The Sacramento Kings want to make the playoffs. The team has the second-longest playoff drought in the NBA and is moving into a fancy new (and expensive) arena in one year. New ownership has faltered repeatedly, making odd and untimely coaching and front office hiring and firing decisions. The team has not won 30 games since 2007-08.
The Kings have had seven coaches since then, none lasting longer than Paul Westphal's two-plus seasons. The team traded away future draft considerations to open up the cap space to make a run at No. 8 this season, landing Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli after striking out on Wesley Matthews and Monta Ellis. With those additions, vets Darren Collison and Rudy Gay and the (sometimes) best big man in the West in DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings thought they had a squad that could finally challenge for a playoff spot.
The Sacramento Kings are 1-7 and in sole possession of last place in the Western Conference.
They held a team meeting on Nov. 10, a whopping 13 days after the start of the season. That's impressive timing, even for this team.
* * *
Figuring out the Kings' problem this season is remarkably easy. Cousins, the alpha and omega of this squad, missed four of the eight games with a strained Achilles. The Kings lost those four games by a combined 50 points. Over Cousins' career, the Kings are 11-37 (.229) when the big man sits due to injury, illness or suspension. When he plays, the Kings are a meager, but still much better 121-233 (.342).
The Kings' other three losses were to the Clippers (twice) and the Spurs. Those teams were title contenders coming into the year and are a combined 10-4 in the early going. Even if the Kings were a legitimate No. 8 seed, they'd probably lose to the Clippers and the Spurs eight times out of 10.
Sacramento is actually shooting decently from long range. The Kings are on the low-end of the league in the rate of three-point attempts they fire up, but sit at a remarkable No. 6 in three-point percentage at 36 percent. Omri Casspi has been lights out, Belinelli has been Belinelli and Collison remains a highly underrated shot-maker. Rajon Rondo, however, is taking two threes a game (that's two too many) and Gay remains a below league-average gunner. (Cousins hit 4 of 5 from long range in the opener and has missed nine straight triples, so that fun is over.)
Yet the Kings' offense is still bad because of wildly inefficient two-point shooting from almost everyone, loads of turnovers from Cousins and Rondo and a distinct inability for anyone but Cousins to draw fouls. Cousins is putting up 22 and 11, but he's shooting 37 percent from the floor. That's not tenable for an efficient offense.
The defense has loads of problems. Opponents are shooting an incredible 71 percent on shots taken within six feet of the rim, 66 percent inside of 10 feet and 58 percent on two-pointers in total, per NBA.com's stats page. All of those marks are worst in the league. It's a mix of poor ball control on the perimeter (there isn't a single good backcourt defender on this roster), bad rotations and a scheme that just might not work with this collection of players. Even if you presume Cousins will get back to near 50 percent on twos, the team draws a few more fouls and cleans up the turnovers, there is remarkably little hope for defensive improvement unless Cauley-Stein develops faster than anyone expects.
Given the Kings' dearth of assets, there isn't any one attainable player type that could fix this team. You'd much rather have even a poor man's Kawhi Leonard than Gay given team needs, but Sacramento can't pull off a move like that without winning big on a dice roll. Ben McLemore is losing his luster fast and the Kings don't really have any draft picks to trade.
That brings us to the nuclear option.
* * *
The surest way to get a Sacramentan to glower is to suggest the Kings may sometime need to trade DeMarcus Cousins. The team hasn't had a player like him since Chris Webber, and a young, homegrown player like him ever. Cousins is the best young player to ever land in Sacramento and is one of only a few undisputed draft successes in modern franchise history. Cousins should break every Sacramento-era record and finally lead the team to glory.
He isn't doing that. He could still do that someday, but he isn't doing that now. That 121-233 record with him on the floor is still very bad. That record is not entirely Cousins' fault; his supporting cast has been atrocious as a rule. But it's there, and it's now Year 6.
Cousins is under contract at a bargain price through 2018, so there's no fear of losing him in free agency anytime soon. Milking the Cousins era until it's truly do-or-die time on getting anything back means carrying him until the 2017 offseason or even the 2018 trade deadline. Clearly, Kings management is confident they can turn this around by then. Many of us who have watched years of failure are skeptical.
There is a proper example in how to move on from The Next Great Hope happening in Minnesota right now. The Timberwolves could never really win with Kevin Love despite his gaudy numbers and All-Star status. They waited until a year before free agency to trade him ... and netted Andrew Wiggins. That, plus a bad season of their own, earned them the vaunted Wiggins/Karl-Anthony Towns core that has everyone around the league drooling. And while the learning curve will be steep, the new Wolves already look as good as most of Love's Wolves teams.
