As the Celtics have impressively marched through their rebuild to reposition themselves on the cusp of the league’s elite, there has been a belief that they are just one superstar away from becoming championship contenders.
Of course, superstars do not grow on trees, so teams tend to be reluctant to part ways with them. But some, for various reasons, have always seemed more attainable than others.
The Sacramento Kings had a young, dominant big man in DeMarcus Cousins. But he was mercurial and moody, and, perhaps most importantly, his team had not been winning with him, anyway. The Celtics, meanwhile, had a pile of valuable assets but no dominant big man. So Boston was viewed for years as a plausible landing spot for Cousins.
But on Sunday night Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for rookie Buddy Hield, veterans Tyreke Evans, and Langston Galloway, and first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft. It did not seem like a bounty that would be impressive enough to lure one of the best basketball players in the world.
And in Boston it raised the question: What about the Celtics? Why had they not offered more? Why hadn’t they gotten their next superstar?
According to league sources, a Cousins-to-Celtics trade was never going to happen because the Celtics never had any interest in acquiring him. There never were trade talks. There never were offers. Cousins-to-Boston was mostly a pipe dream concocted on the airwaves. It was never a reality, according to the sources.
The Celtics, a source said, simply could not overlook all the warning signs associated with Cousins. The forward played for six coaches during his stay in Sacramento, and Celtics staffers had spoken to most of them at various times after they left that organization.
And time and again, any mention of Cousins turned ominous, the source said. Agents for other Kings players had even reached out to teams hoping to find new homes for their clients, primarily citing the difficulties that came from playing with Cousins.
“It’s not just that he can be emotional on the court,” the source said. “It’s just playing with him every day. Like, when a coach says he can’t coach him, you lose credibility. You can’t sustain things that are important to winning if a coach isn’t able to hold him accountable.”
The source emphasized that Cousins was generally viewed as a good person off the court by those around him, but that his on-court demeanor and effort have often come into question.
In a statement issued Monday following the completion of the trade, Kings general manager Vlade Divac even offered a hint at where things had gone wrong with Cousins.
“Winning begins with culture, and character matters,” Divac said.
When the Celtics played in Sacramento Feb. 8, Cousins sat out because he had received a one-game suspension for being called for his league-leading 16th technical foul of the season.
It appeared to many that the Kings received a relatively small return from the Pelicans for Cousins. But the Celtics were not alone in their reluctance.
Other teams had concerns about Cousins that prevented the sweepstakes from turning into a kind of bidding war, a source said.
Also, Cousins is scheduled to become a free agent after next season, at which time he will command another maximum-salary contract if he is not signed to an extension before then.
It was long believed that Cousins would simply stay in Sacramento and sign a five-year, $207 million deal as the “designated player.” But now he is gone.
Privately, Celtics executives had found humor in the media’s incessant mention of Cousins as a possible trade target in recent seasons, all along knowing there was no interest on their end.
Said a team source: “I’m glad it’s finally over.”