At the end of the day, I think that I am OK with the Kings extending DeMarcus Cousins. I’m sure that this will come as a great relief to the Kings organization, as my feelings and opinions weigh heavily into their decisions (welcome to Sacramento, Matt Barnes!).
The Kings have had a ticking clock ringing in their ears since this past summer in regards to Cousins’ current contract. In fact, they hit the snooze button when the two year alarm went off during the off season. My belief is that Cousins’ value crested during the summer when you take into account the amount of time that was left on the contract at that time, as well as the vast number of teams that had enough cap space to offer the Kings attractive deals. I believe that as his contract continues to attrit (and let’s be honest, his current contract has been one of the better values in the NBA), the amount that the Kings could get in return for him attrits as well. Certainly there are fewer potential suitors, which would also shrink the market value, as there really would be no bidding wars for Cousins in the here and now.
At a certain point, the script would have flipped completely on the Kings, and Cousins would eventually become a Millsap-type trade situation as an expiring, or even worse a guy that would play out his contract and leave Sacramento with the Kings receiving nothing in return, not even the rights to Alex Oriakhi (/not bitter…much).
Enter the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which positioned teams to better retain their superstars via being able to offer significantly more money than if a player up and Durants. This really turned the tables for the Kings, as it went from a clock-ticking venture to what is really virtually an automatic signing.
Simply, DeMarcus Cousins is a third contract max player in today’s NBA. At any given time there are roughly two dozen max contracts. There are twenty five players currently making more money than Cousins right now, and there are not twenty five better players. It’s not as though the Kings are signing Cousins to a contract that he couldn’t find on the open market, the extra CBA kiss notwithstanding.
So you sign him. A fair value (or even slightly overvalued) top fifteen player is better than letting said player walk for nothing in return. And signing him will not turn off any true potential suitors, as the Kings were certainly not going to trade Cousins for a rental rate – they were going to only deal him to a team that would be willing to give up the kinds of assets that long-haul teams give up...if they were going to deal him at all.
Make no mistake, this does not give the Kings added leverage. It only gives them added time. All of the leverage goes to DeMarcus Cousins, who could, in the blink of an eye, demand out of Sacramento at any time after the extension ink is dry. Vince Carter did it. Baron Davis did it. And DeMarcus Cousins could certainly do it.
But for the time being, let’s figure that the Kings are signing Cousins to this extension with the intention that he will be a forever King, and that one day his jersey will be raised into the rafters at Golden 1 Center, and Omri Casspi will be one of the beloved retired Kings that speaks at the ceremony while George Karl is quickly whisked away by a couple of security v-bots. The Kings have determined their centerpiece for the next six and half years. Where do they go from here?
It is not impossible to think that one of the Kings 2016-17 rookie class might crack the core rotation next year. Malachi Richardson would seem to be the most likely candidate to ascend to at least bench scorer, but that is far from a given. A year in the weight room might yield great benefits for Skal Labissiere. Georgios Papagiannis is progressing in the D-League. Bogdan Bogdanovic is the organization’s unicorn.
The development of at least one or two of these youngsters will be of paramount importance. Paying Cousins the max, the Kings are going to need to find some inexpensive core rotation value somewhere, and mid to late round rookie contracts could fill the bill. Player development has never been a strong suit for the Kings. Will they be able to change that? Adding pressure to this is very real possibility that the Kings will have very few viable draft prospects coming in over the next few years. The Kings could still lose this year’s pick to the Bulls (top ten protected, the Kings are currently sitting in the 11th draft hole), and they have no 1st round pick in 2019. That could mean one 1st round draft pick over the next three years. So we’re off to the free agent market.
I’m of a mind that it’s not that the Kings can’t attract free agents, but they have zero room for error in choosing them. That is, since the Kings (especially with impending exodus of Rudy Gay) have no top tier players after Cousins, they instead have to ask their players to perform a grade above their historic levels. Garrett Temple, for example, has done that. Omri Casspi did it a season ago. Kosta Koufos has absolutely delivered exactly what the Kings paid for, though not a grade above. Ty Lawson has been fine as a backup point guard on a cheap contract. Marco Belinelli, Rajon Rondo, Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes and Anthony Tolliver (though Tolliver has been making the most of his recent opportunities) have been less than stellar investments, but there may be the issue of fit when it comes to some of these guys, which brings into question the ability of the front office to bring in players that match the style of the coaching staff. Will the signing of Cousins magically steady the organization and allow it create a synergy between front office / coaching staff / players that has not been seen in well over a decade, and never during the Ranadivé ownership?
Trades are hard to figure right now. Dealing Rudy Gay at the trade deadline would seem like an automatic for a 16-22 team, but the front office may look at it differently through the prism of fighting for the 8th playoff slot. Short-sighted though that may be, there is a very real possibility that the Kings retain Gay until the end and let him walk away for nothing in return. Ditto Darren Colllison.
That leaves a pretty bare cupboard. As I noted during a thread conversation, Willie Cauley-Stein is playing at Larry Nance, Jr. levels. What would you give the Lakers for Larry Nance, Jr.? Ben McLemore is a $4m chair warmer. Maybe Casspi, under the very specific circumstance of an elite team looking for some bench pop from beyond the arc, could yield a very late 1st round pick.
None of this solves the issue of the lack of top-end talent alongside Cousins. With Gay leaving, the Kings really have no player other than Cousins that would be among the top 15 at their respective positions. Temple is really the only other player on the current roster that you could project into the starting lineup, with significant upgrades needed at point guard, small forward and power forward.
Bottom line, the road to relevance appears to be no closer or easier to understand today than it was a couple of days ago. Cousins will be extended, but the extension itself will not have the impact on the franchise that a contract of this size should have. Frankly, the extension is business as usual for the Kings, and that business has translated into some miserable basketball over the three and a half years of Ranadivé ownership. One would hope that in making this level of investment, the Kings have a defined road map and set of directions towards once again becoming a 50 win or better team, and that the road ahead will become much clearer for them and their fans.