When the Kings traded Spencer Hawes and Andres Nocioni for Samuel Dalembert, the immediate difference for Sacramento's frontcourt was that either Carl Landry would resume a sixth man role (unlikely) or that Jason Thompson became the new all-important "third big" -- the first sub off the bench at either power forward or center. Considering the good man Thompson started 58 games in 2009-10, it could be considered a demotion, to become a full-time bench player.
But in a practical sense, the regularity would help, and J.T.'s importance would be codified. That third big is really important, especially when one of the two starters (in this case Dalembert) is fairly foul-prone. Sixth Man of the Year winners typically come from the backcourt, but I'd argue that in a leaguewide survery the quality of a team's third big speaks more to a team's quality than its first perimeter sub does.
Then the draft happened. The Kings preparing to select DeMarcus Cousins was not a surprise in the final days of the draft run-up, given the contract status of both Landry and Dalembert (both with contracts expiring in 2011), the years-old frontcourt deficiencies of the Kings, and, of course, the immense talent and potential possessed by Cousins himself. It was, as they say, a no-brainer. As was the selection of Hassan Whiteside in the second round, a move with less immediate impact on the future of the team's players, but with some impact nonetheless.
If the Dalembert trade pushed Thompson to the third big slot, what did the selection of Cousins do? What happens to J.T. now?
Assuming Landry and Dalembert start together to begin the season, I think Thompson can rest assured he'll be the first big off the bench, at least for now. The issue doesn't become immediate pecking order changes, necessarily, but scope of responsibilities. As in, pre-Cousins, Thompson would have been the predominant backup power forward and predominant backup center. With Cousins in tow, Thompson will still play some center, but Boogie will carve out a good portion of those minutes, leaving Thompson to get by mostly at power forward.
It's if, or when, Cousins gets his sea legs and becomes a major minutes sopper that we'll find out Thompson's true future. That could come at the jump. I remain amazed by how many minutes Cousins played at Vegas Summer League, more than any other player in the league. The stated goal was to familiarize Cousins with pro-level size, pro-level referees, the Kings offense, a few of his new teammates and to kick-start his conditioning plan. In the first half of VSL, Cousins took those minutes, chewed them up and spit them out. Fatigue caught up with him later, but Cousins showed he has the motor to play big minutes tout frickin' suite. Given his talent and the investment the team has made in him, he'll be given an opportunity fairly early this season. That could be Week 1, that could be February.
When it does happen, Thompson gets supplanted, assuming Thompson doesn't make major strides. It's possible he does make major strides -- he was solid toward the end of the season -- but based on reasonable, non-fanboy expectations, whatever strides he makes won't make him a better player than Cousins.
Will it make him better than Landry, or at least more valuable to this line-up than Landry? The Cousins-Landry dynamic is something to watch; Landry is a scorer first and foremost, and Cousins is a scorer-rebounder. Does a team with slasher extraordinaire Tyreke Evans need two bullying scorers in the frontcourt? That remains to be seen. Landry is brilliantly efficient, whereas Thompson is not, and I can see Landry's efficient scoring beating out Thompson's rebounding and size. (I could also see Landry being flipped for a guard in February, but that's another subject entirely.)
Given all that -- the fact that Cousins will rise, that Landry and Dalembert have head starts -- I think this season is actually not that important for Thompson's future. It's rare you can say that -- I mean, every season of Kevin Martin or Francisco Garcia's career has been "the most important season of their career" as of September. But really, what matters to Thompson (barring a trade) is what happens in the 2011 offseason: is Dalembert still around on a new deal? Is Landry still around on a new deal? That will define Thompson's role with the Kings going forward, not how many minutes he plays this season.