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The Sacramento Kings are at a crossroads when it comes to DeMarcus Cousins

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Kimani Okearah

The Sacramento Kings are at a crossroads.  Just three years ago, the city and team was filled with hope.  The Maloofs were gone, the team was staying and the Kings finally had a real opportunity to build a team the right way.

Today, much of that hope is gone.  The Sacramento Kings under Vivek Ranadivé have not made much progress despite featuring one of the best big men in today's NBA, DeMarcus Cousins.  The team has gone through three coaches, two general managers and a complete roster overhaul as Cousins remains the only player on the team to predate Ranadivé's ownership.

Ranadivé's tenure began with a declaration that this was DeMarcus Cousins' team.  The Kings handed Cousins the keys to the franchise and a maximum contract extension that very same summer.  The team hired a young, highly sought after coach, an ambitious General Manager and immediately began the process of building a team focused around DeMarcus Cousins.  Time was on Sacramento's side.  Kings fans were patient, still rejoicing their victory over Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer, and Cousins was locked up for five more years.

So where did it all go wrong?

A Timeline of Sacramento's Biggest Moves in the Cousins Era

June 24th, 2010: The Sacramento Kings selected DeMarcus Cousins with the 5th pick of the 2010 NBA Draft and Hassan Whiteside with the 33rd pick. And there was much rejoicing.

February 23rd, 2011: Traded Carl Landry to New Orleans for Marcus Thornton and Cash Considerations.

June 23rd, 2011: The Kings traded the 7th pick to Charlotte and Beno Udrih to Milwaukee.  In return the Kings got John Salmons and the 10th pick from Milwaukee.  The Kings selected Jimmer Fredette with the 10th pick and Isaiah Thomas with the 60th pick.

June 30th, 2011: Traded Omri Casspi and a future 1st round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for J.J. Hickson.  That 1st round draft pick featured numerous protections and as a result has yet to be transferred five years later.  Remember, always use protection (when trading first round picks).

December 9th, 2011: Signed restricted free agent Marcus Thornton to a 4 year, $31 million deal.  Geoff Petrie was notorious for not letting the market set a players value, especially when it was the team's own restricted free agents in which they had the most control and leverage.

December 24th, 2011: Signed Chuck Hayes to a 4 year, $22 million deal.  Hayes was the first multi-year Free Agent (not including extensions or re-signings) the Kings had brought in since Mikki Moore in 2008. That should tell you a little bit about how unwilling to spend the Maloofs had been.

January 5th, 2012: Kings head coach Paul Westphal is fired after a 2-5 start and a big dust-up with DeMarcus Cousins.  Keith Smart replaces Westphal as Head Coach.

March 5th, 2012: The Kings officially picked up Keith Smart's team option to be head coach for the 2012-13 season.  This is a few days after Joe Maloof proclaimed he wanted Smart to be the team's head coach forever.

March 19th, 2012: The Kings waived J.J. Hickson.  Hickson didn't even last a full season in Sacramento.

June 28th, 2012: The Sacramento Kings selected Thomas Robinson with the 5th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft.

July 9th, 2012: Signed restricted free agent Jason Thompson to a 5 year, $34 million extension.  Again, the Kings refused to let the market set a price on a player even though they had the option to match.

July 16th, 2012: The Kings waived Hassan Whiteside.  29 other teams likely would have done the same.  Whiteside eventually found a place in the NBA, but not until after numerous stints in the D-League and having to go overseas to play basketball in places like Lebanon.

February 20th, 2013: Traded Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt to Houston for Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich, Toney Douglas and of course, Cash Considerations.

May 28th, 2013: The NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved sale of the Sacramento Kings from the Maloof Family to Vivek Ranadivé.

May 30th, 2013: Michael Malone is hired as head coach of the Sacramento Kings, the first important move of the Vivek Ranadivé era.  Malone replaces the departing Keith Smart.

June 15th, 2013: Pete D'Alessandro is hired as General Manager of the Sacramento Kings, replacing Geoff Petrie.  Petrie held the job of GM for almost two decades.

