As we head into the 2016-17 NBA season, the Sacramento Kings are a team that should appear on your “must watch” list. But not exactly for riveting basketball.
In all likelihood, we are watching the final days of Rudy Gay’s career as a King, but it is DeMarcus Cousins whose potential move could have power shifting potential.
Trading him will probably be the most difficult decision that vice president of basketball operations and general manager Vlade Divac will have to make.
Still, it appears to be an easy one.
* * * * * *
Of all NBA teams, the Kings have the second-longest playoff drought. Having not made a postseason appearance since 2006, only the Minnesota Timberwolves (who last made a playoff appearance in 2004) have them beat. With Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Kris Dunn, though, there appears to be a bright future in Minneapolis. So, for the Kings, in the battle of futility, they appear to be in the lead.
Complicating matters for the Kings, this past week, Rudy Gay essentially confirmed the reports of his having one foot out the door. Holding a player option on his 2017-18 contract year, Gay reportedly told the Kings that he plans on opting out of the final year of his contract, making him a free agent on July 1, 2017. He is also said to have let the team know that he would welcome a trade, indicating that he isn’t likely to re-sign. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how that’ll end.
Among the most telling quotes that Gay gave us this week are that he has “no choice” but to “work” for the Kings and that he will “act” as if he will be with the team all season. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The good news for the Kings, though, is that there does appear to be some life after Gay. There a semblance of a nucleus in Sacramento, and the assets could be netted in return for Gay could help the rebuilding process along.
The recently hired Dave Joerger is his sixth coach since beginning his career in Sacramento in 2011 and he has seen scores of teammates including Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo come and go. Now, as Cousins arrives at the penultimate year of his current contract, despite coming off of an incredible season, the wisest thing for the organization to do is to deal him now.
It may sound crazy, but if it does, ask yourself two questions. First, are the Kings likely to become a contender over the next two seasons? Second, will Cousins’ trade value increase between now and July 1, 2018?
The answers are “no,” and “probably not,” respectively. So why delay the inevitable?
Back in February 2011, the Utah Jazz traded Deron Williams to the Brooklyn Nets after the franchise found itself in the same exact predicament with Williams. At the time, Williams still had two inclusive seasons remaining on his contract and netted the Jazz Derrick Favors and two first-round picks in return. Had the Jazz waited until the final year of Williams’ contract, the return probably wouldn’t have been as great. Since then, things may have been slow to come together for the Jazz, but in hindsight, it’s clear that trading Williams in February 2011 was the right move and it came at the right time.
The Kings now sit in the same exact predicament with Cousins. Only he has been rather outspoken and critical of the moves the franchise is making. He has become the epitome of a disenfranchised franchise player, and if Kevin Durant left the Thunder—despite their resounding success—what do you think Cousins is thinking?
As we have seen, players in the final year of their contracts wield a de-facto “no-trade clause” in that few teams would be willing to give up any assets of substance without an assurance from the acquired player that he would be willing to re-sign with the acquiring team. In other words, one year from now, if the Kings decided it was time to move Cousins, he could simply refuse to extend his contract and hamper any attempt to trade him, even if a specific trade would yield the highest return.
With two years left, though, you can bet that every team in the league would do their best to be in on the bidding, even though Cousins would wield the same power. There are rebuilding teams in the league that would roll the dice if they had two seasons to convince a talented player to stick around. That’s precisely what the Nets did with Williams and he ultimately re-signed. The Los Angeles Clippers took a similar risk with Chris Paul, as well. That worked out, too.
Yes, trading a 26-year-old center who is coming off of a season where he averaged 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game seems asinine, but nothing would haunt the Kings more than losing Cousins for nothing in return.
Just ask the Thunder.
* * * * * *
In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers appear to be the most talented teams. The Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers all figure to be in the playoff mix, as well. The New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz are also among the teams expected to take strides forward, while the Thunder probably remain viable. That means, in all likelihood, the Kings will join the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets as the teams pulling up the rear out West.
Do the Kings have enough talent to enter the playoff race? Does newly installed head coach Dave Joerger have the ability to pull it all together and end the playoff drought that has existed since the days of Shareef Abdur-Rahim? Probably not, and that’s true despite the team having a fair amount of young players who have have bright futures in the league.
Skal Labissiere, for example, was regarded by many as a “can’t miss” prospect as recently as 2015. Had he not gone to college and could have been drafted straight out of high school, he would have been a top five pick. Instead, reminiscent of Perry Jones III in 2012, he improbably fell to the Kings on draft night. He may be the second coming of Jones—four years later, he’s not even in the league—but he could also join players like Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Isaiah Thomas and Draymond Green. They are but a few examples of prospects who were simply missed by front offices.
Along with Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson and George Papagiannis, Labissiere gives the Kings four young prospects whose best days are probably ahead. None of those four seem ready to lead the Kings back to the playoffs, but they do present hope for the future. As of right now, after becoming the poster child for futility, that’s more than can be said for the Kings odds of returning to the playoffs over the next two seasons. It’s also more than can be said of their prospects for ultimately re-signing Cousins.
We’ve seen this movie before. The writing’s on the wall. Rudy Gay told the world that he was done in Sacramento, and as his tenure draws to a close, the Kings should be thinking long and hard about making their trade conversations a double-feature. As painful as it may be, it may finally be time to part ways with arguably the most talented center in the league.
As we saw with the Jazz and Deron Williams, there absolutely is a right time to trade a franchise player.
For the Kings, that time has arrived.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.