Understanding the Cousins Trade

During the NBA All-Star break, the Sacramento Kings dealt DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi to the New Orleans Pelicans for Langston Galloway, Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, as well as New Orleans’ top-3 protected first round pick and second round pick. Let that sink in for a minute. For most New Orleans’ fans, this turned out to be an amazing trade that will set-up the most interesting twin-tower pair in the NBA. For most NBA fans, an eyebrow was raised with a “say what?” response. As for Sacramento Kings fans… well… read the comment thread as GM Vlade Divac explains the trade the following day:


So the question is not whether the Kings were fleeced in the deal, but rather what does this mean and why did the Kings pull the trigger?

Current Life With Boogie:

Cousins is hands down one of the best players in the league. That’s not debatable. He’s a consistent double-double player (27.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.8 APG) that is part of a semi-competitive 24-33 Kings team. The Kings currently are the 9th seed in the west, just a pair of games on the Denver Nuggets heels.

However, Cousins has been viewed as a combative personality and hasn’t helped improve the team around him finishing his seasons with 24, 22, 28, 28, 29, and 33 wins. Including this season, the Kings were on pace for 34 wins; finishing once again out of the playoffs. To get to 24 wins, the Kings needed a strong series of games from Ben McLemore and Darren Collison; finishing 4-2 over the final six games heading into the All-Star break. While Cousins cannot win games by himself. Surrounding him with players is a difficult challenge.

Recall that the Kings cleared cap space to gain free agents to improve the team for the 2015-2016 season. Instead, turmoil with George Karl and having the top free-agent signing being Rajon Rondo, the Kings proved they cannot build around Cousins in Sacramento.

Cousins’ contract does not expire until the summer of 2018. However, he is listed as a DVP. That is a Designated Veteran Player, which grants Cousins an extension in the second-to-last year of his contract at the league maximum plus 30 percent; which totals to approximately 209 million over the next five years that needed to be signed this summer. We will get back to this later.

Current Life Without Boogie:

Let’s look at the team without DeMarcus Cousins. There is now no major player on the squad. Darren Collison is a serviceable starter, but is better as a reserve point guard. This was his position behind Chris Paul not once, but twice. Rudy Gay has a ruptured achilles. Ty Lawson is another version of Darren Collison as a serviceable starter.

Cousins’ replacement in the starting roster? Willie Cauley-Stein. This means the Kings’ starting line-up is Darren Collison, Ben McLemore, Aaron Afflalo, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Kosta Koufos. Let that sink in. This is a team on track to finish with 29 wins. That’s a projected 5-20 finish to the season. Compare that to life with Cousins: projected finish of 34 wins.

Either way the Kings are out of the playoffs.

Breaking Down the Contracts

The NBA salary cap is currently sitting at approximately 94 million dollars with a soft-cap luxury cap of approximately 113 million dollars. While, under certain conditions, players can be resigned to contracts that put teams over the limits, these limits dictate what future contracts can be made.

Player Contract (In Millions)
Rudy Gay 13.333333
Aaron Afflalo 12.5
Tyreke Evans 10.203755
Kosta Koufos 8.0465
Garrett Temple 8
Anthony Tolliver 8
Matt Barnes 6.125
Darren Collison 5.229454
Langston Galloway 5.2
Ben McLemore 4.008882
Willy Cauley-Stein 3.55116
Buddy Hield 3.5172
Georgios Papagiannis 2.20224
Caron Butler 1.551659
Malachi Richardson 1.43988
Ty Lawson 1.315448
Skal Labissiere 1.18884
Isaiah Cousins 0.1
Jordan Farmar 0.050093
TOTALS 95.563444
DeMarcus Cousins 15.756438
Omri Casspi 2.963814

The cost of the deal is approximately equal: 18.7 million leaving the Kings (this year) versus 17.9 million coming in. But that’s only this year.

