The draft pick situation in Sacramento is complex. How exactly did it get this way?
When the Sacramento Kings dealt All-Star Demarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans on February 20, one of the assets received by the Kings was the Pelicans 2017 first-round draft selection. This pick, like many that are involved in NBA trades, has protections placed on it that further muddle an already complex draft situation for Sacramento. The confusion of the situation is due to a series of highly questionable trades, which have set Sacramento back in their decade-long rebuild.
In the summer of 2011, the then general manager, Geoff Petrie, traded Omri Casspi and a protected first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for JJ Hickson. The protections on that first-round pick were as follows:
Top 14 in 2012
Top 13 in 2013
Top 12 in 2014
Top 10 in 2015-2017
If the pick were to fall within those protections each season, the pick would turn into a 2017 second-round selection. The Kings finished, convincingly, in the bottom 10 of the league every season since the trade. The pick has been rolling over ever since and will finally be used in the 2017 Draft in some facet. How the Kings finish the final 20 games of this season will determine whether it is a lottery pick for them or an early second-rounder for someone else. The Kings must end the season in the bottom 10 in order to remain in position to keep their lottery pick. Take a look at how crowded the bottom half of the league is.
As of March 6, there are nine teams hovering around that 10th worst record, separated by only 4.5 games. As long as Sacramento can finish with a worse record than most of them, they should secure themselves a spot in the bottom ten. An eleven day stretch in late March should give the Kings enough trouble to keep their pick, as they are slated for games on the road against the Thunder, Spurs, Warriors and Clippers and home games against the Grizzlies and Jazz. The lottery balls will still have to bounce the Kings' way, of course.
How the trade worked out for Sacramento: Hickson played 35 games in a Kings uniform, averaged 4.7 points in 18.4 minutes and was waived. In 2014, Casspi re-signed with the Kings (and was then again traded along with Cousins). Hickson is currently playing in China.
(Note: this trade no longer involves the Cavaliers. In 2014, they traded the pick to Chicago in a package exchanged for Luol Deng.)
During the summer of 2015, current general manager Vlade Divac made a trade that made the Hickson trade look almost passable in comparison. Sacramento shipped off second-year player Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, a future first-round pick and a right to a pick swap to the Philadelphia 76ers. The players that the Kings received in return were Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic, both of whom have yet to play a minute in the NBA. The real reason behind the trade was to open up cap space — specifically $16 million worth — to spend on free agents. Unfortunately, Divac served himself not one but two poison pills in the trade. Not only did Philadelphia obtain the rights to swap draft picks with Sacramento in 2017, but they also own Sacramento’s 2019 first-rounder, completely unprotected.
As for the pick swap this year, things began looking grim for Sacramento in early January. Philadelphia went from the bottom of the standings with a 7-24 record to within a half game of Sacramento by February 1. They seemed poised to continue their hot streak and pass the Kings in the standings, set to deal Sacramento the impending pick swap. However, when 76ers Rookie of the Year candidate Joel Embiid went down with an injury, so did the team's frequency in the win column. They have since gone in the exact opposite direction, winning 5 of their last 15 games and sparing the Kings at least a bit of breathing room; the 76ers currently sit two full games back. After the Cousins trade, it is tough to tell exactly who or what the Kings are, but I see them winning four to six games the rest of the way. The 76ers have a similar fate, facing a tough but short west coast road trip starting on Thursday and still having to play away games in Cleveland and Toronto. This should be a close race all the way until season’s end.
How the trade worked out for Sacramento: The Kings had two notable names in place — Cousins and Rudy Gay — and were confident that they would finally be able to lure a big name on the market. Their first choice was Wes Matthews, who turned down their offer and signed with Dallas. They instead paid Rajon Rondo $10 million for a single season rental and signed Kosta Koufos. A year and a half later, Rondo is gone, the Kings and the 76ers are battling for draft position and Koufos is averaging 6.1 points and 5.5 assists. And don’t forget about that 2019 unprotected pick.
The Cousins trade. After months (years) of rumors and potential trade partners, the Kings big haul for Cousins was Buddy Hield, a first-round pick, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway. Just like the Kings' own lottery pick, the one that the Pelicans owe Sacramento is protected, though not as well. New Orleans has placed a top-3 protection on the pick this season, followed by a top-1 protection in 2018. At the time of the trade, there was a definitive bottom three (Lakers, Suns, Nets), and, although the Pelicans were only out of that bottom three by 4.5 games, they seemed to have heavily upgraded their talent by acquiring Cousins. The top-3 protection seemed like it would be an afterthought.
With Cousins in the lineup, however, New Orleans has struggled to find its way, losing the first four games in which he’s played. They may be able to right the ship, as they have a somewhat favorable remaining schedule. The Kings don’t want the Pelicans to win too many games, of course, because that would decrease the value of the draft pick. The “we hope you do well, just not too well” dynamic is an odd one, but Kings fans will be scoreboard watching for Pelicans results, along with the 76ers results. And their own results.
As presumed previously, the Kings will win five of their final 20 games. Obviously, the final standings will be based on the performance of other teams as well, but I foresee the Knicks, Wolves, and Pelicans all passing the Kings. This positioning would give Sacramento the sixth overall pick. As for the Pelicans, I think they’ll finish with a record that would send the ninth overall selection to Sacramento. Doing something productive with those picks is a whole different story.