DeMarcus Cousins was, to put it lightly, a polarizing figure in Sacramento Kings history. You need only look around to see just how deeply divisive #15 was. It’s been two years since he was traded. Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos are the last remaining Kings who shared a locker room with Cousins; the rest of the team had no part in the DeMarcus era. The Kings are in the midst of their most successful season in 12 years, defying all expectations of fans and pundits alike.
And yet here we are again, re-litigating that damn trade.
Its both pure madness and completely unavoidable. That’s just who DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento King, was. The debate whether to build a team around a supermaxed Boogie or tear it down and start fresh raged for years. Battle lines were drawn. It literally tore Kings fan communities apart; this very site lost longtime posters who couldn’t stomach the toxicity anymore. Not even being the most surprising success story in the NBA could instantly erase those losses by attrition.
Many opinions about the Cousins trade today actually metastasized two years ago. Opinions about Cousins himself and whether it was possible to build a winner around his giant personality. Opinions about Vlade Divac, he who traded away two pick swaps and an unprotected pick for capspace in 2015, who also ultimately pulled the trigger on the Cousins deal. Opinions about the nature of fandom itself and just how far we are supposed to trust the suits in charge.
There is one undeniable truth: Vlade Divac has steered the Kings to a far more promising future in the wake of the trade. Divac’s treasure chest of young talent includes Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the trade, who has blossomed into one of the league’s top shooters. He struck gold with De’Aaron Fox in the draft. Bogdan Bogdanovic has been an excellent addition, well worth the lottery pick he cost the Kings. Divac also earned leeway with recent transactions that are too soon to call, such as the selection of the promising Marvin Bagley over the phenomenal Luka Doncic, and the hefty financial investment in Harrison Barnes.
This is both understood and accepted by all, even by those who heavily criticized the trade at the time. There were some (such as yours truly) who were at peace with moving on from Cousins, but didn’t feel like the Kings got enough back; the Kings traded an All-NBA center for Hield (a 24 year old rookie averaging 8.6 points per game at the time), a first round pick, and a second round pick. Others felt like Cousins was the Kings’ best chance at playoff contention within the next half-decade given the Kings owed their 2019 pick outright to Philadelphia; the hope being that Cousins with a stable front office and a complementary roster was the best path back to relevancy.
We were all wrong. Hield has nearly made the Boogie deal worthwhile by himself, becoming a borderline All-Star with room to grow. That’s not luck on Divac’s part; its pure, smart GMing to target undervalued assets, and Divac saw Hield’s potential well in advance of his breakout season. It’s in the same realm of the Pacers’ smart Paul George trade for the undervalued Victor Oladipo, or the Warriors’ decision to decline a Klay Thompson for Kevin Love swap. Give credit where credit is due. The Kings are relevant and fun again. There’s no shame in admitting Vlade made a brilliant move contrary to popular consensus at the time, and the change of direction was a much-needed breath of life into a rotting franchise.
And yet, the “I-told-you-so” crowd just isn’t satisfied. Not only do the critics have to be wrong now, they had to have been obviously wrong at the time of the trade. How dare you question Vlade’s wisdom, despite only getting an old rookie in the midst of a disappointing season and a middling first round pick for the best center in basketball. It was clearly the right thing to do at the time; only it hardly was clear at all. Vlade’s GM tenure started in the red with the disastrous 76ers deal; was the expectation that everyone would just believe Vlade had turned a new leaf at the helm of the Kings? That a bad GM could become great overnight?
And then there’s the thorny issue of declaring winners and losers in the trade. “Let’s see who looks stupid now!” declared the Sacramento Bee. Yes, the fact that Cousins went down with an Achilles injury and didn’t re-sign with the Pelicans means the Kings “won” the trade. There’s no reason to believe Cousins would have suffered the same injury if he was never traded. Before Cousins was injured, he was putting up incredible numbers for the Pelicans: 25 points and 13 rebounds per game on a career-high .583 TS%. The Kings “won” the trade by winning the electoral college and losing the popular vote.
Even worse is the ridiculous lumping of Fox into the deal; not only did the Kings get Hield and a first round pick for Cousins, the argument goes, but Fox was a part of that trade too! Nonsense. The Kings got Fox because they shot up the lottery from 8th place to 3rd. It’s true that the Kings might have lost the pick outright if they kept Cousins, but that is pure speculation. There was no reason to believe the Kings were going to make a late-season run that year. At best the trade gave the Kings a handful more ping pong ball combinations, which may or may not have affected the Kings’ lottery luck. We’ll never know for sure. What is clear is that lottery luck is the main reason that Fox is a King.
There’s no need to pointlessly re-write history. You believed in Vlade to make the right decision about Cousins, to negotiate a trade, and to execute the rebuild. His spotty history as a GM gave you no reason to trust him. The return didn’t look great at the time. Yet you believed in him anyways. You were right. Vlade’s done great, and I’m excited to see what he does with this up-and-coming squad in the future. The Pelicans have gotten no long-term benefit from acquiring Cousins. But we don’t need to change the facts of the trade. It stands the test of time well enough on its own.