Could the Kings Have Won Next Year? No…

Let’s look at the two-year progression of contracts:

Player Contract 2017-18
Rudy Gay 13.333333 14.263566
Aaron Afflalo 12.5 12.5
Tyreke Evans 10.203755
Kosta Koufos 8.0465 8.393
Garrett Temple 8 8
Anthony Tolliver 8 8
Matt Barnes 6.125 6.400625
Darren Collison 5.229454
Langston Galloway 5.2 5.434
Ben McLemore 4.008882 5.37591
Willy Cauley-Stein 3.55116 3.70416
Buddy Hield 3.5172 3.67548
Georgios Papagiannis 2.20224 2.30136
Caron Butler 1.551659
Malachi Richardson 1.43988 1.50456
Ty Lawson 1.315448
Skal Labissiere 1.18884 1.24224
Isaiah Cousins 0.1
Jordan Farmar 0.050093
TOTALS 95.563444 75.418991
DeMarcus Cousins 15.756438 16.784031
Omri Casspi 2.963814

After this season Casspi, Collison, Evans, and Ty Lawson’s contracts are up. This drop off frees up approximately 25 (45 luxury) million dollars of cap room. That is, not including Cousins’ contract. Not including Galloway’s player option and ignoring Hield’s contract, the Kings have an extra 9 million in space.

Re-signing Cousins under the DVPE would eat up the remainder of the cap room and force future deals to be constrained to effectively mid-level veteran exceptions of roughly 3.5 million per year. This is due to Cousins pushing the Kings to roughly 10 million under the luxury cap. Adding players to these types of contracts are not going to build up the Kings into a dominant force for the next five seasons to come.

This forces roster moves to become dumping Rudy Gay, Aaron Afflalo, and Kosta Koufos in an effort to build around Cousins in the next year. With Gay coming off the achilles injury and Afflalo struggling this season, the Kings cannot count on getting top 50 talent in return for these two players.

Now it should be noted that Gay has a player contract for next season. Expect this to be picked up unless a team is willing to gamble on Gay’s recovery. Similarly, Ben McLemore becomes a restricted free agent for qualifying offers this summer. McLemore’s contract goes up to approximately 5.3 million next year. While his production this year merits a five million dollar contract in the NBA; the Kings will not get much in return if they are attempting to make a playoff run next season.

So with Cousins for the 2017-18 season, expect the Kings to remain stagnant with less chance to bring in top talent to replace the loss of three players to free agency.

How about in three years? No…

Let’s take a look at the three year progression of Kings’ contracts:

Player Contract 2017-18 2018-19
Rudy Gay 13.333333 14.263566
Aaron Afflalo 12.5 12.5
Tyreke Evans 10.203755
Kosta Koufos 8.0465 8.393 8.7395
Garrett Temple 8 8 8
Anthony Tolliver 8 8
Matt Barnes 6.125 6.400625
Darren Collison 5.229454
Langston Galloway 5.2 5.434
Ben McLemore 4.008882 5.37591
Willy Cauley-Stein 3.55116 3.70416 4.696874
Buddy Hield 3.5172 3.67548 3.83376
Georgios Papagiannis 2.20224 2.30136 2.40048
Caron Butler 1.551659
Malachi Richardson 1.43988 1.50456 1.56936
Ty Lawson 1.315448
Skal Labissiere 1.18884 1.24224 1.29576
Isaiah Cousins 0.1
Jordan Farmar 0.050093
TOTALS 95.563444 75.418991 16.7395
DeMarcus Cousins 15.756438 16.784031
Omri Casspi 2.963814

At this point, the Kings have a completely open payroll. For the 2018-19 season, the Kings have team options on Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson, and Skal Labissiere. With the trade, they now have Buddy Hield on team option as well. Similarly, Koufos and Garrett Temple have player options at approximately eight million per year. With these options all being taken (minus Hield to understand the Cousins trade), the Kings have approximately 74 million remaining for the roster. Cousins’ DVPE deal would eat up approximately 32 (50 luxury) million remaining for contracts. This could be used for a pair of solid players and a sequence of veteran mid-level exception and minimum salary exceptions.

This method would work for making a run in the playoffs only if Cauley-Stein and Richardson pan out to be strong players. Currently Cauley-Stein and Richardson have shown a lot of upside this season. Cauley-Stein is now thrust into the mix as a starter, so we will finally see his development in the league accelerate. Richardson, currently injured, should see more playing time as this season progresses and slips away.

Hence with re-signing Cousins, the Kings may not see a chance to win in the playoffs until 2018-19; and only then… it’s a gamble.

What About Life Without Cousins?

Starting tonight, we will see a three game home-stand by the Kings against the Nuggets, Hornets, and Timberwolves. These games will identify how the team will move on with a young center, a reserve-quality center starting, and a dog-pile of guards.

Now, let’s look at the contracts… In the 2017-18 season, with both Gay and Galloway’s player option taken, the Kings are at approximately 80 million for their salary. This allows for roughly 30 (50 luxury) million per year for the cap. This would allow for a major free agent signing, however, the Kings are multiple pieces away from making a valid run in the playoffs. Note that the Matt Barnes waiver pushed the approximate cap room up to this 30-50 million.