June 27th, 2013: The Sacramento Kings selected Ben McLemore with the 7th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft.

July 10th, 2013: The Sacramento Kings opted not to match New Orleans' offer on restricted free agent Tyreke Evans.  The Kings decided to do a sign-and-trade involving Portland and New Orleans instead.  The Kings traded Evans to New Orleans for Greivis Vasquez.  Portland sent Sacramento two future 2nd round draft picks and Cash Considerations in return for taking on Robin Lopez from New Orleans.

July 15th, 2013: Signed Carl Landry to a 4 year, $26 million deal, the first free agent signing of the Vivek Ranadivé era.

September 30th, 2013: Gave DeMarcus Cousins a 4 year, maximum extension.

November 26th, 2013: Traded Luc Mbah a Moute to Minnesota for Derrick Williams.

December 9th, 2013: Traded Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez to Toronto for Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray.

February 9th, 2014: Traded Marcus Thornton to the Brooklyn Nets for Reggie Evans and Jason Terry

February 27th, 2014: Kings waived Jimmer Fredette.  Fredette is currently not playing in the NBA.

June 26th, 2014: The Sacramento Kings selected Nik Stauskas with the 8th pick of the 2014 NBA Draft.

July 12th, 2014: The Kings opted not to match Phoenix's offer on restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas.  They sign-and-trade him to Phoenix for a trade exception and the rights to Alex Oriakhi.  Isaiah Thomas made his first NBA All-Star team this past February.  Alex Oriakhi has not played in a single NBA game and didn't even start for the Kings in Summer League.

July 12th, 2014: Signed Darren Collison to a 3 year, $15 million deal.

September 18th, 2014: The Kings sign Omri Casspi as a free agent to a one-year deal, bringing Casspi back to where his career started.

November 16th, 2014: Gave Rudy Gay a 3 year, $40 million extension.

December 15th, 2014: The Kings fire head coach Michael Malone after the team goes 2-7 with DeMarcus Cousins out due to viral meningitis.  Before that illness the Kings were 9-6, their best start in years.  Tyrone Corbin is appointed Interim Head Coach.

February 17th, 2015: Tyrone Corbin is replaced as head coach by George Karl after going 7-21.

March 3rd, 2015: Vlade Divac is hired as VP of Basketball and Franchise Operations. At first nobody seems to know what this means, but it becomes clear within weeks that Vlade has supplanted Pete D'Alessandro as the lead decision maker in Sacramento. D'Alessandro chooses to leave in the offseason and Divac officially takes over the title of GM as well.

June 25th, 2015: The Sacramento Kings select Willie Cauley-Stein with the 6th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

July 9th, 2015: Traded Carl Landry, Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson, a future 1st round draft pick as well as the rights to swap 1st round picks in the next two years to Philadelphia for the rights to Arturas Gudaitis, Luka Mitrovic and a future 2nd round pick.

July 13th, 2015: Signed Rajon to a 1 year, $9.5 million deal. Signed Kosta Koufos to a 4 year, $33 million deal. Signed Marco Belinelli to a 3 year, $19 million deal.

July 14th, 2015: Re-signed Omri Casspi to a 2 year, $6 million deal.

A Rotten Foundation

For all the flak that Ranadivé's ownership has gotten as the team has failed to live up to expectations, they pale in comparison to the damage the Maloof Family caused in their final years in Sacramento.  The Maloof's financial issues overshadowed any attempt to build a competitive team.  Free Agency was basically a non-starter for the Kings during this time.  Even some of Sacramento's draft picks during this time seemed predicated on money rather than talent; there have been numerous whispers that Jimmer Fredette's selection was more about tapping into Jimmer-mania and selling tickets than his actual on-court fit.  Sam Amick mentioned the decision to take Thomas Robinson in 2012 over Damian Lillard (a Petrie favorite) was in part due to fear that ownership wouldn't be willing to pay for an extension for Jason Thompson.  You can see from the timeline above just how much damage was caused during this crucial period.

