A fairly lifeless All-Star Weekend ended with a bang, after the
Fighting Vlade Divacs Sacramento Kings agreed to make DeMarcus Cousins the newest member of the New Orleans Pelicans. After years of speculation regarding whether the mercurial star would stick in Northern California, the Kings finally decided to pull the plug and unload Cousins for Buddy Hield, salary fodder and draft picks.
Waking up to this news in the middle of the night was quite the experience, with dozens of Twitter updates and texts of disbelief from the Liberty Ballers crew sending my phone into hysterics. I would not recommend sleeping through one of the biggest NBA trades in recent memory, but your milage may vary.
While the franchises involved in the trade will be the focus of ongoing discussion for years, the fallout for the Sixers is significant from both a short and long-term perspective.
The Kings’ draft rights become one of the most valuable commodities in the league
For Philadelphia, the easiest part to analyze is the gold mine they’re already sitting on. Sixers fans have played up the value of Sam Hinkie’s trade for Nik Stauskas, draft picks, and salary for almost two years now. It’s never a bad idea to snag draft rights from the Kings, who are in a state of perpetually teetering on the edge of organizational collapse.
Cousins is a top-15 player who was really the only thing keeping the Kings afloat amidst constant uncertainty. While there have been constant questions about Cousins’ maturity and ability to anchor a franchise, his talent and importance to his former team are inarguable. That he mostly thrived despite a constant effort to undermine him* is a testament to how good he is.
The Sixers come out of this holding the same lottery tickets they had prior to the deal going through, but their relative value has exploded. It cost them nothing to improve two assets that were already nice chips for Bryan Colangelo to work with; it’s like sitting for years on a few shares of penny stock and then reaping the rewards after the company suddenly makes a major industry breakthrough.
Philadelphia’s ability to swap their pick with Sacramento looks even better today than it did when the Sixers were streaking in January. The Kings have pivoted dramatically, from competing now toward a full-scale rebuild, and the removal of Cousins will accelerate the process. With 25 games left to play, Sacramento is only three games ahead of Philadelphia in the win column. Sans Cousins and Rudy Gay — who is out for the rest of the year — the Kings are likely to be in free fall from here on out.
Should the Sixers continue to string together some wins here in the closing months of the regular season, they have some protection against surging up the standings. Fans will cling to the idea of Sacramento winning a top-three pick in the lottery — and it’s still possible — but at the very least it should help the Sixers stay in range of the 2017 Draft’s loaded second tier.
The real value in the Cousins trade for the Sixers lies years ahead. The doomsday scenario many thought was possible has come to fruition, and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first rounder is now one of the most valuable draft assets in the league, on par with any of the picks the Boston Celtics are owed by Brooklyn.
Upside here is realized on several levels. The Kings are a demonstratively worse team without Cousins, and the willingness to trade him for an underperforming 2016 Draft selection (alongside future draft assets) signals a youth movement in years to come. They are the franchise equivalent of Bruno Caboclo, two years away from being two years away, and will be at the bottom of the barrel through Kanye’s presidential campaign, at least.
A trade like this, and Sacramento’s general on-again, off-again relationship with their former star will also undercut their ability to improve their team in the short term through non-draft avenues. The Kings were already seen as the portrait of instability, and this is clearer than ever to agents and players. Barring severe overpays for middling talent — the type of players who don’t move the needle in the win/loss column — it’s going to be tough sledding for Sacramento on the open market.
Colangelo’s options are fluid in how he can use Sacramento’s 2019 pick to better the team’s future. It is protection in a future lottery against injuries and underwhelming returns from their young guys, but it’s also a pivotal trade chip. The upside and immediacy of the Sixers’ young core devalues their own picks to an extent, but Sacramento’s 2019 first gives the team an asset of significant capital. Should the Sixers see an opportunity to go out and get a big-name star on the block — names like Paul George and Jimmy Butler spring to mind — they now have an easier sales pitch to make to the team unloading a star.
*There will be fair debates about whether Cousins was “coddled” too much by the Kings through violent and unpredictable outbursts, but the GM who traded him walked in the door on Day 1 of his job and signaled his intent to deal the franchise center. If someone walked in the door and poked me me in the eye upon meeting me, I probably would be pretty reluctant to trust them from then on.
Jahlil Okafor, big man trade market rife with uncertainty
Once you come down off the contact high of the draft implications, there’s a harsh reality the Sixers need to face regarding their own big men. The market appeared to be shrinking for Okafor prior to the Cousins trade, and the elimination of New Orleans as a possible destination has limited what was already a buyer’s market.
Teams connected to the Sixers in the rumor mill are still out there — the Chicago Bulls are one alleged suitor whose motivations have remained stable in the public eye — but Portland, New Orleans, and Denver (if you saw them as a credible partner) have all completed deals while the Sixers stood pat.