Now with this 50 million, let’s look at the Kings’ roster:

Rudy Gay (PF) 14.263566
Aaron Afflalo (SF) 12.5
Kosta Koufos (C)  8.393
Garrett Temple (SG-SF) 8
Anthony Tolliver (SF) 8
Langston Galloway (SG) 5.434
Ben McLemore (SG) 5.37591
Willy Cauley-Stein (PF-C)  3.70416
Buddy Hield (SG) 3.67548
Georgios Papagiannis (C) 2.30136
Malachi Richardson (SG-SF) 1.50456
Matt Barnes (Waived) 2.133452
Caron Butler (Deferred) 0.517220
Team Total  71.669
Actual Cap Space 50.330

The Kings would require a dominant PG and a a stretch 4 player to adequately compete in the Western conference. Unfortunately there are not many available in 2017 that are willing to take smaller contracts (many top players are becoming DP or DVP) and can resign at 130% of contract if they stay with their own team.

Teams that have a large quantity of unrestricted free agents in 2017 are the Warriors, Clippers, and Hawks. Majority of which are not key components to build a winning franchise around. The best bet for the Kings at this point is to avoid the minimum cap and put out a Philadelphia 76ers’ style 2017-18 campaign. This would enable the Kings to get a lower pick, allow for Gay’s and Afflalo’s contracts to expire; or more importantly, test them out for trade deadline deals next season as they will be a reduced salary with impending free agency looming in their contracts. Remember: expiring contracts are a beautiful thing in trade deadlines.

A tanking season would help the Kings get a Top-5 draft pick for the 2018 season. Before we harp on draft picks, let’s look at the 2018-19 season then. At this point, the roster will be:

Kosta Koufos  8.7395
Garrett Temple  8
Willy Cauley-Stein  4.696874
Buddy Hield 3.83376
Georgios Papagiannis 2.40048
Malachi Richardson  1.56936
Skal Labissiere  1.29576
Barnes / Butler (Dead Contracts)  2.650762
Team Total  33.186457
 Actual Cap Space

If Cauley-Stein, Hield, and Richardson all turn out to be quality players capable of playing quality minutes; then three big signings would complete this roster. At this point, making obscene offers to Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins (as a restricted free agents) at 18-25 million per year, and pick up Devin Harris; then the Kings have a solid shot of competing early in the season. There is also the looming possibility of picking Cousins back up during that free agency cycle, even though that’s not a great idea given the turmoil over the last seven years and the break up this year.

Minus the Draft… Compare these Teams:

Now that we see life with and without Boogie, we find that in neither scenario do the Kings have a realistic shot at winning a first round series in the Western Conference playoffs; let along making them. The difference we would see is potentially another 34-48 season with Boogie versus a potentially 18-64 season without him. This would lead to the same result (out of playoffs) but with a better draft position in the 2018 draft.

After that, the variability is huge for the 2018-19 season. In this case, we can only point to history and say that the free agents are likely to avoid Sacramento exactly as they did when Sacramento freed up space to lure Rondo… So the gamble makes sense here. However, the 2018 free agent market is looking trim. The big names are most likely going to stay unless the Kings can show a win-now attitude. And they can’t.

So this means, the Kings must gamble with the future and draft well. Much like the 76ers did for several years. Let’s see those draft picks now.

Kings are NOT in as bad shape as you think they are…

The Kings currently have two first round draft picks in the 2017 draft. They have their own pick and the top-3 protected pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. There is a massive gridlock across the lottery with 12 teams between 20 and 25 wins; with roughly 25 games to go. Three teams are below 20 wins: Lakers (19), Suns (18), and Nets (9). This means that the Kings have a solid chance of finishing fourth to last in the league. Similarly, so do the Pelicans. Due to this, the Pelicans have a legitimate chance of having their draft pick in the top three. It’s unlikely, but possible. This means there is a chance the Kings lose the pick in the 2017 draft.

As of right now, the Kings are expected to have the 11th pick in the draft on their own; the Pelicans are expected to have the 8th pick. Now, due trades in years past, the Kings lose their pick if it falls out of the top 10. This pick is owed to the Chicago Bulls.

