Cousins was the 26-year-old superstar—equal parts savior and enfant terrible—gearing up for 2018 free agency. The Kings were the inept franchise—10 straight lottery finishes deep—refusing to trade a player they've failed and been failed by.
The dissolution of this ostensibly toxic partnership was deemed inevitable. Sacramento would eventually trade Cousins, lest he leave for nothing in less than two years time.
But the Kings waited. And waited. They retained Cousins and continued their pursuit of the Western Conference's No. 8 seed.
Then, on Dec. 14, a new collective bargaining agreement was struck between the league and its players. Included in it, a Designated Player Exception that allows Sacramento to offer Cousins a monster five-year extension before he reaches free agency.
Word soon came from ESPN.com's Marc Stein that the Kings would pitch Cousins on this five-year pact worth in excess of $200 million over the summer, when he first becomes eligible to sign it. Shortly thereafter, CSN Bay Area's James Ham reported that Cousins intends to accept the "roughly $207 million" extension and remain in Sactown for the foreseeable future.
"I love Sacramento," Cousins told reporters of the rumor. "It's where I want to be."
In hindsight, the Kings' refusal to move Cousins wasn't stubbornness at its most ignorant. It was designed patience—and it's paying off.
Now it's on them, and Cousins, to finally find success for a partnership that's been given new life.
Finish 2016-17 Without Buying
Abandoning the at-all-costs chase for the West's final playoff spot is key to the Kings and Cousins' future together.
This idea that a first-round sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors would somehow re-invigorate Cousins' commitment to the franchise was always flawed. And the latest development makes it wholly unnecessary, even for appearance's sake.
The Kings are liberated in this way: They can stand pat. They can sell. They can do something in between.
But they should not buy.
Chasing impact players takes assets. The Kings' best bargaining chips, aside from Rudy Gay and Kosta Koufos, are future first-round picks. And they have no business dealing more draft choices.
Sacramento will send the Chicago Bulls a first-round selection this year if it falls outside the top 10. (There's a microscopic chance it's forced to swap with the Philadelphia 76ers if the pick lands inside the top 10.) And it also owes Philly an unprotected first-rounder in 2019.
Offloading any more picks for a Goran Dragic or Brandon Knight would be irresponsible. The Kings need to think big picture—particularly now, with Cousins on the verge of an enormous payday, as Sactown Royalty's section214 wrote:
The development of at least one or two of these youngsters will be of paramount importance. Paying Cousins the max, the Kings are going to need to find some inexpensive core rotation value somewhere, and mid to late round rookie contracts could fill the bill. Player development has never been a strong suit for the Kings. Will they be able to change that?
This applies to Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis and Malachi Richardson, as well as Sacramento's 2018, 2020 and later first-rounders. Hitting on rookie-scale deals keeps a team's cap commitments down while also giving it unique control over any future success stories.
With Cousins on lock long term, the Cauley-Stein-Labissiere-Papagiannis backup tricycle has no reason to persist. If and when Sacramento deals one or more of them, it should be for picks and other rookie-scale contracts—more chances to develop low-income talent.
Figure Out What You Have
The Kings shouldn't be opposed to cleaning house if Cousins is in this for the long haul. They haven't yet (ever?) fleshed out the roster with complementary building blocks and young fliers. Instead, they have out-of-place veterans and players barreling toward new paydays.
Gay should have been moved already. He is going to leave after declining his player option for next season, and the Kings shouldn't want any part of his next contract even if he prefers to stay.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been after Gay since July, according to Bleacher Report's Jon Hamm. If they're still dangling Cameron Payne, as The Vertical's Chris Mannix previously said they were, Sacramento should pounce.
Payne only just returned from a fractured right foot and has never been given free rein in Oklahoma City, but the Kings shouldn't care. He has two seasons to go before reaching restricted free agency, and neither Darren Collison nor Ty Lawson projects as a permanent solution at point guard.
Ben McLemore (restricted) and Omri Casspi, like Gay, are due for new deals this summer. Koufos is a solid backup-type big on a team-friendly contract, but the Kings should be trying to glean a late first-rounder for his services.
Arron Afflalo and Anthony Tolliver—the latter of whom has been really good—have non-guaranteed salaries for next season. Sacramento can keep them and enjoy more cap flexibility this summer or, in the event an immediate asset becomes available for cap fodder, use them to match inbound contracts.
Richardson needs to stay put knowing McLemore probably won't be around next year. Cauley-Stein is rough around the edges but has a lofty defensive ceiling; he shouldn't be dealt unless another buyer gets desperate and offers the moon.
Garrett Temple is the only other player who should be remotely untouchable. His three-year, $24 million deal is among the best bargains in the league, and he's been Sacramento's second-best player, behind Cousins, per NBA Math.
NBA Math @NBA_Math
Here's the TPA breakdown for the Sacramento Kings: https://t.co/MSgragUySd1/12/2017, 12:52:40 AM
In the 554 minutes Temple and Cousins have spent on the court together, the Kings are outscoring opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions—the second-highest net rating of any two-man lineup that includes Cousins. Temple has shown he can work on or off the ball, and while best suited at shooting guard or small forward, he can play point guard in a pinch.
And with Gay on his way out, he is the closest thing to a No. 2 option the Kings employ.
Finding the Right Talent
All of this theoretical house-cleaning won't mean a thing if the Kings don't add the right mix of players around Cousins. And they're starting from a position of weakness since they barely have any ingredients in place.
Temple represents the exact type of player Sacramento must obtain—multiposition wings who give you a fighting chance on defense.
The Kings have a hair over $47.2 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, per Basketball Insiders, and will be able to conjure max space even if they bring back Matt Barnes (player option), Afflalo and Tolliver. But Sacramento isn't a hot destination, and most ideal fits will be out of reach.
Throwing offer sheets at restricted free agents Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter isn't unwise, but their respective teams will likely match any bids. Andre Roberson should prove gettable with the right offer, but he was a below-average shooter when he played beside both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; Sacramento isn't getting him better looks.
At the same time, the Kings shouldn't be outbidding everyone on non-max, established-veteran free agents—a la Wesley Matthews in 2015. If Danilo Gallinari, Jrue Holiday and, less likely, Serge Ibaka are willing to join the Kings at market value, then yes, Cousins is deep enough into his 20s for them to justify those dice rolls.
Failing that, the emphasis must be on the draft, developing in-house prospects (Richardson, Cauley-Stein), finding high-character veteran voices on the cheap and biding flexibility for a time when the right free agents come along.
Rebuilding the Right Way
Getting a top-15 player is pivotal to any rebuild. Sacramento already has one in Cousins, at a time when the CBA will start eliminating superteam formations and increasing the viability of one-star outfits.
So while the Kings aren't in a great position, the hardest part is behind them—doubly so once Cousins puts pen to paper on his extension. But this is not a license for them to maintain the status quo.
"Bottom line, the road to relevance appears to be no closer or easier to understand today than it was a couple of days ago," section214 wrote. "Cousins will be extended, but the extension itself will not have the impact on the franchise that a contract of this size should have."
Remember: Cousins can try forcing a trade sometime after signing his extension. And while it'll be much easier to command a hefty return when he's not about to enter free agency, starting from scratch isn't an enviable position, either.
For Cousins' renewed ties to the organization to mean anything, Sacramento's' ill-fated attempts at expediting its timeline have to stop. He's an emotional wild card in his own right, but the franchise has to change more than he does.
Instant turnarounds are a pipe dream, and the Kings have wasted enough of their time—and Cousins' prime—attempting to fake one.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.
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