The Sacramento Kings are a mess. This is not surprising because the default state of Kings basketball is, "mess." In the franchise's 30 years in Sacramento, it's had eight winning years, 15 50-loss campaigns and just five 50-win seasons. The Kings haven't been in the playoffs since 2006 and haven't been out of the first round since 2004.
There is just one franchise less successful than the Kings over the past decade, and by the end of the week, that team will have Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. By the end of the week, no one knows what the Sacramento Kings will have.
DeMarcus Cousins is the best player the Kings have had since peak Chris Webber, circa 2001. He's also a locker room problem. Credible reports suggest he's been really difficult to work with for a host of players and coaches. Word is Rudy Gay would prefer to no longer play with Cousins. Word is Cousins was so tough on Nik Stauskas in practice that the young Canadian's confidence remained in a permanent state of disrepair all season. These are not new blips, either. Cousins famously fought (literally) with Donte Greene and (figuratively) with Paul Westphal. No one doubts that Cousins is a rather persistent headache. (The local media in Sacramento hesitates to put on the record under their name just how rough he's been.)
That said, Cousins is a 24-year-old All-NBA center. He's the most dominant post presence in the league by a huge margin and might be the top offensive center since 2007-era Tim Duncan. He's also been huge defensively. Cousins improved leaps and bounds under Michael Malone in 2013-14 and early last season, and he's clearly the single best defender on the Kings' roster.
He also happens to be on a bargain of a contract. He's due $15.8 million next season, and $17-18 million in the following two years. In 2016-17, Cousins' deal will be worth something like 19 percent of the salary cap. The deal will likely rank among the top-five biggest non-rookie scale bargains in the league that season (along with Stephen Curry's tiny deal and Kyrie Irving's max). Unsaid in the above is that Cousins is under contract through the 2017-18 season. He has no immediate leverage to bail in free agency, which would otherwise change the calculus dramatically.
The world is a sphere, so let's come back around on the first point: Cousins is difficult. You know who else is difficult? George Karl, the Kings coach who arrived in February and is already trying to get Cousins shipped out despite no apparent in-season blowups.
Why? Good question! There has been some suggestion at a post-season meeting of the minds that Cousins declared he was "done" with the Kings. Color me skeptical of this rumor floating around Sacramento, if only because Cousins has never cared to really hide his distaste with certain personalities or situations. Why start now?
When the battle between Cousins and Westphal came to a head in early 2012, Boogie's camp hid nothing about the center's dislike, distrust and disgust for the coach. Cousins has the most forceful and fearsome agent in the NBA in Dan Fegan. If Cousins was really done with the Kings, I imagine it'd be out in the open. Fegan doesn't bluff when it comes to trade demands.
That said, there is now the list of four teams Cousins would prefer if he is indeed traded. Boogie's camp has been at the very least considering life after the Kings. There is also a rumor that Cousins requested a trade at that post-season meeting. Based on what I've heard, it seems to be that neither Cousins nor his agent have requested a trade so much as they've indicated their displeasure with the direction of the franchise -- shocking, that -- and have declared Cousins is no longer interested in being involved beyond playing basketball.
It's also incredibly obvious based on who is spreading this rumor that it comes from Karl. Of course, Cousins is not the first player with whom the legendary coach has quarreled. There was a soap opera with Ray Allen in Milwaukee. (Yes, Ray Allen.) There was loads of drama with Carmelo Anthony in Denver. But most notably, there was a serious breakdown with model citizen nice guy Kendall Gill in Seattle two decades ago. This Selena Roberts piece from the New York Times puts it in perspective.
This was all known when the Kings hired Karl, of course, and it's the central reason Cousins' agents suggested to Kings franchisee Vivek Ranadive that hiring Karl would be a bad idea. Deposed Kings GM Pete D'Alessandro is now also telling anyone who will listen -- on background, of course -- that he warned Ranadive against hiring Karl. Some think that is because D'Alessandro wanted his friend and mentor Chris Mullin to become coach in the offseason. Some think that is because he saw what havoc Karl wrought with a prima donna in Denver. Some think D'Alessandro actually argued no such thing, and was glad to have Karl aboard after working to alienate Michael Malone within the franchise.
(Tangent! D'Alessandro vociferously claims he didn't get Malone fired, which is true in a strict sense. But D'Alessandro and Mullin spent months going back to the 2013-14 season trying to show that Malone was unequipped to lead the Kings anywhere. By the time the Kings blew a couple of massive leads and began backsliding in Cousins' absence in early 2014-15, they'd convinced Ranadive that Malone wasn't the coach he wanted long-term. So Ranadive made the call. To act as if D'Alessandro didn't play a huge role is hilarious.)
All of this is water under the Tower Bridge. The question is where the Kings go from here. Here's what I think Ranadive should do to attempt to get Sacramento back on track.
