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The Sacramento Shake-Up

While Mardi Gras celebrations wrapped up following the All-Star Game in New Orleans, the city continues to celebrate as they welcomed the arrival of superstar center DeMarcus Cousins to the Big Easy.

Cousins, along with teammate Omri Casspi were dealt immediately following the conclusion of the All-Star Game to the Pelicans, in exchange for the 2016 first-round draft pick Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and both the first and second-round draft picks in the upcoming 2017 NBA draft.

Naturally, the trade has been received with a host of skepticism from across the league, especially given that Kings Vice-President of basketball operations and General Manger Vlade Divac had stated just a week earlier that they had no intentions to deal their franchise center.

Vivek Ranadive, the Kings’ majority owner, has been infatuated with Buddy Hield for some time now, regarding him as the next Steph Curry. It is clear that he was the main driver of this trade. As such, the organization has been under immense scrutiny over the past week, and comments from Divac have only sparked further controversy within a franchise that continues to find innovative ways to showcase their incompetence.

But how does this trade affect the Western Conference landscape moving forward? The Pelicans, who were a fringe 8th seed prior, now looked poised to make a return to the playoffs after missing out the previous season. While the Nuggets, Trailblazers and the aforementioned Kings all rank ahead of the Pelicans now, the addition of Cousins most certainly gives New Orleans a lineup that can win games.

Any mid-season trade comes with its own complications; inserting a player into a new system, without the benefit of a month-long training camp, presents a series of challenges. But given the notorious history that follows Cousins from Sacramento, it will be interesting to see if (and how) he adjusts and acclimates to his new environment.

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TED JACKSON (NOLA.COM)/THE TIMES-PICAYUNE

On the other hand, the Kings (who are only 1.5 games back from the final playoff spot) have now thrust themselves into a full-out, rebuilding mode. The resulting trade left the roster flooded with guards, while spread very thin in the frontcourt. Without a capable replacement for Cousins, I cannot imagine the Kings will win very many games moving forward.

There are so many aspects of this trade that is alarming, morally and professionally. While the Kings’ organization may have finally separated themselves from the DeMarcus drama, the ramifications stemming from how the trade proceeded will most certainly be revealed sooner than later.

The seven-year saga between DeMarcus Cousins and the organization has been widely publicized, to the extent that the accountability has been blurred in the process. While both parties are responsible for what transpired, ultimately the blame lies in the hands of the organization.

The Kings have gone through two different owners, three different GMs, and six different coaches since they drafted Cousins 5th overall in the 2010 NBA draft. Without stability, it is hard to breed success and a winning culture. I am not pardoning Cousins’ transgressions during his time with the Kings, but as Kevin Arnovitz highlighted in his profile of DeMarcus earlier this year, he values trust above all else. Simply put, there was never a trust established between player and organization.

The Kings weren’t capable of building a rapport with Cousins, which can be attributed to a few incidents during their timeline. The Mike Malone firing stands out most prominently, as he was someone who Cousins had grown very fond of during his time in Sacramento. He was hired as the Head Coach in the summer of 2013, before being fired in December of 2014 after the Kings started the season 11-13.

When Malone was hired, the team was amidst a change of ownership, that saw current owner Vivek Ranadive take over control of the organization. Then 22-years old, Cousins was told by the new ownership and coach that the franchise was going to be built around him and that he was the priority. It was the first steps towards building a relationship with their budding center.

Malone’s fiery, no-nonsense personality resonated with Cousins, and he instilled a sense of accountability that was so poorly lacking in his NBA career so far. First and foremost, he would hold himself accountable for his own mistakes, rather than simply antagonizing his misdemeanors. Not to say that Malone wasn’t hostile towards Cousins, but his frustrations were strictly basketball-related, and never personal. Their shared passion for the game was fuelled by their mutual disdain for losing, and a trust had quickly formed between coach and player.

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DeMarcus Cousins and Mike Malone – HECTOR AMEZCUA/THE SACRAMENTO BEE

But Vivek, who had come from Golden State, wanted to recreate the same exciting pace and space offensive system in Sacramento, among other brilliant ideas. Malone’s half-court offence wasn’t going to fit with this image he had envisioned when he took over ownership. Following a stretch of eight losses in ten games (during which Cousins was out indefinitely with viral meningitis), Vivek fired Malone, to the disapproval of Cousins.