The multiple relocation attempts during this time period were another huge distraction for the team.  For almost three years, the focus on the team was mainly on if they would even be there in the long run rather than the actual on-court product.

Ranadivé's early decisions as owner have already caused severe damage to this franchise

Ranadivé is hardly blameless though.  His early decisions as owner have already caused severe damage to this franchise.  Perhaps his most crucial mistake came on that fateful day in December when the team decided to fire head coach Michael Malone after a bad stretch in which the team was missing DeMarcus Cousins due to viral meningitis.  This decision was shocking at the time, and even more shocking in retrospect, given that we know how it turned out.  While there's been a lot of finger-pointing regarding whose decision to fire Malone ultimately was, that doesn't really matter.  What matters is that it happened, and Ranadivé and his front office vastly overestimated their pull with the players and their connection to their coach.  Many players, not just DeMarcus Cousins, felt betrayed by the decision, and the blowback set off a domino effect leading us to the situation we're in today.

That situation is pretty dire.  The Kings came into this season with hopes that they could make the playoffs, or at the very least, compete in the playoffs.  For the first time in the Sacramento-era, the Kings spent big money in Free Agency.  They made a big trade with the Sixers to acquire that space, using what little assets they had, including their lottery pick from the previous year.  On paper, this team looked like it could compete, and for a while it did.  In mid-January, the Kings were 20-23 and in control of the 8th spot.  For the first time in years, the Western Conference playoff race didn't look like it required a 45+ win season to be in the conversation.

Then the wheels fell off the bus.  The Kings have gone just 6-18 since then. George Karl looks to be on his way out, DeMarcus Cousins is receiving suspensions for conduct detrimental to the team and the Kings don't have a clear way of improving.

Sacramento's options going forward are extremely limited.  In fact it comes down to the basic premise that Ranadivé laid out at the very beginning: Is this DeMarcus Cousins' team or not?

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

Is DeMarcus Cousins worth the trouble?  That's been the big question surrounding Cousins ever since he declared for the NBA Draft.  On talent and physical tools alone, Cousins should have been in the conversation for the top overall pick.  Instead, his "red flags" caused him to drop all the way to 5 and into the Kings laps.

Since then the Kings have experienced all the highs and lows of the DeMarcus Cousins experience.  At times, Cousins will make you want to pull your hair out as he loafs back up the floor or gets a technical for complaining about a foul he clearly committed.  At others, he'll make your jaw drop with crossover moves that 7 foot, 280 lb. men should not be able to do, or ignite a crowd by throwing his body in harms way to draw a clutch charge.  When he's on top of his game and fully engaged, he's one of the most entertaining players in the NBA.  Unfortunately those times seem to come and go on a whim.

For years, the book on Cousins has been to get in his head and frustrate him.  As such he draws an astonishing amount of contact whenever he gets in the post, possibly more than anyone else in the NBA.  He draws a ton of free throws as a result, but even still, there are still far too many moments when he lets his emotions get the better of him.

Cousins is also incredibly inefficient for a star big man with such a high usage rate.  For his career, Cousins has never shot better than 49.6% from the field (that first full season under Michael Malone), and this year he is shooting just 44.8%.  There are currently 58 players in the NBA averaging 15 points or more.  Cousins ranks 4th among those players in points per game but just 31st in FG%.  The only big men on that list shooting a worse percentage than him are Ryan Anderson (42.4%) and Kevin Love (41.0%), both players that are mainly jump shooting bigs.  Even Boogie's teammate Rudy Gay, long heralded as a prime example of an inefficient scorer, is scoring more efficiently than Cousins this year.

Cousins' inefficiency is partly by design, as George Karl's offense has him spending a far greater time on the perimeter than he has at any other time in his career.  Before this season, Cousins had launched just 69 three point attempts in five years.  He's up to 191 this year with a decent chunk of games left.

