Friday, March 3, 2017

Kings and Wise Guys

  The NBA trade deadline was last Thursday and the biggest trade was the Sacramento Kings trading All-Star center and 2016 Olympian DeMarcus Cousins along with journeyman Omri Casspi to the New Orleans Pelicans for rookie Buddy Hield, backup point guard Tyreke Evans, journeyman Langston Galloway, and the Pelicans first and second round draft picks in the 2017 draft (the Pelicans keep their pick if it is a top 3 lottery pick).

  Cousins was the 5th selection in the 2010 draft and is considered one of the best centers in the NBA. He made 2nd team All-NBA the past two years which would seem to indicate he is one of the 10 best players in the league although not in the top 5. He was due for a contract extension at the end of the year and the new collective bargaining agreement would have placed him as eligible for a $209 million dollar 5 year contract under the ‘Designated Player Veteran Extension’ which rewards players who are with the same team they were drafted by (or traded while under their first contract) and made All NBA first, second, or third teams in two of the previous three seasons. By being traded, Cousins will not be a designated veteran and can ‘only’ sign a 5 year extension for $179 million dollars.

  Cousins is always among the league leaders in technical fouls. He has been suspended twice by the Kings and three times by the league. After trading Cousins, the Kings made references to changing the ‘culture’ of the team. This makes Cousins sound like a bad guy. But bad guys and bad teammates aren’t usually selected to play on the U.S. Olympic team and Cousins is known for his many charitable works in the Sacramento area.

  Talent is like stones on a pyramid. There are very few stones at the top of a pyramid and very few top NBA talents. To trade a top talent like Cousins for very little return makes me think that the Kings just didn’t want to pay him the huge extension at the end of the year. The Kings moved into a brand new arena this year and this presumably will allow them to sell enough season tickets and luxury box suites to make money even with a losing team for a few more years. Of course the Kings have been a losing team for the past 10 years and almost left Sacramento to move to Seattle before being rescued by new owner Vivek Ranadivé. Ranadivé’s ownership of the Kings has been marked by constant changes in coaches, general managers, and the overall direction of the team. Trading Cousins seems to make a reboot for the franchise but just two years ago the Kings traded their first round pick in the upcoming draft in order to get the Philadelphia 76ers to take three players off their hands to get enough salary cap room to sign players that are no longer with the team.

  It is no surprise that a mismanaged team like the Kings couldn’t win with Cousins and it won’t be a surprise to me if they don’t win without him even though there is generally a short term ‘Hawthorne Effect’ after losing a top player.

  To me it makes no sense to trade a top 10 player without getting either two top 20 players or a top 20 player and a top 10 draft pick in return. Rebuilding winning teams is hard enough but building teams from scratch rarely works. The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 60 games for the last 3 years, stockpiling draft picks in the hopes of drafting a championship team. This year they have had such a marked improvement they may only lose 50 to 55 games games out of 82. After getting to the Eastern Conference Finals for six consecutive years the Detroit Pistons lost a first round playoff series in 2009 and hadn’t made the playoffs for 6 years when they slipped into the 8th spot last year.

  There are only two teams I can think of in the last 20 years that were able to rebuild teams on the fly. The Los Angeles Lakers assembled a championship team featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000’s and when that team fell apart a new team was built around Kobe Bryant to win two more championships in 2009 and 2010. During the rebuild the Lakers missed the playoffs only one time. Two years after winning the championship in 2006 behind Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, the Miami Heat descended to being a 15 win team but after obtaining LeBron James and Chris Bosh to pair with Wade in 2011 went to four straight NBA Finals with two championships.

  The team I have my eye on is the Boston Celtics. After Danny Ainge took over as the head of basketball operations in 2003, a promising Celtics team struggled and missed the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. With his job on the line, Ainge managed to assemble a ‘Big 3’ of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce and surrounded his stars with talented role players as well as hitting on a great draft pick in point guard Rajon Rondo. The team won the 2008 championship and went to the finals in 2010. The team could not get past the Miami Heat in the next two playoffs and after losing in the first round to the Knicks in 2013, Ainge traded Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for a handful of journeymen players and the Nets first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018 as well as the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. None of the picks were protected.

  The Celtics missed the playoffs in 2014 and have drafted guards James Young and Jaylen Brown with their first two picks from the Nets. Brown has shown more promise but neither are considered All-Star level players at present. This year the Nets are by far the worst team in the league and the Celtics have a great chance of owning the top pick in the draft because of the right to swap picks. Meanwhile Ainge has slowly assembled a playoff team that has gotten better in each of the last four years. He picked up guard Isiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns for a player and a draft pick in 2015 and Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star. Former All-Star Al Horford was obtained in free agency last summer and the Celtics currently have the 5th best record in the league.

  So while teams like the Lakers, 76ers, and Timberwolves have been accumulating top draft picks for years and are still near the bottom of the league standings and teams like the Lakers and Heat were able to rebuild their teams around a star player to win multiple championships Danny Ainge has completely rebuilt the championship Celtics teams to be back near the top of the league while missing the playoffs only once AND has the top draft pick of the worst team in the league for the next two seasons. I don’t know if Ainge is the smartest guy in the room when NBA general managers get together but he has to be on the short list. If I was the owner of one of the long suffering losing teams the first thing I would do is try to find someone like Ainge to run my team.