An otherwise relatively unremarkable All-Star Weekend in New Orleans was capped last night with news that rocked the basketball world: DeMarcus Cousins need not catch his plane back to Sacramento, as the All-NBA center and Kings franchise malcontent would be sticking around with the Pelicans. Vivek Ranadive and Vlade Divac had just dealt Sactown's three-time All-Star to the Big Easy for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, the Pels' 2017 first-rounder (top-three protected) and the Sixers' 2019 second-round pick.
The league-wide fallout from this deal is of course considerable, and perhaps affects no team besides the two directly involved as much as the Philadelphia 76ers. What does this mean across the board, and for our considerations specifically? Let's Boogie:
So, like ... why?
The biggest question any fan of any team has regarding the DeMarcus Cousins trade is simply how the hell it could've happened. As a talent, DeMarcus Cousins is absolutely transcendent. At least until our guy JoJo becomes fully weaponized, it's hard to imagine a big man with a more complete offensive game — he's an elite post player (28 points a game, 12 in the paint alone), a clever and willing playmaker (five assists a game), and as of this season, also a knockdown outside shooter (35% from deep). He's an improving defender and as imposing a late-game threat as an opposing team could hope to avoid, and at 26 years old, he's only just entered his prime. If he isn't a top-ten player in the NBA right now, he'll do until the top-ten player gets here.
And yet, he just got traded for a protected first-round pick, a 23 year-old-rookie averaging under 10 points (and <40% shooting), an early-career journeyman guard and a combo ball-hog the Kings already said goodbye to four years earlier. It's as stunningly minimal a return for an All-World frontcourt talent as a team has gotten since the Lakers pissed off the rest of the Association by stealing Pau Gasol before the trade deadline in 2008. And while it's shocking that the Kings accepted such an offer for such a generational talent — especially after publicly and privately insisting they intended to hold on to DMC — it's even more surprising that no other team offered a better package first.
Of course, it's not as simple as it looks on paper. The Kings had a number of factors working against them in dealing Cousins — the two biggest being that Cousins had apparently refused to sign an extension with whatever team dealt for him (with his contract expiring in summer 2018), and that it seems like no good teams wanted to roll the dice on adding Cousins for a post-season run. The teams that were reported as being in on the DMC sweepstakes — the Lakers, Pelicans and Suns — were all well under .500, willing to gut their roster for the kind of blockbuster deal that the Celtics and Wizards of the world were apparently unwilling to pull the trigger on.
Why would that be? Well, as anyone's paid attention to DeMarcus' career since he was drafted three spots after Evan Turner in 2010 knows, Cousins' elite talent comes with a price. At times a locker-room bully and an on-court timebomb, Cousins has proven exceptionally difficult to build around — though it's hardly a challenge the Kings have risen to, whiffing on draft picks all around him and making perplexing deals (like the Stauskas deal the Sixers directly benefited from — more on that later) that have short-changed the team's future and not even particularly improved the present.
Whether the Kings put DMC in an impossible situation or if DMC made the situation impossible for the Kings on his own has been the subject of extended unsolvable debate for some time now, but most industry insiders agreed the situation was becoming untenable. And with the Kings owing a first-round pick to the Bulls this year if their draft slot fell outside the top 10 — they entered the All-Star Break at No. 11 — but only owing a second-rounder if the pick didn't transfer this year, they had added incentive to get worse quicker.
Does any of that explain how they couldn't get an offer even a little better than the odds-and-ends package they ended up getting for a player of Cousins' game-changing caliber? Maybe not. But this is the Kings, and as the Sixers know better than anyone, they aren't always the smartest organization when it comes to maximizing their assets. So, on that topic:
How does this change our pick swap situation?
As you may recall, the 76ers once traded the rights to Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic to Sacramento for Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, the rights to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2017, and an unprotected first-round pick in 2019. Since last night, many pundits have asserted that the Sixers got a greater haul in that deal — which, of course, was mostly about taking on the contracts of Landry and Thompson, in a cap-purge of misguided Sacramento urgency — than the Kings got for dealing one of the best players in basketball.
It's certainly arguable, especially now. As previously mentioned, the Kings currently have the league's 11th worst record at 24-33 — 2.5 games ahead of the Sixers at 21-35 — but without Cousins, the Kings are likely to plummet over the remainder of the season, as their offense has cratered all season when DeMarcus hasn't been on the court. (They did win without him in Boston a few nights ago, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them win three of their first four games or something without him, but there's just no replacing the production of a player like Cousins over an extended stretch.)
What's more, this is likely just the beginning of the dealing for Sacramento this February. Without Cousins, and without a suitable veteran replacement for him in return, the Kings are now officially in full rebuild mode, and reports say that the rest of their proven-ish veterans may follow Boogie out the door shortly. The Kings may not win more than a half-dozen games the rest of the season, which would likely place their draft slot in the 5-7 range. It's doubtful the Sixers will finish in a much lower range than that, so the swap up still might not mean a ton — but, if the Kings jumped into the top three, we'd jump along with them, and maximizing the chance of doing that is what #pickswap was always about.
And then, 2019. The Kings are rebuilding on the fly here, with zero proven blue-chip players to their name, and to pull off a successful impromptu rebuild can often take three or four years — even if you do it right, which you should have no faith in the Kings' ability to pull off. To have a first-round pick from such a team — one without the slightest hint of protection on it — is basically to have Google stock at the turn of the millennium. It's a home-run asset, and could easily prove the key to a blockbuster deal that helps puts everything together for our roster, or just an ace in the whole in case we need a talent influx in two years' time.
The Stauskas trade is really the gift that keeps giving for the Sixers — even if Stauskas himself never contributes to a good Sixers team, which he still very well might — and assurance that the legacy of Our Once and Always Dark Lord continues to live on past the front office's current tomfoolery. And speaking of that ...
What effect might this have on the Jahlil Okafor market?
Well, if they have Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins already, it seems highly unlikely that the New Orleans Pelicans will also have a need for the services of one Jahlil Okafor — particularly not at the cost of a first-round pick that they now can't deal for a number of years. If that leaves them out of the running, along with the Blazers and Nuggets, the Sixers may be quickly finding league-wide demand to be at a minimum for their ill-fitting big man.
However, Okafor may have his suitors yet. The Celtics and Bulls are reportedly still interested in the specifically skilled big man, and while the Cousins trade does likely remove the Pelicans from the equation here, it does create a post-scoring void in Sacramento. A deal that sent plateaued Kings shooting guard Ben McLemore to Philly for Jah might end up making sense for both sides. If the Colangelo’s are so motivated, they can likely find somewhere to still move our semi-stud sophomore.
Will we still get a first-rounder for Okafor? That seems less clear — as swimming as Boston is in first-rounders, Danny Ainge is notoriously tight with his draft futures, and if he didn't want to trump that subpar New Orleans offer for Cousins, it's hard to imagine he'll be particularly motivated to leverage much for Okafor. It's more likely we'll have to content ourselves with the return of another prospect whose shine has already started to dull a little — a McLemore or James Young or Denzel Valentine or someone similarly unproven that we'll just have to hope ends up a better fit in Philly.
Even if Jah's trade market stagnates from here, though, this trade is a near-unqualified win for the Sixers — just further proof of what incredible foresight Hinkie had in making the Stauskas trade two summers ago, and of how much smarter Philly's been in executing their rebuild than nearly any other team in their position. The Pelicans still need to work through how to make a team built around two skilled, smart inside-out bigs work before free agency threatens to split them up, but all the Sixers have to figure out is how not to squander the goldmine of assets they're sitting on. Let's hope the Colangelo’s are up to the considerable task.