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The Ripple Effect of the DeMarcus Cousins Trade

What it means for the Kings, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, and more

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The DeMarcus Cousins trade will have a massive ripple effect across the league. Here’s how it impacts the parties involved (whether they know it or not):

What It Means for the State of the Kings Front Office

League executives are just as baffled as you are by the Kings’ decision to trade DeMarcus Cousins for not much of anything. “They gave Cousins away for a three-piece meal at Popeyes lol,” one source texted me Monday morning. Said another: “It’s just a disgrace.” Kings general manager Vlade Divac will shoulder the blame for botching this trade, especially after he admitted the Kings had a better offer for Cousins two days ago.

But the fault is on Kings ownership. Vivek Ranadivé believes Buddy Hield has Stephen Curry–level potential, a source explained; they view him as the equivalent of a top-five pick with superstar upside — a franchise-altering piece. “People don’t realize that teams get fixated on certain players and do deals specifically to get those players,” said a league executive. Trades require ownership approval, and in Ranadivé’s eyes, Hield was by far the best available asset being offered.

That same source said the Kings also coveted Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram, but when Los Angeles said Ingram wasn’t available, the team was told there was nothing it could do to improve the package. This echoes what ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported on Monday night.

According to an Eastern Conference source, Divac also called the Celtics, but asked for far too much in return and refused to negotiate. There’s also a belief that the Nuggets were willing to include anyone but Nikola Jokic and perhaps Jamal Murray in a trade for Cousins. Per a separate source, the Suns were offering a package of players and multiple first-round draft picks (including one or both of their upcoming Miami picks), but the Kings declined. “We would have traded for him at the right price,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough admitted to Arizona Sports 98.7. “We didn’t want to break up our young core to get him.”

If this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry; it doesn’t make sense to anyone. It was not the most orderly or rational process by the Kings. “Vlade needed a huge haul to get Vivek to sign off [on a different deal],” said the Eastern Conference source. “They needed a home run deal to get past Vivek.”

Apparently that home run was Buddy Hield, a player Ranadivé was reportedly enamored with. Divac’s desperation stemmed from Ranadivé saying no over and over again to every Cousins trade proposal. The Kings owner was “softening slightly” to the idea of dealing the franchise center over the past year, per a source, and this was Divac’s chance to press the reset button. If Divac waited, there’s a chance Ranadivé would reverse course once again. The Kings wouldn’t have been in this mess if they had dealt Cousins for a huge return one to three years ago, but Ranadivé’s unwillingness at the time to move on made that impossible. Instead, they dealt Cousins, after assuring Boogie’s agent they were committed to signing the star big man long-term. Now, they’re a dysfunctional organization, barren of high-value assets, with a track record of burning bridges.

What It Means for Davis and Cousins, Together

Pairing Cousins with Anthony Davis creates the most fascinating frontcourt duo of the decade; there have rarely been pairings of two legitimate top-10 big-man talents. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph patrolled the paint for years, while Blake Griffin to DeAndre Jordan’s air show jump-started the Lob City Clippers, but this is different. We haven’t seen this before.

The Ringer’s Danny Chau asked on Sunday: “Is it too indulgent to imagine a 5–4 pick-and-roll with Cousins handling and Davis rolling to the rim?” I hope not. Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry would be shorting himself if he doesn’t take full advantage of all the tactical possibilities this pairing presents. The Brow and Boogie can both handle the ball, shoot outside, dominate inside, and create space off the dribble like guards. While other teams are zigging by going small, the Pelicans are zagging with two of the most purely talented big players in the league.

What It Means for Buddy Hield

Ranadivé believes Hield has Steph Curry–level potential, according to a front-office executive with knowledge of the Sacramento majority owner’s mindset. Comparing Hield to Curry is nonsensical, but if Vivek’s perception shapes the Kings organization, then Hield will need to focus on ballhandling and creative at-rim finishing to have any hopes of sniffing Curry’s scoring ability. Right now, Curry is a masterclass guitarist with feel and a vibrato that causes goosebumps. Hield is still smashing plastic buttons playing Guitar Hero.

Playing for a laughingstock franchise suffering from vertigo might actually benefit Hield. He received consistent minutes with the Pelicans, but the rookie guard’s role was limited. New Orleans is trying to win games, not develop its youth, and Hield spent most possessions doing what he does best: spacing the floor and taking spot-up 3s. Hield did this admirably, sinking 41.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, per SportVU.

It’s unfortunately the only thing he does well. Opponents score 1.1 points per possession when defended by Hield, per Synergy, which is one of the worst marks in the league. Hield struggles to score inside the arc, shooting 31 percent on pull-up jumpers and only 47 percent in the restricted area. He’s had trouble creating space for himself off the dribble and his lack of athleticism leads to a lot of instances like this at the rim:

Even when Hield gets penetration, driving by his new teammate Ben McLemore, his short arms and dull leap stops him from finishing inside. There’s no other way to say it: Hield doesn’t contribute toward winning on either side of the floor.

Some reason for hope: It wasn’t until his junior season at Oklahoma that he popped onto the NBA draft radar as a potential second-rounder. And it wasn’t until his fantastic senior season that he garnered lottery consideration. It’s conceivable that it’ll take time for him to develop in the NBA, too. With a young, rebuilding Kings team, Hield will see higher usage, allowing him to experience growth through failure. That’s what the Kings are hoping, at least.

