It's doubtful that there's a more divisive figure than DeMarcus Cousins among this year's extension-eligible players on rookie-scale contracts. Cousins is a rare gem — a young center who flirts with averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds. He also has a reputation as a malcontent, drawing three separate suspensions last season, according to Patricia Bender's database. Sacramento's completely revamped braintrust, from owner Vivek Ranadive to GM Pete D'Alessandro to coach Michael Malone, have to make the decision on Cousins' extension without the benefit of going through a season with him. The Kings would still have the right to match offers if they let him hit restricted free agency next summer, but the extension period offers them the opportunity for complete control and perhaps a chance.to leverage any desire Cousins may have for long-term security into a team-friendly pact.
The new-look Kings have indicated a willingness to give Cousins the benefit of the doubt. D'Alessandro came aboard with a fondness for Cousins, and he traveled with Ranadive and Malone to meet the 6'11" center in the big man's native Alabama. D'Alessandro consulted with Cousins about free agents, and team officials reportedly expressed their commitment to Cousins when they met again with him and his representatives on multiple occasions in Las Vegas over the summer.
There was some turbulence in the spring, as a report from Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio suggested that Malone's hiring meant Cousins was a "goner," but later it appeared rival teams were advancing that notion in the hopes they could shake Cousins loose at a bargain price. Later, Amico reported that Malone was excited to work with Cousins.
Through it all, agent Dan Fegan instructed Cousins to keep quiet on the incoming powers that be in Sacramento. It also looks like Fegan's going after a max contract for his client, with hints that he'll demand a trade if no such deal is forthcoming. Fegan is as cagey as they come, as witnessed by his negotiations for Dwight Howard, and he's already scored one max extension this summer, for John Wall. He negotiated the offseason's other rookie-scale extension, too, for Larry Sanders. Still, the Kings wield the hammer. If they don't want to give him a max extension, they can simply wait until next summer, allowing themselves an extra year to monitor his progress. Another team could come along with a max offer at that point, but the Kings could match it, and it could only be a four-year deal with 4.5% raises, as opposed to the five-year contract with 7.5% raises he could get from signing with Sacramento outright. Realistically, the Kings control Cousins' fate for years to come, unless he takes the drastic move of accepting his qualifying offer next summer. So, a trade demand would ring hollow.
The specter of a trade seems more likely to be a weapon for the Kings rather than an arrow in Cousins' quiver. Sacramento could sign him to a long-term deal, and if they don't like his progress, the team could swap him to a team willing to overpay for size, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller suggested. Of course, an extension could make a trade difficult, at least for the coming season, thanks to the Poison Pill Provision.
An extension for Cousins, be it for the max or otherwise, is no certainty. The Kings were an atrocious defensive team with him on the floor last season, allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's a rate that would have made Sacramento the worst team in the league in that category. Of course, the Kings weren't much better defensively when he wasn't on the court, but it's tough to make a long-term commitment to someone who's a minus on one side of the floor. Cousins averaged a career-worst 0.7 blocks per game last season, though he did make progress on defending without fouling. He picked up 3.6 personals a night — the first time he averaged fewer than four, and the first time he didn't lead the league in total fouls committed.
He's far more evolved at the offensive end, even if his range doesn't extend much farther than eight or nine feet away from the basket. He's improved his field goal shooting in each season, though there's still room for further growth from the 46.5% mark he put up last year. He took fewer shots last season, which accounted for a dip in points per game, but he also grabbed fewer rebounds in the same minutes per contest, with a lower rebound rate, according to Basketball-Reference. That could be a function of the way former coach Keith Smart used him, but the regression still seems like a red flag.
The Kings already have about $40MM committed for next season, and with Cousins and Greivis Vasquez both up for extensions this summer, there's not much room to maneuver. Still more important than any basketball or cap-related measure is Cousins' maturity. It makes sense that the Kings have visited with him frequently throughout the summer, so that the new management can get a sense of the way he handles himself. Cousins just turned 23 last month, so it's reasonable to suggest that his youth had much to do with his past transgressions. Still, the experience of going through a walk year, and the pressures that come with it, might force him to finally grow up. It could also reveal a further inability to handle life in the NBA.
The consequences of tying him up long-term seem to outweigh the downside of letting Cousins hit free agency next summer, namely the possibility that the Kings would miss out on signing him to a bargain deal, one he and Fegan might not agree to anyway. I expect Cousins will be the most talented extension-eligible player not to get one this year.