Sacramento's mandate to be a fast-paced team also seems to run counter to the fact that DeMarcus Cousins is the team's centerpiece.  Cousins is not a player that excels in transition, and utilizing a fast-pace, perimeter-oriented offense mitigates Cousins' strengths on both ends of the floor.  Yet Vivek Ranadivé made it clearly known after firing Mike Malone that this is exactly the type of offense he wants.

You can't ignore Cousins' many strengths as a basketball player however, and he's rightly earned his place among the NBA's elite big men.  Few players draw as much attention as he does, and he still finds regular ways to punish other teams despite all that attention.  He's an excellent passer for a big man, one of the top rebounders in the entire league and he's also made great strides defensively.  On top of all that, he's just 25 years old and is locked up for two more years.

It's those two more years that worry me though.  Sacramento's failure to get even close to the playoffs yet again means that time's running out.  While Cousins has repeatedly stated how much he likes Sacramento, he's also said the same thing about winning, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will opt to leave in Free Agency in two years should the Kings continue to come up short in the standings.  The Kings absolutely cannot afford to lose Cousins in Free Agency for nothing, as a team that's so asset poor can't just give away talent (that's perhaps my biggest beef with the decision to not match Isaiah Thomas' contract).

Two Choices

The Kings have two choices in front of them, and the decision on which way to go will not be easy to make.  They can either continue forward with the plan to build around DeMarcus Cousins and hope that this next coach as well as other moves the team makes this summer work out, or they can opt to start from scratch and deal Cousins for the type of assets they wouldn't be able to otherwise acquire.

I think it's fairly obvious which way the Kings will decide to go.  They'll take the easier path, the one with less immediate risk, and stick with Cousins for at least one more year.  In the end, that might not be a bad bet anyway as maybe a new coach finds a way to utilize him properly and the Kings can acquire enough pieces this summer (like say a good lottery pick and a decent free agent-signing or trade) to make the jump into playoff contention.  That doesn't seem particularly likely, especially given Sacramento's history, but it is a possibility.

The more realistic scenario in my mind is that it simply delays the inevitable.  The well has been poisoned between the Kings organization and DeMarcus Cousins, and I don't think either side can fully reach their potential together.  Both Cousins and the Kings need a fresh start, and the sooner Sacramento makes this decision, the easier it will be to plan for the future.  You don't want to be making long-term decisions for the team based around Cousins if Cousins isn't actually going to be around long-term.

This is also the most leverage the Kings will ever have in moving Cousins.  Two years gives teams plenty of time to evaluate Cousins and potentially convince him to stay, while waiting until he only has a year (or worse, half a year if the team waits to the deadline), limits the pool of teams that might take a chance on him to only those convinced he will re-sign immediately, and even then those teams won't be incentivized to offer much in return.

The Kings have a clear history of making short-sighted moves at the cost of long-term gains

Since DeMarcus Cousins was drafted, there have been several NBA franchise centerpieces that have been traded as teams decided to move on and start fresh: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kevin Love and Dwight Howard.  Each team has since seen positive development in their own franchise rebuilds and seem to be in a better spot than before. Denver has a roster of young talent, as well as some veterans like Danilo Gallinari.  New Orleans, although decimated by injury troubles in recent years, has a new centerpiece in Anthony Davis.  Utah has made the type of jump this year that Sacramento hoped to, and although they don't have a single All-Star, guys like Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert make them an intriguing team going forward.  Both Orlando and Minnesota have taken advantage of losing their stars by acquiring a plethora of young talent, and seem well positioned going forward should those players develop properly.

The Kings have a clear history of making short-sighted moves at the cost of long-term gains (as you can see from the timeline).  Those moves have ostensibly all been made to get the team into the playoffs at all costs, and yet ironically they're the reason that the Kings are still out of the picture.  Staying the course doesn't seem to be a viable strategy anymore.  It's time to change it up, and the only way the team can make any real meaningful change going forward is by trading DeMarcus Cousins.  Only then can the team truly start fresh and begin to move on.