Teams will still strike a deal if the Sixers come down on what they want in return, but there aren’t many clear fits for an Okafor deadline deal. The teams engaged at the deadline tend to fit one of a few major categories:
- Contending team looking for a piece to push them over the top. Toronto, who just traded for Serge Ibaka, qualifies here. So do the Celtics.
- Fringe playoff team trying to solidify their place in the mix (I would put the Pelicans in this basket pre-Cousins trade)
- Sellers/non-playoff teams moving on from veterans in pursuit of draft capital (Orlando, Sacramento are two examples this year)
The Sixers are not likely to make a deal with a team in the first category involving Okafor; contending teams aren’t betting big on young players, and Philadelphia is not going to get anything that helps them long-term from a team picking in the high 20’s. They shouldn’t generally be looking toward the third group, as the type of players being dumped at the deadline usually don’t help build your program long-term.
That leaves the middle group, and the Sixers have to clear multiple hurdles to get a deal done there. Okafor is a divisive player who some teams will be out on altogether, wary of his fit in the new NBA, but GMs in that tier are also much more reluctant to give up future upside than they’ve ever been. Teams aren’t sacrificing first-round picks or good talent on rookie deals at the rate they used to, with decades of evidence showing how quickly things can go south for any NBA team. GMs know luck in the draft can offset incompetence, bad luck, and unforeseen changes, and they horde picks accordingly.
Cousins being traded for the all-time Pu pu platter package also dilutes the market for big men in general, Okafor or otherwise. You’ll be hard pressed to extract maximum value for a big man after the deal that went down last night. Rival GMs can point to the return for a franchise center in attempts to undercut you for your young big, no matter how many times you scream, “But it’s the Kings!” into the phone.
History smiles favorably on Sam Hinkie (and maybe Colangelo too)
Let me do something ultra pretentious and reuse my own sentence from up top a second time:
Sixers fans have played up the value of Sam Hinkie’s trade for Nik Stauskas, draft picks, and salary fodder for almost two years now; it’s never a bad idea to snag draft rights from the Kings, who are in a state of perpetually teetering on the edge of organizational collapse.
This would have been true regardless of whether the Kings ever moved on from Cousins, or even if they’d improved significantly with him still on the team. The process behind the trade was always rock solid, to the point that many of us were stunned the “rights to an overseas player” did not mean Dario Saric.
The Cousins deal puts a bigger spotlight on the “why” for Hinkie’s trade with the Kings, in addition to sweetening the eventual final results. Transactions don’t have to be made with absolute certainty to be “good deals” at the time of completion. Based on all available knowledge of a trade partner like the Kings, consistent only in their inconsistency, betting on someone else’s instability is easy money. For the cost of nothing but open cap space, the Sixers now own one of the most valuable future picks in the NBA.
Hinkie may be out of a job in Philadelphia, but the franchise continues to benefit from transactions he made years ago almost a year after he was removed from his post. It validates him as an executive, sure, but it also shows the value of organizational commitment to a long-term plan. Hinkie’s interest in dividends years down the line, a prioritization of open cap space, and an understanding of his trade partner all combined for a rousing trade success.
These are not secrets, and smart teams around the league have to see things adding up in the departed GM’s favor over time. There are a number of teams who could benefit from the sort of approach championed by Hinkie over the last several years.
Without getting too overzealous, Sixers fans can also thank Colangelo for not pulling the trigger on a deal with New Orleans:
The Pelicans were very close on a deal for Jahlil Okafor about 10 days ago, offering a similar package except it didn't include Hield.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) February 20, 2017
Deal for Okafor was very close, per source. But Philly and NOLA could never agree on protections for the picks included.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) February 20, 2017
I stand by much of what I’ve written about the Okafor trade/no-trade fiasco, but I would also argue the Sixers benefit more from the Cousins trade than they would have from a deal with the Pelicans for Okafor. The value of kneecapping Sacramento outweighs the likely return that would have come from a trade with New Orleans.
We don’t have to shower Colangelo with love because the Kings made a stupid deal with someone else, but inaction can be the best course of action. The franchise is better equipped moving forward because of the Cousins deal, and Colangelo’s haggling over pick protections with New Orleans plays at least a small part in that.
We’re years away from determining the impact of the Cousins trade, for the Sixers or anywhere else. This is one of the biggest trades since the turn of the century, and has the potential to completely change the landscape of the league over the next half decade.
Still, Sixers fans have every right to get excited about the long-term ramifications of the deal for their favorite team. If the Sixers end up adding Marvin Bagley III — a likely 2019 draftee who is drawing comparisons to Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant in high school — you can point to this day years down the line as one of the major events that made it possible.
The Sixers have trades to make. Who's likely to be out the door?Posted by Liberty Ballers on Thursday, January 12, 2017