To tell a player that you intended to prioritize and build around him, and then turn around and fire the only NBA coach he had ever learned to trust, is not how you go about fostering a positive relationship. When Cousins was informed of the firing, the decision had already been made, without any input from Cousins himself.

Ownership isn’t obligated to get approval from their players before making decisions for the franchise, but a lack of communication is very detrimental towards the success of any relationship. If the goal of the franchise was to groom Cousins into a great leader while building a team around him, how was removing positive role models going to accomplish that?

Ty Corbin became interim head coach following the firing of Malone, and was fired himself less than three months later. He was replaced by George Karl, again to the disapproval of Cousins. While Karl quickly implemented his fast-paced offensive system to the chagrin of the owner, his penchant for being overly critical of his star players was especially concerning, given the volatile nature of the Kings’ superstar.

In hindsight, Vivek’s vision was paramount. He wanted to play a style of basketball that did not suit the personnel of the roster, and he was willing to sabotage his relationship with Cousins to make his vision a reality.

In fact, he was willing to overhaul the roster to chase this vision. In a wild salary dump, the Kings traded away Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and Nik Stauskas along with three future first-round picks to the Sixers in exchange for the draft rights to two second-round draft picks. Both of those players have yet to play in the NBA.

The move created $16 million in salary-cap space, which the Kings quickly used to sign Rajon Rondo, Marco Bellinelli and Kosta Koufos. While Rondo represented a very capable playmaker who could run Karl’s pace and space system, the team did not address their need for adept shooters.

So, you had a head coach who tended to create drama against his star players, a point guard who was known to have issues with coaching, and a roster devoid of capable shooters playing in a system that requires shooters. It isn’t very hard to understand how any player would be frustrated with that situation, where any given moment could exacerbate tensions further.

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DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl – SEAN DEVENEY/GETTY IMAGES

The experiment failed. As expected, Karl inevitably clashed with Cousins, Rondo never gelled with the team, and the Kings were again amongst the bottom of the NBA standings. Karl was fired, Rondo left for the Bulls the following off-season, and the Kings were left with no draft picks or capable players to surround Cousins with.

I am by no means a Cousins apologist. While he may not be solely to blame, many of the team’s issues did stem from Cousins’ behaviour on and off the court. There were the rumours of the bullying towards Stauskas, the tantrums during team meetings, altercations with media and the technical fouls, among other things. At times, he handled situations without a hint of professionalism, and he ostracized teammates in the process.

That’s not to say that Cousins doesn’t have redeeming qualities either. He cares deeply about community involvement, whether at home in Mobile, Alabama, or within the Sacramento community. It was never just another PR opportunity for him; he wanted to become a fixture in the community.

His personal donations would have been never made public, at least if he had it his way. The emotions we see on the court are a byproduct of his intense love for basketball, and he employs that same intensity in his charitable work. He is as genuine as it gets.

The responsibility lies with the Kings. Upon drafting Cousins, it was well-known that he possessed a fiery and temperamental attitude. But in the same regard, he was not someone who was un-coachable, exemplified by John Calipari, Cousins’ coach at Kentucky. The onus was on the Kings to surround Cousins with strong role models and mentors, if they wanted to mold their young star into an eventual leader.

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Vlade (left) and Vivek sitting courtside – RICH PEDRONCELLI/THE AP

At the end of the day, this issue comes down to respect. They labelled Cousins as their centerpiece, their franchise player, and yet they did not treat him with the respect that you would have expected. As quickly as they would build a trust with Cousins, management would tear it all down through hasty trades and firing of coaches.

Vivek had his own agenda, which did not align with Cousins and ultimately it culminated in the trade to New Orleans. The trade was the epitome of the toxic culture revolving around organization, and what is clear is that the Kings have no direction and no identity.

They have very few draft picks to rebuild upon, and present almost zero incentive for upcoming free agents to sign with them in the offseason given how they handled the Cousins trade. Sure, the Kings can now offer loaded contracts to willing players, but any player contemplating will certainly consider his options given the front office’s checkered history.

As I said, the ramifications from this trade will be felt soon enough, and it will take some time for the Kings to rebuild not only their team, but their brand and reputation amongst the league. Vlade recently went on record to say that if the team is not better off in two years’ time, he would step down. For his sake, I hope he’s got his suitcase handy.

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