When DeMarcus Cousins said that he intended to sign a contract extension with the Kings that would keep him in Sacramento through the 2021-2022 season, it appeared that the perpetual trade rumors swirling about the talented big man would finally be put to rest. Or not. The Sacramento Kings have traded DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans. I analyzed what the deal means for the Kings and Pelicans.
NOP gets: DeMarcus Cousins, Omri Casspi
Putting an end to a relationship that was constantly teetering between tumultuous and disastrous, the Kings have finally moved on from DeMarcus Cousins. A superstar on the court by all measurable accounts, it was Cousin’s attitude, not his performance, that plagued his tenure in Sacramento and ultimately led to the trade. He has bullied teammates and battled against coaches. He has an ongoing feud with referees. Having already received a 1-game suspension for his collection of technical fouls, every other technical this season will result in another suspension. Despite Cousins’ flaws, the return the Kings received is so poor that the trade cannot rationally be justified.
At this point critiquing the Kings front office feels like more than just beating a dead horse. It’s like tearing apart and destroying a carcass that has already been long dead and buried. But once again, it must be done. Cousins is an all-world talent and one of the best players in the league with more than a year left on a severely below market contract, and the Kings got very little in return.
The primary piece in the trade is rookie shooting guard Buddy Hield. The problem is that Hield actually isn’t any good. While shooting has perked up as of late (he’s up to 37% from three after struggling mightily early in the season), his overall performance has been markedly poor in his first NBA season. This season, the Pelicans have been much worse with Hield on the floor versus off. They were outscored by 6 points per 100 possessions with Hield on the court but played teams about even when he rode the pine (per nbawowy.com). These inferior numbers support his dismal -4.5 Real Plus-Minus rating, 439th of 448 players in the league. He’s been really bad this year, which isn’t promising for a player who’s already 23.
While Hield will progress as he gains experience, his relatively advanced age limits his potential development. The NBA transition is hard. The difference in the speed of the game from college to the NBA is massive, and rookies, almost as a rule, struggle to make the adjustment. There is a universe where Hield develops into the type of player he was as a senior at Oklahoma — a high-efficiency scorer who positively impacts the game with his floor spacing and defense. But it’s extremely unlikely. NBA players typically hit peak performance earlier than many might imagine, about age 25. Most of a player’s growth has already occurred by the time they reach Hield’s current age. According to research by Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt, performance is expected to grow 2% between a player’s age 23 and age 24 seasons, remain the same between his age 24 and age 25 seasons, and decline thereafter. All of this is to say, despite Hield being a rookie, the evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis that he will improve substantially before he reaches his ceiling.
In addition to Hield, the other major asset heading to Sacramento is the Pelicans’ 2017 first round pick. The 2017 draft class is expected to be strong, which likely enticed the Kings to a pick that is likely going to be in the lottery. However, the pick will not be as high as Sacramento is hoping. Before adding Cousins to the equation, FiveThirtyEight projected the Pelicans to finish tied with the 7th worst record in the league. However, the addition of Cousins (and Casspi) at little expense, increases the Pelicans expected win total. Without considering fit, Cousins’ RPM suggests he could improve the Pelicans record by 4 wins over the remainder of the season, which would increase their projected record from 33 to 37 wins. This 37 win projection places them right in the heart of the race for the eighth seed in West (behind Denver at 38 and in front of Portland at 36). This pick could reasonably end up being 15th overall.
Even if takes some time to integrate Boogie into the system and the Pelicans miss the playoffs. the Kings gave up any upside in the unlikely event the Pelicans win the lottery (probably between 2 and 3%) by allowing the Pelicans to protect the pick for the top 3 selections in the draft. While it may seem juicy on the surface, the New Orleans pick is almost certainly going to fall outside the top 10, and possibly 15th or lower, which historically hasn’t resulted in a huge return.
There are some small secondary benefits for the Kings. They received Philadelphia’s 2017 second round pick, which has some marginal value. Sacramento is also getting Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, but their inclusion is so that the trade fits under the league’s salary cap rules. Furthermore, a fringe benefit for the Kings is that they are now all but certain to keep their own 2017 first rounder which is owed to Chicago if it falls outside the top 10. Finally, the Kings escape from giving Cousins a Designated Player Veteran Extension. This contract would have meant paying him the full 35% maximum salary and ultimately, more than $200 million over five years, which would have been a big commitment to a player the organization didn’t fully trust.
Nonetheless, it feels highly implausible that Cousin’s trade value around the league could have reached this nadir (he’s Boogie freaking Cousins and is getting paid less than Allen Crabbe). Yet, it’s difficult to make the argument that the Kings should have gotten a greater return for him when they clearly (hopefully?) canvassed the league for better offers and found no takers. Many teams had more valuable pieces to offer than what the Kings eventually accepted from the Pelicans, but were seemingly unwilling to put them on the table.
