Less likely candidates for a Cousins trade who can’t be ruled are teams that are desperate to win now, even if they should be more patient in their situation. The Magic have accelerated their timetable to succeed, have all their draft picks and have one blue chip prospect in Aaron Gordon, along with all their picks, to trade.
The Blazers came into the season expecting to compete for one of the Top 4 spots in the West and have a huge hole defensively at center, currently ranking 30th in defensive efficiency allowing a ridiculous 109.7 points per 100 possessions. Any trade with Portland would have to include CJ McCollum, but the Blazers are also stacked on the wing and able to absorb those lost minutes by increasing the roles of Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Evan Turner. Blazers fans may immediately reject the idea of trading McCollum, but getting Cousins is going to take multiple blue chip assets.
The chance that the Kings move Cousins is probably quite low since it’s hard to get deals done where both sides benefit. Over the next month, Sacramento will have a pretty soft schedule with two games against the Mavericks and the Conley-less Grizzlies.
If Sacramento plays well and hover around .500, the likelihood of any move decreases quickly, but if they spiral downwards you’d expect that to be a signal to every other team to start calling the Kings relentlessly.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.