Feb. 20, 2017, marked the end of the DeMarcus Cousins era in Sacramento. A larger-than-life personality, the 6-foot-11 center spent six and a half seasons showing flashes of brilliance mixed with bouts of petulance for the Kings.
And then he was gone.
On the verge of signing the star center to a massive $221 million contract extension, Kings general manager Vlade Divac changed course and jettisoned Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. The scene of Cousins learning his fate played out in real time as cameras surrounded him for postgame comments.
It was a jarring move that no one saw coming. It was a jarring move that everyone saw coming.
A few days later, Divac gave the quote of the decade, telling The Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin: “I believe we are going to be in a better position in two years. I want to hear again from these same people in two years. If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, I’ll step down. But if I go down, I’m going down my way.”
The two years are up, and if you were a doubter, you probably owe Divac an apology.
As the Kings prepare to face Cousins and his vaunted Warriors on Thursday night, they are in the hunt for a playoff spot as one of the best stories in the NBA.
“Clearly, I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing and I expected us to be better in two years,” Divac told NBC Sports California in an exclusive conversation Wednesday. “I’m happy that we are in this situation. There’s still a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re happy with our team and where we’re at right now.”
Moving away from Cousins was a difficult call. So difficult that neither Geoff Petrie nor Pete D’Alessandro -- Divac’s two predecessors -- were willing to do it.
“Personally, it was very difficult knowing DeMarcus’ talent and everything, but working a year and a half before that, I had a clear feeling that it was a good time for all of us,” Divac said. “For our organization, for me, for him, to do such a thing.”
Cousins’ ability is undeniable. Even coming off Achilles tendon surgery, he is making a tremendous impact on a Warriors team that has won three of the last four NBA championships.
But sometimes talent isn’t enough. The technical fouls, run-ins with the media and distractions behind the scenes eventually were too much for the Kings to overlook.
During his time in Sacramento, Cousins was incredibly generous in the community and beloved by many fans. He put up tremendous numbers, but those rarely translated to victories on the court. The Kings crested the 30-win plateau only once with Cousins in uniform, going 33-49 during the 2015-16 season under George Karl.
From Divac's perspective, there are no hard feelings. It was a business decision he felt he had to make. As he sees it, the trade worked out for both sides, and he wasn't looking to rehash the past.
“For me, personally, it’s old news. We’ve moved on from that,” Divac added. “DeMarcus, I think, is in a better place. He’s playing for a great team. I wish him all the best, but we are focused on what we’re trying to do.”
What the Kings are trying to accomplish hasn’t been done in over a decade. With 25 games remaining, they are only one game out of the playoff picture. They're young and they run, and it’s an exciting brand of basketball.
Divac rebuilt the team on the fly, in a large part because of the Cousins trade. He used the transaction to jump-start his overhaul of the roster, turning Cousins into Buddy Hield and the draft picks that became Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason.
In addition, the Cousins trade had the expected result of dropping the Kings out of playoff contention during the 2016-17 season. The team owed its first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls, but it was top-10 protected. By dropping to the eighth spot in the draft lottery following the trade, Sacramento retained its 2017 first-round pick, which they used to take De’Aaron Fox.
If they hadn't moved Cousins, the Kings wouldn’t have the young core they've built over the last two years. Despite their youth and lack of experience, the only one not shocked by the Kings' leap forward is the man who put the squad together.
“I believe in my team, I believe in those kids, so I personally am not surprised at all,” Divac said. “Is it faster than I thought? Yeah, but I’m not surprised at all where they are now.”
Divac returned to Sacramento with the goal of fixing the franchise he led as a player. He made moves again this season at the trade deadline with the hopes of putting his team over the top. He was able to improve the roster without damaging his young core, and he's built a solid foundation while keeping the Kings in a great financial position.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs and make this city proud of our young team,” Divac said. “That’s a big step, and I know they are going to grow in this process. That’s our plan.”
Divac isn’t taking a victory lap, but he loves where his team is at. Most people around the NBA also love the direction the Kings are heading.
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Sacramento is a year or two ahead of schedule, and it isn’t done yet. With a strong finish, the Kings have a shot to snap the franchise’s 12-season playoff drought.
It all started with a transformative trade. Divac took a gamble on himself when he dealt Cousins. But two years after one of the most shocking transactions in Kings history, the talk of Divac stepping down is a thing of the past. In fact, there probably should be a conversation about when he will be offered an extension.