NEW ORLEANS — In his final acts as a Sacramento King, DeMarcus Cousins played two minutes of meaningless basketball, then smirked his way through a press conference.
Then he departed the Smoothie King Center, the site of the NBA All-Star Game, and the place Cousins will now call home as a new member of the New Orleans Pelicans.
It was a strange and fitting coda to an inglorious Kings career.
For all his talent, Cousins never played a meaningful minute in Sacramento—not in the six seasons he logged at the ramshackle Sleep Train Arena, not in the 26 games he appeared at the gleaming new Golden 1 Center.
For all his physical prowess, Cousins never delivered a playoff berth.
Or even one winning season.
No, for the last seven years, Cousins produced only turmoil and chaos: grinding up coaches and teammates, referees and reporters, dragging down an entire franchise with every F-bomb, every outburst and every suspension.
The Kings are already being ridiculed for the modest return package: veterans Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway, rookie Buddy Hield, plus a pair of picks (one first, one second) in June's draft, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.
But this is the sanest move they've made in years.
With one swift deal, the Kings jettisoned their greatest headache, restocked a barren cupboard and firmly declared their values: character matters now.
"This was a definite culture move," a person with insight into the trade said. "Enough was enough."
For all the gaudy stats—27.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game—Cousins' behavior and volatility was a ballast.
It's fair to say the Kings did not receive equal value. Nor anything close to it. The truth is they were never going to get it—and every team executive in the league knew it.
Fear was the overriding factor. The fear that Cousins could wreck your team, ruin your locker room and, ultimately, get you fired. There is no riskier, more volatile All-Star in the NBA.
"Uncoachable," rival executives say. "Not a winner."
The Kings have employed six head coaches in Cousins' seven seasons. They've never won more than 33 games and were on pace for 35 wins this season at the time they dumped him.
So what is it, exactly, the Kings are sacrificing? They have been a dysfunctional laughingstock for years with Cousins. They can hardly be worse without him.
For all his popularity among Kings fans, Cousins was never capable of delivering what they so badly wanted: a little joy.
"There has been a dark cloud over this franchise for years," Grant Napear, the Kings' longtime play-by-play voice tweeted Sunday night. "That cloud is now gone!"
Teams rarely get equal value when trading a star—look up Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets and Tracy McGrady to the Houston Rockets, to name two. It's even tougher when that star comes with such obvious warts.
The Kings did OK under the circumstances, though it takes a little squinting.
They get the Pelicans' first-round pick in June, which should fall in the mid-teens (or better if Cousins and Anthony Davis fail to mesh). They get the Philadelphia 76ers' second-round pick, currently pegged at 35th overall. They get Hield, a shooting specialist who was taken sixth overall last June.
Most critically, the Kings are virtually guaranteed to keep their own first-rounder. Under a trade made years ago, by a prior administration, the Kings were set to send their pick to the Chicago Bulls if it fell outside the top 10. As of Sunday, Sacramento was 11th in the draft order.
Without Cousins, they will lose more in the short term—and secure a top-10 pick in a draft that one executive called the deepest in at least five years.
If the Pelicans stumble, which is plausible, the Kings could end up with two lottery picks in June. Add Hield, and that's three lottery picks plus a high second-rounder for Cousins. Kings officials hold Hield in high regard, perhaps higher than others around the league.
Not enough? Perhaps. But the market, not talent, dictates return in these deals. And Cousins' value was only going to keep eroding the longer the Kings held on to him.
Cousins will be a free agent in 2018 and eligible for a contract that could have reached $210 million had he stayed in Sacramento.
If the Kings erred here, it was in failing to reach this decision sooner—say, after firing their fourth head coach or their fifth.
The truth is Kings executives and coaches were ready to dump Cousins years ago, but their pleas were repeatedly squashed by owner Vivek Ranadive, who remained irrationally wedded to the tempestuous center.
Finally, Ranadive's illusions were shattered too amid another flurry of controversies.
There was Cousins, spewing venom at a local columnist with cameras rolling.
There was Cousins, directing an obscene gesture and an F-bomb at a Golden State Warriors fan, drawing a $25,000 fine.
There was Cousins, earning his league-leading 16th technical foul Feb. 6, picking up an automatic one-game suspension, the fastest ever since the 16-tech limit was introduced.
Then came a true moment of clarity.
On Feb. 8, with Cousins serving his suspension, the Kings walloped the Boston Celtics, 108-92. They played a fluid, free-flowing game that night. A selfless game, with 24 assists and five Kings scoring in double figures. That's the kind of game the Kings envision, with prospects like Ben McLemore and Malachi Richardson assuming greater roles and springy young big man Willie Cauley-Stein taking over at center.
For the first time in years, the Kings are thinking about long-term success, not short-term payoffs. They're acquiring assets, not giving them away. They're charting a sustainable course, not wildly chasing the eighth seed.
As for the Pelicans? If the gambit works, if Cousins and Davis click, they could become a force in the West.
The downside? The downside is scary. The downside is that Davis and Cousins—both young and talented and in need of the ball—never click. Or that Cousins keeps collecting techs, serving one-game suspensions for every other one he gets. The downside is Cousins getting everyone fired and then walking away as a free agent 17 months from now.
The downside is Davis—the MVP of Sunday's All-Star Game and one of the brightest young stars in the NBA—losing a little more faith in the Pelicans' leadership while eying his own free agency in 2021.
The trade was not complete when Cousins met the media after Sunday's All-Star Game. A Kings PR rep whispered in his ear to alert him about the rumors. Cousins smirked. Then came the questions.
"Whatever happens, happens," Cousins said.
Ten minutes later, the rumors had become fact. The Kings lost their franchise player. But they got their franchise back.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.