Reacting to the DeMarcus Cousins Trade

On the same night they combined for 55 points, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins became teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans will send Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, and two picks in the upcoming draft to the Kings in exchange for Cousins and Omri Casspi, according to the Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Cousins’ name had been swirling in trade talks for a while, and while the general sense was that the Kings would probably hang onto him, a player as talented and mercurial as Boogie is always a potential chip in a trade. That’s always been the problem with Cousins. He’s obviously one of the most talented players in the league—on any given night, he can go for 40/15/8 while scoring from anywhere on the floor—but his attitude, temper, and sensitivity have been issues for a while.

Cousins leads the league with 19 technical fouls, and some of his tantrums have been ugly, even for an NBA player who feels the refs are out to get him. His run-ins with local media have been a source of distraction and bad publicity. The Kings have been one of the three most dysfunctional franchises in the NBA for years; fair or not, much of the blame for that has been assigned to Cousins, the team’s best and prickliest player.

It’s tough to tell whether Cousins or the Kings franchise was most at fault for all the turmoil. The answer is some combination of both, but it’s still unclear whether Cousins can learn to soften his edges and keep a level head for even half a season. Maybe all Boogie needed was a competent front office and more compatible teammates. Maybe any team that drafted him would have been doomed from the start.

The Pelicans are betting on that first hypothetical, and they’re not totally crazy to think it might work. This move allows the Kings to move forward without Boogie, but it also represents a chance for Cousins to get a fresh start with a new team. By teaming up with Anthony Davis, a first-team All-NBA candidate, Cousins won’t have to carry his team night in and night out, and he’ll be forced to learn to share the spotlight with another star that is already loved by the fans and the franchise. Maybe that muffles Cousins’ strong personality a bit.

Personality issues aside, the basketball side of this deal will be tricky for New Orleans. The Pelicans have been insistent upon playing Davis as a true power forward, and have therefore paired him with a number of ground-bound, plodding behemoths over the past few years. Davis is probably best suited to play center and join the wave of young, athletic, do-everything big men emerging now. If that ideal were ever close to becoming a reality, it will have to be put on hold for the time being. In a league dominated by guards and versatile wings, New Orleans is going with an old school, twin towers look.

The obvious questions about this fit will be about defense and floor spacing. Neither Cousins nor Davis shoots the three at an especially high rate—although both have nice mid-range strokes—and one or both of them will have to spend a whole lot of time chasing stretchy bigs and combo forwards around the perimeter when they share the court.

Davis is probably the best option to guard fours on the outside; he’s quick, long, and supremely athletic, and switching isn’t a problem for him when he’s locked in. But if smaller guys drag him out to the perimeter, the team loses that length and athleticism around the basket. Cousins is rarely quick enough to contain quicker guys on switches for more than a couple of seconds, and neither guy is an especially imposing rim protector. This gambit will require full-time defensive focus from Davis.

Cousins is the better outside shooter (35.5 percent from three vs. 30.6 percent for Davis) and an unstoppable force in the post. Davis makes his money by slashing, driving, and shooting mid-range jumpers, and doesn’t provide real floor spacing. Finding enough space for both guys to operate inside will be a challenge. Cousins shoots 37 percent on catch-and-shoot threes; he should be able to spot up when Davis goes to work inside. Davis, however, shoots an icy 30 percent in the same situations, and defenses will ignore him if he simply lurks on the perimeter.

Talent makes all fits cleaner, so New Orleans should be able to work with their new front line despite the overlap in skill sets. Either guy can play off the ball inside the three-point line by making timely cuts and hanging out in the short corner, and both are good enough passers to make the right reads when double teams come or space gets tight in the paint. It’s possible that both Davis and Cousins will play frequent stretches as the lone big man on the floor—hopefully alongside Casspi, an overlooked and underrated stretch four. It will take some time for these guys to get comfortable with one another, and the payoff might not come this year, but the Pellies could not say no to this offer.

For the Kings, this move was about getting a fresh start. Shedding Cousins represents a real opportunity for Sacramento to change its reputation and rebuild its franchise culture.

“It was time for a change and I decided this was the best direction for the organization,” Divac said in a press conference following the trade. “Winning begins with culture and character matters.”

Cousins was a toxic presence for this team, from his outbursts at officials, confrontations with media, and tense relationships with teammates. Cousins was eligible for an extension (under the designated player provision) that would have given him the richest contract in the league, and the Kings could either pay him, trade him, or let him walk. Sacramento clearly felt that they needed to move in a different direction after 6.5 years of losing, and trading him is a far better alternative to losing him for nothing two summers from now. But man, did they get robbed.

The return package is okay: Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, and a first- and second-rounder in this summer’s draft. (Langston Galloway was also included, but he’s expected to be waived, according to Wojnarowski.) The Kings are high on Hield’s potential, but long-term, he’s probably a scoring sixth man on a good team and not much more. Evans hasn’t been close to relevant since 2015, and that first round pick will end up no higher than 10th, at best.

That’s a shockingly small amount in return for a dominant franchise center in his prime, and the Kings could have gotten a much bigger haul for Cousins. An additional 50 thousand words could probably be written just outlining better hypothetical deals for Cousins than this one; none of the assets the Kings got in return are even close to guaranteed long-term pieces.

This was an irresistible offer for New Orleans. The Kings were clearly desperate to trade Cousins, and the Pels did well to negotiate as much out of the deal as possible. Even if the Davis/Cousins pairing doesn’t work out, the Pelicans will basically only be out a mediocre first-round pick and a future role player. The Kings, on the other hand, will have a deep hole to climb out of, and they might be more ill prepared than ever to face the future.

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