While the trade makes it clear that the Kings value Hield relatively highly (which is problematic given his performance this year, but the Kings’ player evaluation failures are a topic for another day), the overriding factor in the decision to trade Booige must have been the team’s desire rid themselves of a presence that they felt was poison in the locker room and toxic to the organization. While this reasoning is much more difficult to evaluate, the return was so little that the Kings aren’t really set up for a strong rebuild. Remember, they still owe their unprotected (!!) 2018 first round pick to the Sixers and the right to swap picks in 2019 (part of a separate disastrous trade that allowed Sacramento to sign the likes of Kosta Koufos, Marco Belinelli, and Rajon Rondo).
Sacramento’s roster is now largely devoid of talent and they lack the stockpile of draft picks that allows teams to execute a strong rebuild. It is going to be a long long time before Sacramento is good again As a result, it truly extends the reaches of my imagination that trading Cousins was the correct decision.
In terms of value, the Pelicans absolutely crushed the Kings. As is laid out in the Kings section, Cousins’ value with another year on a cheap contract significantly exceeds what the Pelicans gave up. However, there are two primary caveats. (1) Cousins’ attitude — you can’t just assume his issues in Sacramento will disappear with a new team — and fit within the Pelicans organization, including alongside Anthony Davis. (2) Cousins is a free agent in the summer of 2018 and there isn’t a huge financial incentive for him to stay in New Orleans.
Boogie has an attitude problem, evidenced in part by the trade itself. The King were willing to accept a weak return in exchange for one of the best players in the NBA because they simply did not want him around the team. That says a lot. But Cousins is an overwhelming talent who bulldozes opponents on the offensive end and when engaged, can also have a positive impact defensively. There is reason to be optimistic Cousins can succeed in a new environment.
There is also a question of the on-court fit. There are diminishing marginal returns with the Cousins and Davis frontcourt pairing. First, Cousins and Davis rank second and seventh in the NBA in usage rate respectively. Two teammates with a combined 70% usage rate is unprecedented. Take an extreme example, if we added up Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s 2015-16 usage rates, it’s still only 61%. Boogie and AD are going to have to sacrifice touches to coalesce.
Touches are not the only aspect that Cousins and Davis will have to share, they will also have to divide floor space. Both players are capable shooters, but they are also both better off playing the center position. They operate best while utilizing their entire skill sets: post-up, pick and roll, and iso. So just as it isn’t maximizing Davis’ talent to spot up around Cousins post-ups, it also isn’t making the most of Cousins to have him space the floor around Davis pick and roll dives to the rim. Thus, the Pelicans will have to get creative with their play design to get these talented big men working in tandem.
Another issue is despite Boogie’s overall dominant play, he occasionally takes plays off, which is one of the reasons teams were unwilling to give up significant value for him. Successful teams want superstars who do all the little things because the rest of the team will follow suit. If the superstar isn’t going to give his full focus and energy for the entire game, then why would anyone else? So the Pelicans must figure out how to get Boogie motivated enough to help the team succeed. However, while you can argue that Cousins is the wrong superstar to pair with Davis or a suboptimal personality to add to the locker room, the Pelicans were not going to get another superstar. So, despite a less than ideal fit, the trade is certainly value-enhancing considering how little they gave up.
Furthermore, Boogie is set to be a free agent in the summer of 2018, which presents a thorny situation for the Pelicans. The Kings had the ability to pay Cousins significantly more than any other team because of the designated player veteran extension. However, because the rule only applies to the team that drafted the player, the Pelicans will have no such advantage when they try to re-sign Boogie during 2018 free agency. The Pelicans are able to offer five-year deal with 8% annual raises versus the four -year deal with 5% annual raises other teams could offer, but the monetary incentive for Boogie to stay is only marginal.The Pelicans have the sole ability to give Boogie a five-year deal, which offers the security blanket of a more guaranteed money. However, the maximum amount the Pelicans can offer Cousins over four years is $139 million, just $6 million more than any other team can offer, which isn’t going to significant tilt the scale in the Pelicans’ favor if Boogie is considering leaving.
The Pelicans are in a paradoxical dilemma. To be successful, they must not allow Cousins anywhere near the kind of organization clout he had accumulated in Sacramento. Yet, giving him some sway within the organization might be the only way to keep him happy and eventually retain him in free agency. This prickly situation may ultimately be the reason Boogie departs. But even if he does, I’d still prefer a year and a third of a wildly underpaid Cousins to Hield and a middling first round pick.
The fit isn’t perfect for New Orleans. Boogie will have to buy into a team that is currently 11th in the West and the Pelicans will have to perform a careful waltz to maximize the talents their two extremely high-usage big men. There is blow-up potential here, but the worst-case scenario is that Cousins leaves in the summer of 2018 and the Pelicans move on. At the price the Pelicans paid, the gamble on Cousins is more than worth the risk.