1. Do not trade Boogie Cousins
The Kings have been in the lottery every year since 2007 and have one star to show for it. He is a rare breed of big man. If you trade him, you will spend the next five years praying to land some approximation of him in the draft. Don't do it. Sacramento has such trouble attracting and acquiring stars. When the Kings have one, giving it up needs to be a last resort only.
2. Ask Vlade Divac if George Karl is really the coach he wants leading the team
Ranadive has admitted that hiring a coach (Malone) before a GM (D'Alessandro) in 2012 was a mistake, yet he hired Karl before bringing in Divac this year! Divac is much more secure in himself and powerful than D'Alessandro ever had been. So instead of letting this play out for a year or so only for Divac to decide Karl isn't the right choice, sit down and make that decision now. What sort of coach does Divac want? Is he comfortable with a successful and innovative, but high-maintenance coach on the sidelines, or would he rather a motivator-type with tactic-minded assistants?
2a. If Divac is comfortable with Karl, sit them all down and delineate their roles and responsibilities. Make it clear that Divac is in charge of personnel, Karl is the coach and that's it. No more lobbying for trades outside the walls of the Kings' offices for Karl.
2b. If Divac isn't comfortable with Karl, fire him. Cut the cord now. Don't sink more precious time into a relationship that won't work. Sure, that's a gnarly little invoice to swallow and the Kings will be snarked on mercilessly. But there's no salary cap for coaches. The dollars you'd eat in Karl's contract are peanuts compared to the costs of running an NBA team. For perspective: The Kings owe Karl $9.75 million guaranteed, which is substantially less than what Derrick Williams and Carl Landry combined to earn last season.
(Plus, the Kings are going to have loads more revenue coming in soon thanks to the NBA's national TV deal and its own move into a lucrative new arena.)
3. Get Cousins some help -- literally
You weren't hearing a thing about Cousins' interpersonal skills in November, were you? Winning cures all.
With or without Karl, if the Kings add a wing defender who can shoot and bolster the bench, this team can win games. This is one thing forgotten about the 2014-15 Kings: They were really good until Cousins contracted viral meningitis. While he was out, the team replaced Malone with Ty Corbin. The team was a disaster under Corbin. Then the Kings hired Karl, but Darren Collison immediately got injured. We haven't seen one second of the team Malone had success with play under Karl. (And this is a huge deal because the drop-off from Collison to Ray McCallum is massive.)
For some perspective: among all lineups that played at least 250 minutes together in 2014-15, the Cousins-Collison-Rudy Gay-Jason Thompson-Ben McLemore unit ranked No. 5 in net rating and had the best defense. The team's problem was that Cousins exited the lineup for a while, then Collison left. There was nothing on the bench to help fill in during those absences or to preserve the leads the starting lineup had built.
The Kings need depth as badly as any team in the league. The most obvious way to get that is to draft an immediate fill-in reserve wing at No. 6 or trade the pick for one, and sign one of the several shooter/defender wings in free agency. (The candidates are Danny Green, DeMarre Carroll, Khris Middleton, Jared Dudley, Wesley Matthews, Jae Crowder and a few others of that stripe.) Then you play Rudy Gay at power forward, bring Jason Thompson off the bench at both big positions and hope the two young shooting guards (McLemore and Stauskas) develop.
4. Launch Pete D'Alessandro into the sun
Well, not literally. That's both illegal and expensive. But it's clear that D'Alessandro is emptying his clip of Kings dirt from Denver. Tell the media (and Divac, and Karl and Cousins) that everyone is done talking about the past. Just don't engage and strongly encourage your employees not to engage. On the Internet we call this "starving the trolls." I'd bet if anything could get Karl, Divac and Cousins to laugh together, it'd be calling D'Alessandro a troll. (No offense, Pete.)
5. Play it out
The great thing about hanging on to Cousins for now is that there is really no cost. Barring a catastrophic injury, Cousins' value will be high in February, next June, February 2017 and on. There is so much time to squeeze juice out of that stone. Might as well try (again) to sculpt something first.
6. Get out of the way
I don't like putting the "meddler" label on controlling partners: if you own a business, you should be involved in it! But Ranadive needs to extricate himself from the drama and the day-to-day management. If he trusts Divac as much as he says he does, let the big man work. Don't make draft picks, don't make coaching decisions, don't talk to other GMs about your players. Defer constantly to Divac until you feel Divac can no longer be trusted.
At this point, the only way to prove to Sacramento fans you aren't a Maloof in sheep's clothing is to take a step back and push Vlade into the spotlight. (Trust me, he'll like it there.)
Needless to say, this is a critical moment for the Kings. So many times, the franchise has made the wrong move. Be different.
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