As a college senior, Hield flashed in-out dribbles, spin moves, and a right-to-left crossover. The progress was nice, but his moves were predictable and appeared predetermined. The best scorers in basketball don’t think about the move they’re going to make because it happens naturally. When I asked James Harden what he looks for when attacking a defender, he said, “I honestly can’t tell you what I’m thinking. … My game is all naturalistics.”

The game doesn’t look natural to Hield, and until it gets to a point where it is, he’ll continue to struggle scoring in pick-and-roll and isolation situations. Live reps should help Hield grow through his failures, but as the Kings continue dropping games, pressure will mount, and Hield will face a new level of criticism. From now on, he will be the guy the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins for. That’s a lot of pressure.

What It Means for Boogie’s Reputation

“It was time for a change and I decided this was the best direction for the organization,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said in a statement on Monday. “Winning begins with culture and character matters.” This is barely a subtweet. If you want a more explicit take on Boogie’s Sacramento tenure, here’s Kings TV announcer Grant Napear fondly saying goodbye:

By all accounts, Cousins is a swell guy off the court: He’s been honored for his community service and goes out of his way to do good in the world. But there have always been rumblings around the league that the tantrums Cousins has on the court are only a glimpse of what’s actually happening behind closed doors. Expect to have some of those stories trickle out. Think about how badly the Kings kept the Boogie trade talks quiet on Sunday night. You really think they’re going to keep tales of his possible transgressions under wraps?

Sources around the league have indicated that Cousins has megalomaniacal tendencies: He grows jealous when teammates receive credit for team success, or he reacts negatively if a teammate makes a mistake. It’s hard for players to follow along when the leader doesn’t practice what he preaches. You don’t have to look hard to find the stories. On Monday’s episode of The Lowe Post podcast, Zach Lowe told Brian Windhorst, “DeMarcus Cousins ruined Nik Stauskas … or almost did. The stories about DeMarcus Cousins berating Nik Stauskas, threatening to fight Nik Stauskas on the plane to China when they were going there for the preseason, two years ago or whenever that was … he ruined Nik Stauskas.” The rumblings are the same from people in drastically different circles.

Perhaps the strongest evidence we have of Cousins’s troublemaking comes from Kings minority owner Shaquille O’Neal, who put it this way on Inside the NBA last November: “In the previous years, he’s made a lot of mistakes, he’s been hot-headed, he hasn’t shown great leadership qualities,” O’Neal said. “Whatever you bark at your teammates about, make sure you go out and do it. You can’t be belittling people on the court. … He’s just cursing guys out in the locker room.”

I’m a Cousins apologist and believe the Kings’ dysfunction was harmful for his maturation. But traits like mental toughness and resiliency are tough to learn — you either have them or you don’t. Cousins might be a transcendent player, but he’s a G-Leaguer when it comes to intangibles.

What It Means for Sam Hinkie

I have so many questions. How soon until the city of Philadelphia builds a statue of Sam Hinkie next to Rocky? Why has the construction not started yet? Can this imagery be used for the design? Why have the Kings not fired Vlade Divac and hired Sam Hinkie? The Sixers might not be a winning team yet, but the transactions Hinkie made during his tenure as general manager keep getting better and better.

The Kings dumped Nik Stauskas in 2015 — one year after Vivek said Stauskas shoots like Stephen Curry and is big like Klay Thompson — to clear cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos, and Marco Belinelli. In order to do it, they gave Philly the right to swap firsts in 2017, and their own 2019 first.

Even if the Kings bottom out and win the lottery, the Sixers will be able to swap picks with them. Sacramento’s misery only improves Hinkie’s reputation! In 2019, when the Kings will likely finish their 13th consecutive season without a playoff berth, the Sixers will get that first-round pick as well. It’s up to Bryan Colangelo to utilize these assets, but Hinkie was the savior.

What It Means for the Celtics, Bulls, and Jimmy Butler

The Bulls are impacted by this deal since they own the Kings’ 2017 first-round pick if it falls between selections 11 and 30. If the Kings end up with a top-10 pick (either their own or a result of the pick swap with the Sixers), then the Bulls will instead get the Kings’ second-round pick (protected for selections 56–60). Now that the Kings have the worst roster in basketball (aside from maybe the Nets), chances are the Bulls will only have their own first-rounder.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The spotlight is on Chicago now. Aside from Jimmy Butler, the Bulls don’t have much talent. Trade talks involving Butler will “loom” over this week, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and they’ve “engaged” with the Celtics on trade negotiations. Cousins was long connected with the Celtics and now that he’s off the table, expect the Butler chatter to grow louder.

It seems to be a requirement of the modern NBA that at least one superstar player is on the trade block at any given moment. For almost three seasons, Cousins was that player. Now we will turn our attention to Butler, and perhaps to an increasingly disgruntled Paul George. Bulls and Pacers fans may not want to hear it, but it’s how the league works now.

As was the case for Cousins, the biggest player in the superstar sweepstakes will be Boston. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is still sitting on a treasure chest of assets, and could realistically surpass any offer using one of the team’s upcoming Nets picks in 2017 and 2018. It might be worth considering whether or not Ainge even wants to move his best pieces right now. The best order of operations for the franchise is to use its cap space to sign players first, and then use a combination of draft pick and player assets to make a blockbuster trade. Maybe the timing works out for Butler. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Boston isn’t leaving the rumor mill anytime soon.

There is a lesson from all this for Ainge, and other general managers. As Ranadivé has shown, each organization values players differently. Well, actually, nobody values players like Ranadivé.