It went down late in the night, like many robberies do.
Following the All-Star game, Sacramento agreed to give away DeMarcus Cousins, the face of the franchise since being drafted fifth in 2010, to New Orleans for rookie guard Buddy Hield, a top-three protected 2017 first-round pick, a second-round pick and guards Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, neither of whom are expected to be on the roster long.
Popular forward Omri Casspi, who has been injured most of the season, was also included in a deal that left most Kings fans outraged, if the sampling on Twitter is accurate. Cousins has racked up 17 technical fouls this season and has been an even less cuddly fan favorite than usual, but he was by far Sacramento’s top commodity.
He was the drawing card for the brand new Golden 1 Center, the downtown arena that finally came to fruition after a rollercoaster ride of threats and promises that pre-dated Cousins and went on for years.
Instead of celebrating the new building with some meaningful games in March and April as they try to chase down a No. 8 seed that Denver currently holds, the Kings have hit the reset button. Despite being only 1.5 games behind entering Thursday’s action, the Kings decided it was the right time to part ways with Cousins, who never did lead them to the playoffs.
Although his temper contributed to some of the struggles over the years, the lack of success was largely an organizational failure. Wasted picks, awful personnel decisions, and a lack of stability in the front office and at head coach all highlighted their inability to succeed despite the presence of one of the NBA’s most talented big men all decade.
Whether you agreed with the decision to pull the trigger now or later in the week before Thursday’s deadline, there’s no denying what Sacramento got in return for its most prized asset is a travesty. Reports say talks with the Lakers died at the mention of Brandon Ingram and other teams didn’t make attractive offers, but that’s hard to believe when you consider how little the Pelicans are giving up to land Cousins.
The Kings higher-ups really love Hield. That much is clear. However, when you consider this team’s recent draft picks, from Willie Cauley-Stein to Nik Stauskas to Ben McLemore to Thomas Robinson, it’s hard to trust this organization’s opinion on young talent. Jimmer Fredette had to go to China to shine. Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside are thriving for other franchises because the Kings gave up on them.
It’s clear the rest of the season will be about starting over for Sacramento. Point guard Darren Collison is being shopped and should find a new home on a team in contention by Thursday.
The Kings are going to try and build around Hield, Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Malachi Richardson and Georgios Papagiannis.
Dave Joerger’s interesting first season as head coach of the Kings is about to become more trying, but there will be considerably less pressure in play. Vlade Divac has had an awful run making decisions thus far, but moving Cousins wipes the slate clean since the focus now shifts to this summer’s draft.
The Kings get back to business with a five-game homestand that begins Thursday night against the Nuggets, so it will be telling to see how the vibe is given the foul mood of a disgruntled fan base. Denver should be a road favorite in that contest. Charlotte, Minnesota, Brooklyn and Utah also come through town between Feb. 25 and March 5, which, if nothing else, will give Joerger plenty of practice time with his revamped group since there are no back-to-backs scheduled.
New Orleans caught a huge break in Sacramento’s fascination with Hield, because there have been many times during a largely disappointing rookie season where he’s looked like a bust. Over his first eight games, he shot 9-for-45 (20 percent) from 3-point range. In games against the Kings, he’s shot 2-for-10 from beyond the arc. He’s scored 20 or more points only twice over his first 57 games, 37 of those being starts. While there’s no question he should become more efficient as he gains more experience, this isn’t Stephen Curry we’re talking about. It would take quite the leap to envision him becoming an All-Star.
The Pelicans traded Hield, expendable guards and a pick that will likely end up in the 11-15 range for a 26-year-old, three-time All-Star in the midst of his most productive season. Cousins has put up career-bests in points (27.8) and assists (4.8) and has extended his range to where he’s a 35.6 percent 3-point shooter, closing in on 100 makes. He’ll join forces with fellow Kentucky product Anthony Davis, by far the most talented player he’s ever played with outside of Olympic competition.
Although both Davis and Cousins figure to have to make some concessions to best play off one another, they’ve got an effective point guard in Jrue Holiday, who can ensure both remain happy. The Pelicans open against the Rockets on Thursday night in their only home game between now and March 1. The Smoothie King Center should be hopping since the Pels have managed to prolong the excitement of hosting All-Star weekend by pulling off a blockbuster trade that abruptly upstaged the West’s 182-172 win.
New Orleans will play Denver three times between March 26 and April 7, so there’s no doubt the No. 8 seed will be well within their reach. With the front office dangling forward Terrence Jones as bait to land another shooter who can take advantage of the attention Cousins and Davis will command, the Pelicans aren’t done making moves.
Success may not come immediately, but it’s hard to imagine the race for the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed not including the Pels by the time April rolls around.