Kings in tough situation with Cousins

Sacramento clings to star despite losing history and his approaching free agency

The Kings long ago declared DeMarcus Cousins an untouchable, for reasons that only the Kings know. In theory, Cousins should be more touchable than an elevator button.

They haven’t made the playoffs in 12 years, or a winning season with their franchise player, and Cousins is less than two years away from unrestricted free agency. In the summer of 2018 he can walk and they get nothing. So, yes, the idea that Cousins is somehow too valuable to be traded would seem strange to 29 other teams, while the one team that controls his fate is stubbornly attached to him like a bad reputation.

For better or worse, the Kings are officially on the clock with Cousins, given his contract situation. How they handle it will dictate the future of a franchise that desperately needs a shakeup in the right direction. The tighter they cling to him, the closer he gets to free agency and the less he’ll fetch in a trade should they change their mind at the 11th hour. If they try to extend him, they do have two advantages: Sacramento can pay more than anyone, and he actually enjoys the town.

But there’s one very massive disadvantage: The Kings have failed to surround him with a supporting cast and Cousins once again lacks a teammate with star potential. None of the first-round picks taken after Cousins in 2010 managed to earn a contract extension, and just two are currently in the rotation. Based on its current makeup, coupled with a shaky front office, this team is years from being a contender. If he wants to win anything in the immediate future, why would he re-up with a club that, at least on the court, has frustrated him and often brought out the worst in his behavior?

George Karl, the former coach, wanted ownership to at least consider trading Cousins for a package of young players and picks. He was shot down and that demand eventually torpedoed his relationship with Cousins and led to his firing. Meanwhile, Cousins is once again performing like a premier big man, averaging 27.5 points and just under 10 rebounds. And once again, the Kings are sputtering in the West at 6-9.

Ordinarily, a player in his position would be the solution, not the problem. Yet, there are two reasons why he isn’t: Cousins hasn’t shown an ability to make teammates better or carry a team comprised of minimal talent, the way Anthony Davis did a few years ago. He’s not wired that way. Plus, his short fuse damages his leadership ability. Being the best player on the team and face of the franchise comes with responsibility, and when he’s constantly getting T’d up, Cousins doesn’t set a meaningful example for his teammates to follow.

Based on their overall record with him (they’ve won 30 or more games only once in his six seasons) and that he’s the only player who’d fetch valuable pieces in a trade, Cousins is likely more valuable to the Kings somewhere else instead of Sacramento.

Here are the issues: Is Vlade Divac savvy enough to swing a deal that could change the culture for the better in Sacramento? Would owner Vivek Ranadive, who’s Cousins’ biggest fan in the organization, ever give Divac that authority? And can any of this happen before the February trade deadline, which is the most ideal time to move Cousins if it already isn’t too late?

The prime time to move Cousins was last summer, and the most logical landing place was Boston. The Celtics had a wealth of assets to offer (high draft picks plus young players) and the motivation to add an All-Star center to a front line filled with low-post lightweights. There’s more: Boston could offer Danny Ainge, a general manager Cousins could trust, and Brad Stevens, a coach he’d probably respect, especially after the Karl experience.

But for some reason, either the Kings were low-balled or wanted too much or were simply too intimidated to pull the trigger. Boston settled instead for Al Horford, a less impactful yet safer option. And the Hawks filled their center hole with Dwight Howard, who’s six years older than Cousins. And the Blazers, another team needing a franchise big man, spent hundreds of millions on guards and backup players instead.

Meanwhile, the Kings remain married to Cousins and the dwindling trade market for him is unlikely to get much better, if at all.

Any contender that trades for him in February runs a big risk. First, they’ll be reinventing the club in the middle of the season because of all the moving parts involved, and that could jeopardize their chances of going deep into spring. A rebuilding team that acquires Cousins is also taking the chance that they’ll simply become the Sacramento Kings, based on how much they surrender in return.

Also, any team that trades for Cousins is only guaranteed to have him for one full season before he reaches unrestricted free agency, unless there’s such an immediate love-fest that all parties agree on an contract extension before then, or in July 2018.

It’s not an ideal situation for anyone. But the Kings would be wise to act sooner than later. Unless they truly believe Cousins doesn’t want to leave and is willing to bet another chunk of his prime years that the Kings won’t keep wasting his talent, they’re better off without him. And him without them.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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