After Vlade Divac surprisingly traded DeMarcus Cousins on Feb. 20, 2017, the Kings general manager famously delivered a prediction.
“I believe we are going to be in a better position in two years,” Divac said. “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.”
We’ve almost reached that two-year mark, so it’s time to assess the work Divac has done since making the difficult decision to deal away Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package featuring Buddy Hield and a first-round and a second-round draft pick.
The Kings were 24-33 when they traded Cousins, a four-time All-Star who considered the franchise’s cornerstone from the moment he was picked fifth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft. They were just outside of the playoff hunt at the time of the transaction but fell apart down the stretch, struggling to an 8-27 record over the final 35 games to finish with the league’s eighth-worst record.
Hield played well for Sacramento after coming over in the deal, finishing his rookie season by averaging 15.1 points per game in 25 games wearing a Kings uniform. In his third season, the 26-year-old has become one of the league’s best shooters, and he’s averaging more than 20 points per game as the Kings’ starting shooting guard.
New Orleans struggled down the stretch after acquiring Cousins, which worked out perfectly for the Kings. They took the 10th overall selection from the Pelicans and traded it to the Portland Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th picks in the 2017 NBA Draft.
With the 15th pick, the Kings selected Justin Jackson out of North Carolina. He has become a valuable part of the team’s rotation as a reserve wing, and is showing major improvements in his second season.
Divac selected Harry Giles with the 20th pick, and then redshirted the talented but injured big man in Year 1. Giles has worked himself into the rotation and has high-end potential in the post.
Sacramento also received the 34th pick in the 2017 draft as part of the Cousins trade. It used the selection to take Frank Mason, who has been in and out of the rotation in his first two seasons with the team.
In addition to acquiring Hield, and the picks used on Jackson, Giles and Mason, there was an expected secondary result from the trade. In fact, it was one of the motivations behind it.
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The Kings owed a top-10-protected pick to the Chicago Bulls as part of the 2011 trade that sent Omri Casspi to the Cleveland Cavaliers for J.J. Hickson. The transaction hung over Sacramento’s head for years, but 2017 was the final summer that Chicago could receive the pick. If it wasn’t relayed during that season, it converted to a second-round selection.
By falling apart down the stretch without Cousins, the Kings retained the pick. On draft lottery night, Sacramento moved from the eighth spot in the lottery to the third pick, before dropping back to fifth as part of a pick swap with Philadelphia.
With the fifth overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft, Divac selected De’Aaron Fox out of Kentucky. In his second NBA season, he is the centerpiece of the Kings’ franchise.
Divac gambled, and the early results are shocking. He basically turned Cousins into Hield, Jackson, Giles, Mason and Fox. He went young last season, and that resulted in another lottery selection, which became Marvin Bagley.
In Cousins’ six-plus seasons with the Kings, the team never made it to Jan. 1 with a .500 record. The team currently sits at 23-22 on the season and is in the hunt for a playoff spot. Meanwhile, Cousins is with the two-time defending champion Warriors after leaving the Pelicans, trying to rebuild his value after an Achilles injury cut his 2017-18 season short.
Sacramento did its best to build a team around Cousins, who would’ve been paid upwards of $35 million this season, not the $5 million the Warriors are on the hook for now. Every summer, the Kings focused on bringing in the right fit to match with their star. It never worked out.
The rebuild hasn’t been easy. The Kings have made some mistakes, and there were plenty of ups and downs, but Divac has reinvented the team as a young and exciting club with plenty of talent.
He and his staff also have used the cautious approach to the salary cap and have the financial freedom they wouldn’t have had with Cousins in tow. They are walking into the trade deadline with $11 million in cap space and $37 million in expiring contracts.
If Divac and his group take a cautious approach to the deadline, they can walk into the summer with most of their rotation under contract and upwards of $60 million in cap space.
Trading DeMarcus Cousins was about as bold as it gets in the NBA world. Divac put himself on notice with the move, and he’s found a way to come out ahead.