Word broke late Sunday night why DeMarcus Cousins played only two minutes in that evening’s All-Star game: He’d been traded. The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans agreed on a deal that will send Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a protected 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder. While the Kings may have been concerned about Cousins’s surliness and ongoing feud with referees, they were absolutely fleeced in basketball terms.
According to an updated version of FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections, which assumes Cousins’s production will remain steady for the remainder of this season, we’d expect Cousins to produce 46.5 Wins Above Replacement over the next six seasons, and value equivalent to $284.4 million on the open market. That’s a top-10 projection in the league over that period, and one that dwarfs the expected production of the players coming back to Sacramento.
Hield has been a disappointment in his first season, shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 36.9 percent from three while having minimal impact in other facets of the game. He’s only a rookie, so he has time to improve, but at 23 years old he is also a good deal older than most NBA rookies. (He’s also in the mold of other shooting guards favored by the Kings in recent drafts, such as Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore, so it’s possible the Kings think Hield is a bigger asset than he’s shown himself to be so far.) The version of CARMELO that isn’t updated with this season’s stats expects him to produce around $37.4 million in value over the next five seasons. Evans, 27, is expected to produce around $77.4 million in value over the next five seasons, though he is only signed through the remainder of this season.
The real value for Sacramento, such as it exists, is of course the draft picks. The 2017 draft pool is widely considered to be full of franchise-altering players, such as Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, and securing an extra lottery pick is a big deal. However, the top-3 protection is a bigger deal than it may seem.
While the draft lottery largely slots teams into a range of picks relative to their standings, all teams have a set chance to jump out of their place in line and into the top three slots. As it stands today, the Pelicans have a little under an 8 percent chance to luck into a top-3 pick. But if they begin to struggle and fall just two games in the standings relative to the other lottery teams, supplanting Philadelphia for the fifth-worst record, that chance shoots to over 31 percent.
It’s more likely than not that the Pelicans will remain outside of the top three, but even that doesn’t swing things entirely in the Kings’ favor. Because of the top-heavy nature of the NBA draft, the first few picks are disproportionately valuable compared to later picks, even in the lottery. This means the Pelicans retain the rights to the biggest prizes. In other words, a small chance at a big reward (a top-three pick) can be nearly as valuable as a far greater chance at a just-OK one.
By making this trade, the Kings are implicitly betting against Cousins. They’re betting against his living up to his projections and being a difference maker on an imperfectly constructed team. But in a perverse way, that’s why the top-three protection on the draft pick is such a killer. Let’s say everything breaks the Kings’ way — Cousins turns out to be a player who isn’t conducive to winning, the Pelicans struggle to integrate Cousins into the team, and the team struggles down the stretch. But if the Pelicans do tank with Cousins, the only way that affects the Kings is to lower the odds they actually get their hands on that 2017 lottery pick. And if things go the other way and the Pelicans make the playoffs, the pick can be no better than 15th.
Cousins has one year remaining on his deal, and can’t become a free agent until the summer of 2018. However, due to terms in the new collective bargaining agreement, Cousins was up for a five-year, $209 million “Designated Player Extension” this summer, which would have been added to the one year remaining on his deal and locked him up through 2023.
Unlike other contract extension rights, however, the right to sign this designated player extension does not transfer with a trade, so the most Cousins can sign for now is five years and $180 million.
It’s far too early to begin speculating whether Cousins will re-sign in New Orleans, but as we evaluate the trade, it’s important to remember that Sacramento had a massive advantage in re-signing Cousins if it chose to do so, making fear of losing him for nothing a much smaller issue than it often is for other teams trading superstars.
Cousins and Davis
The big question will be whether Cousins and Davis can both continue to produce as prolifically as they have on their own. The answer pretty obviously is “no,” since there is only one basketball and their current combined usage rates (32.5 for Davis, 37.5 for Cousins) would leave barely any possessions for their teammates. But usage also tends to find equilibrium among teammates, especially ones who aren’t occupying the same areas of the floor and getting in each other’s way. That’s a problem if you’re, say, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, who both loved to hang out on the left wing.
Of course, usage rate is a broad indicator, and doesn’t account for the other big unknown: How will two dominant big men fare in a league increasingly run by guards? It’s probably too early to answer that, but there will be plenty of complications to work through. Take the logjam in the post: Cousins posts up on 20.9 percent of his possessions, according to Synergy Sport Technology, and Davis on 16 percent of his. Both are good but not great at these possessions — Davis is in the 58th percentile in points per possession, Cousins the 65th — but the bigger concern is that post-ups tend to engage only one big man in the play, lessening the impact of the other star. Cousins has shot 36.4 percent on spot-up threes this season, so the Pelicans have some options there, but they likely didn’t trade for him with the intent of sitting him in a corner where he could jack league-average threes.
That said, there are also reasons to think Cousins may be even better on the Pelicans. For instance, Cousins has been assisted on just 42.4 percent of his 2-point attempts this season, a staggeringly low number for a big man, especially one who uses as many possessions as Cousins does. That isn’t a one-season phenomenon, either — throughout his career, Cousins has ranged from the mid-40s to low 50s on percent-assisted.
On the one hand, a center putting up a 37.5 usage rate while also having to create most of his own shots, while also putting up a career-high true shooting percent (56.2) is incredible. Alleviating some of the pressure to create every shot on his own should free Cousins to be even more devastating. That’s generally how the usage-to-efficiency relationship works. On the other hand, a career-long history of grabbing the rock and going it alone may be a hard habit to shake.
And that’s the conundrum a team trading for Cousins faced: Cousins has not had much help, but Cousins has not accepted much, either. How he deals with that help coming in the form of an All-NBA power forward will determine whether this deal remains as lopsided as it appears today, or becomes a bad time for everyone.
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