Perhaps the seminal moment of the last decade in Sacramento Kings history is the DeMarcus Cousins trade in 2017.
The Kings made the decision that Cousins would not be worth a supermax extension during the 2017 offseason because he wasn’t good enough to be the best player on a contending team. It was a reasonable outlook, though muddled by the fact that Vlade Divac had proclaimed that the team would not be trading Cousins just a few weeks earlier. Nevertheless, Sacramento traded Cousins — who had been the face of the franchise since being drafted no. 5 overall in 2010 — along with Omri Casspi to New Orleans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and the Pelicans’ 2017 first and second-round picks.
The franchise has moved on rather swiftly from their former cornerstone big man: the Kings began the 2019-20 season with no players who had played with Cousins in Sacramento. But now that it is What If? Week at SB Nation, let’s ask the question: What if the Kings didn’t trade DeMarcus Cousins?
Spoiler alert: it would have sucked.
Sacramento finished 8-17 after trading away Cousins in 2017. That left the Kings at 32-50 with the eighth-best odds of the no. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Had they won a couple more games with Cousins, they could have fallen to 10th and not jumped up into the lottery. However, it’s plausible that the Kings would have shut down at the end of the season anyway, and it seems unnecessary to relitigate lottery luck, so let’s assume the team ends up with De’Aaron Fox in the 2017 draft anyway.
The return that Sacramento got from New Orleans was panned at the time, but it has aged quite well. Evans and Galloway were salary filler, but the Kings wouldn’t have Hield without this trade, and he has blossomed into one of the best and highest-volume shooters in the league.
The Kings would not have Justin Jackson or Harry Giles in this scenario without the 2017 New Orleans first-round pick. They would not have the salary cap space to sign Zach Randolph and George Hill. Without Jackson and Randolph, they don’t have the ammunition to trade for Harrison Barnes, and it’s unlikely he signs in Sacramento as an unrestricted free agent.
That means that the roster for the 2017-18 season is bleak. Cousins is the main attraction, and Fox is the starting point guard, unless Darren Collison decides he wants to stay to play with Cousins. The Kings might also keep Evans if they were attempting to push for the playoffs, and either he or Garrett Temple is the starting shooting guard. My guess is Casspi comes back as the starting small forward, and the big man rotation consists of Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos, and Skal Labissiere behind Cousins.
There is a need for a starting power forward here, which either requires bringing Rudy Gay back or going through the free-agency bargain bin for someone like Mike Muscala, Patrick Patterson, or maybe a lighter contract for Randolph. All of those options suggest that the Kings would be a lottery team once more that season, which ironically might put them in position to draft Marvin Bagley in 2018. Bagley seemed to be higher on Sacramento’s board than most other teams, so he could have been available later in the lottery.
Even with Fox and Bagley in this alternate timeline, the Kings are still missing Hield, Giles, and Barnes, and this is when we have to factor in what became of Cousins.
Cousins was outstanding in the first full year after leaving Sacramento, but he tore his Achilles the following January and hasn’t been a productive player in the two years since. The Kings would have gotten one good year out of Cousins, which probably wouldn’t have been enough to lead the team to the playoffs, and they likely wouldn’t re-signed him in the summer of 2018 due to injury concerns. That means the rebuild would have started one year later and without two critical pieces (Hield and Barnes) and potentially a third in Giles.
If Sacramento did bring Cousins back, their cap would have been tied up to the point that they couldn’t have signed Nemanja Bjelica that offseason or Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon the following summer. Both Ariza and Dedmon are gone, but Kent Bazemore and Alex Len could be important rotation pieces moving forward.
The Kings won more games last year (39) than they did in any Cousins season, and their win percentage this year was also higher than any Cousins team. Yes, they traded away their best player, and no, they didn’t optimize his value. But instead of being in salary-cap hell with a player whose leg injuries have permanently altered his career or further behind on a rebuild, Sacramento instead has a core of players reaching their primes and a team whose trajectory is trending up.
Maybe the more pertinent question would be: What if the Kings had traded DeMarcus Cousins for something else? Because three years later, it’s clear that dealing away Cousins was the right decision, and the franchise is better off for it.