Minnesota's failures were never Love's fault. Injuries pounded that team repeatedly, former GM David Kahn botched a number of draft picks (including Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry and Wesley Johnson over Cousins) and Kurt Rambis coached the team for two years. But it just wasn't working with Love, either. So, Flip Saunders rebooted the franchise and now they look as promising as ever. Sometimes you just need to hit the reset button.
Can the Kings reset now? Their draft situation is extraordinarily strange. Thanks to a foolish trade with Philadelphia to free up cap space, the Sixers have the right to swap picks with Sacramento in 2016 if it lands in the top 10 (as is likely). If the Kings falls to No. 11 or beyond, the Bulls get it. The Sixers also have the right to swap picks with Sacramento in 2017 and grabbed the Kings' 2018 pick, which is protected in the top 10 but converts to an unprotected first in 2019. All so the Kings could throw money at Wesley Matthews and Monta Ellis, who both turned it down, leading to a one-year rental of Rondo and some dough for Koufos and Belinelli. What a short-sighted trade.
Here's the thing: the Sixers are also awful! If Philadelphia and Sacramento both finish the season among the worst teams in the NBA, the Sixers essentially have two huge shots at a top-three pick. If the current standings hold, Philly finishes the season with the worst record and Sacramento is third-worst. If Philly wins the lottery or otherwise finishes higher than Sacramento in the lottery, it will just keep its pick and Sacramento will keep its own. If Sacramento wins the lotto or otherwise finishes higher, Philly will swap picks. Given these standings, Philly would have a 40 percent shot at the No. 1 pick. (They also take the Lakers' pick if it falls outside the top three. That's a hell of a war chest.)
Sacramento would still have a relatively high pick, but it has a zero percent chance at No. 1 and lower-than-expected shots at Nos. 2 and 3 overall this season or next given the swap situation. It gets even worse if Philadelphia gets much better now. Then, the Kings would give up a high pick for a low lottery selection, which is painful.
If the Kings trade Cousins for draft picks, young prospects and salary chaff, they will remain awful this season and end up with a high pick barring a Philadelphia miracle. If they continue to rebuild next season, they'll need to bet on Philly staying bad despite the likely arrival of Dario Saric, Joel Embiid (maybe) and another high pick. It's a risky game, but there's a pretty good shot the Kings can keep lottery picks in both seasons. Thanks be to Sam Hinkie's master plan.
So, who has the assets to grab Cousins, a need at center and years of reported interest in the big man? Hello, Danny Ainge!
The Celtics have their own 2016 pick (likely landing in the late teens), probably the Mavericks' pick (top-seven protected, likely to land in the late lottery) and maybe the Timberwolves' pick (top-12 protected, so don't count on it). Most importantly, Boston holds Brooklyn's unprotected first-rounder. Brooklyn has not won a game this season.
Simply trading Cousins for that pick would likely net Sacramento two top-five picks: their own after the Philly swap and that of the Nets. The Kings can try to also pry additional picks (of which Boston has plenty) or Marcus Smart. The Celtics have in David Lee a suitable dead-weight contract to include. (Ainge has another unprotected first from the Nets in 2018 and a 2017 swap option, plus a future Grizzlies pick and all of his own selections. One or two of Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, James Young and Jared Sullinger could help round out the offer.)
No one likely to be interested in Cousins has that big a bucket of assets. If the Celtics are willing to give up the Nets' pick for Cousins, the Kings could reboot immediately just as the Wolves did. (One assumes they'd follow up by finding new homes for Gay and perhaps Rondo. Collison, McLemore, Koufos and of course Cauley-Stein are worth hanging onto.)
The problem with trading Cousins, much as it was with trading Love, is that he's damn good. He's going to put up monster numbers and be a star for years to come. He's talented enough to be the anchor of a really good team, maybe a title team. Just, not this team unless major things change. The only way to change things in a major way is to trade Cousins.
It's unlikely the Kings' front office is ready to give up on the season even at 1-7, so we'll be waiting until at least January, if not June, to see some action on the Cousins front.
But for the first time in five years, it's finally worth seriously considering what a post-Cousins Kings team might look like and whether that's preferable to more of this mediocrity.
* * *
SB Nation presents: You have to see this dunk to believe it