This gives the Kings incentive to tank and avoid both missing the playoffs and losing their draft pick. However, through the Nik Stauskas trade years back, the Kings have a swap-agreement with the 76ers. If the Kings pick is better than the 76ers, the teams swap picks. Currently the 76ers are sitting with expectation on the 5th pick. So no swap would occur. This means the trade serves only to allow the Kings to get a Top-10 pick. Ideally, the Pelicans lose just enough to land, say the 4th pick; the 76ers land the 5th pick and the Kings land the 6th pick. Then the Kings finish with the 5th and 6th picks of the 2017 draft.

With a solid incoming draft, this can be what they are looking for. But many things must go right in this draft. It could be equally well that the Pelicans get the third pick and the Kings get the 11th pick; thus losing both picks for the year.

For the 2018 draft, the Kings have no big deals. It’s the 2019 draft that will trap them. In 2019, the Kings outright lose both their draft picks (first and second round) to the Philadelphia 76ers and will pick up Milwaukee’s second round draft pick.

So who wins on this deal?

While the trade looks lopsided (it is at a player level) and the Kings management takes a bad rap for how they handled the situation, the trade gives the most flexibility to the Kings. The end result is that the Kings position themselves for a better 2018-19 and beyond (particularly 2019 through 2022) if the draft balls bounce in their favor this year and the Pelicans and 76ers lose just enough.

Both teams (with and without Boogie) are not first round playoff contenders next year. The year after, the Kings must buck past stigma with Boogie and sign two big name players to have a chance to make the second round of the playoffs. And we have seen that to not pan out. The year after for a non-Boogie team? They will be terrible. But a good draft plus one major signing in the off-season (not 2-3 as with Boogie!!!) allows for the team to be first round contenders in 2019-20. At that point, the system may have improved and the Kings can get key pick-ups by 2021 and think about contention.

So who wins? Right now, the Pelicans and the 76ers. For 1.5 years.  After that, the Kings have a much better chance of winning. However, it requires a little luck, some advanced analysis of incoming players, and a whole lot of intestinal fortitude by front office to see this through. This trade will define the Kings over the next few years. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

For now? Catch the Kings and Nuggets tonight on NBA League Pass!


One thought on “Understanding the Cousins Trade

  1. Had an argument with a few Nylon Calculus guys (guess it’s Stepback now or something) about the Brooklyn Nets and the Sacramento Kings. It was mostly centered around: who had worse trades, free agent destination, currently in a worse situation, and outlook and ability to make good decisions going forward.

    I said the Kings trades (to clear cap room, e.g unprotected 2019 to 76ers) isn’t as bad as as what Brooklyn did. They argued the latter. While Sacramento didn’t have a winning season like BRK, the long term affects of that trade vs the one by the Kings with the 76ers isn’t nearly as costly, IMO.

    I also felt Sacramento has been and will be more desirable free agent destination than Brooklyn. Rondo, Afflalo, etc have signed in Sac, while who has signed in Brooklyn? Willie Reed? I guess you could count the RFA deals, but they never happened, so kinda ‘meh’ on counting those. Gross overpaying vs player really desiring to go there has to be weighed.

    I definitely see Brooklyn as in a worse situation. Kings were better than Brooklyn this year, have some young players with potential, and have a 1st RD pick in 2018.

    The Nylon Calculus guys pointed to Vivek as worse than Nets ownership. I pointed out Hinkie has been involved and they didn’t see any of it. So I didn’t mention they had Luke Bornn and basically what was the 76ers analytics consultants team now in SAC. So I think it’s a big changing of the guard. I could be wrong here — and would love any thoughts or insight you have on this end.

    Going Forward

    IMO, they should go ALL OUT youth this year. Don’t sign any veterans for more than a 1 year deal or will take playing time from the young bucks. They need to find out if Skal, Papagiannis, Hield, Richardson, and co can actually play. I hope they get a PG in this year’s draft as well. De’Aaron Fox or Dennis Smith, Jr would be fine. I like Zach Collins at pick #10 as well as Jordan Bell, but not really for the Kings. I’d go with Donovan Mitchell or try to trade back with Portland if they’re in love with someone to get a second late 1st RD pick. I wouldn’t suggest “tanking” but basically play rookies as much as possible. Joerger is a wonderful guy and coach and hope for a top 3 pick next year. At that point, as you laid out here, they’ll have after whatever rookies and minimal free agents they do sign this year around $50M-$75M to sign players in the big summer 2018 free agency. Could honestly fit a ‘big 3’ if any banana boat like friends want to try to go to a team and do something as as a supporting cast of rookies. Even if they don’t manage to land much in FA’s by 2018-19 I still like the chances they’ll be much better off than the Brooklyn Nets.


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