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DeMarcus Cousins: ‘My biggest regret is not leaving when I had a chance’

Center decided against pushing Kings to trade him in summer of 2015

DeMarcus Cousins will have good and bad memories when he returns to Sacramento, California, on Thursday for the first time since the Kings abruptly traded him to New Orleans last season. But if the Pelicans center could go back in time, he would have agreed to push for a trade while feuding with then-coach George Karl in the summer of 2015 instead of staying loyal to the Kings.

“There were plenty of situations where I’m like, ‘Man, why didn’t you just do it this way?’ ” Cousins recently told ESPN. “And there was plenty of times where I was a victim. But at the end of the day, it’s still on me. My biggest regret is not leaving when I had the chance.

“I had the chance, but I fought it. I had the chance to leave, but I didn’t.”

Cousins could have his jersey retired by the Kings one day, and for good reason. The fifth pick in the 2010 NBA draft is the Kings’ second all-time leading scorer behind Mitch Richmond and the top rebounder in the franchise’s Sacramento era. Cousins also made three NBA All-Star appearances for the Kings and won an Olympic gold medal with USA Basketball in 2016. The 2017 Offseason NBA Cares Community Assist Award winner’s private and public charitable work in Sacramento was strongly appreciated and respected too. The Kings are planning to thank Cousins for his play on the court and contributions to the community during in-game programming against the Pelicans on Thursday, a source told The Undefeated.

Cousins, however, also had numerous run-ins with Kings coaches and teammates and the Sacramento media. There were suspensions as well as a lion’s share of technical fouls. But nothing made more news than Cousins’ feud with Karl. They didn’t see eye to eye shortly after Karl was hired during the 2015 NBA All-Star break. Their relationship got worse as it progressed.

According to an NBA source, Cousins’ representatives told Kings general manager Vlade Divac after the 2014-15 season that their client wanted to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers but was open to other possible deals. Cousins’ representatives also warned him that his situation with Karl could get worse and he should push for a trade. Cousins ultimately told his representatives and the Kings that he wanted to stay.

“I wanted to give it a chance because my representatives told me I shouldn’t stay,” Cousins said. “I guess you could say I was stubborn and loyal. I wanted to make things work.”

Divac confirmed Cousins’ decision to not push for a trade in the summer of 2015.

“For him personally, yeah, it probably would have been better. I really believed in him. In 2½ years working with him, I tried to do my best working with him,” Divac told The Undefeated.

Karl reportedly pushed to have Cousins traded from Sacramento in July 2015. Cousins responded by tweeting an emoji of a snake in the grass. Karl nearly lost his job in November 2015 because of his constant disputes with Cousins. Karl ended up being fired on April 14, 2016, after the Kings finished the 2015-16 season 33-49 and missed the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season despite expectations of owner Vivek Ranadivé to make it.

Karl was gone, but the Kings’ losing ways continued as Cousins kept playing on an All-Star level. Cousins averaged 27.8 points and 10.6 rebounds entering the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Cousins told The Undefeated that a week before the All-Star break, Divac agreed to sign him to a supermax contract extension in the summer of 2018 that would pay more than $200 million over five seasons.

Cousins arrived in New Orleans for All-Star Weekend believing he would be with the Kings long term and didn’t pay attention to any trade rumors. “Boogie” even said he ignored a text from Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis stating that he should come play for New Orleans. But on the night of the All-Star Game, the Kings shocked Cousins by agreeing in principle to trade him and forward Omri Casspi to the Pelicans for then-rookie guard Buddy Hield, swingman Tyreke Evans, guard Langston Galloway and 2017 first- and second-round draft picks.

Cousins potentially lost $30 million in the trade, as the Pelicans were eligible to sign him to a five-year, $170 million contract extension. He learned about the trade immediately after the All-Star Game from Kings media relations director Chris Clark. Cousins later expressed disdain for Divac and Ranadivé for their timing of the trade and for broken promises. Now, Cousins calls himself a “fool” for being loyal to the Kings and not remembering that the NBA is a business.

“I kind of blame myself for even putting myself at that point,” Cousins said. “You knew coming in this was a business. How are you going to be loyal to something that ain’t even loyal to any player that’s ever played this game? I was a fool.

“But at the same time, it doesn’t change who I am. … I still live by that code. You’ve just got to learn how to separate business and your personal life. And all that did was teach me a lesson.”

Divac said he was worried that Cousins could ultimately depart as a free agent in 2018 and the trade allowed him to be in a position to draft heralded rookie guard De’Aaron Fox, forward Justin Jackson, center Harry Giles and guard Frank Mason while also acquiring Hield. Fox and Jackson are in the Kings’ playing rotation, and Hield is a starter.

“I have a good foundation to build from,” Divac said. “I want for my kids exactly what you saw [in the season opener]: Play hard, have fun, play as a team and we’ll be fine. We will grow together every day, every month and every year.”

Cousins said last week that he has not talked to Divac and Ranadivé since the trade, although he said Ranadivé tried to text him. Divac said that Cousins had a “wonderful six years” with the Kings and that he would like to thank him for his contribution to the organization. The former NBA All-Star center said he could relate with Cousins’ disappointment, as he recalled “feeling like someone hit him with a baseball bat” when he was traded from the Lakers to the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. Divac also recently told The Undefeated that he had tried to delay the Cousins trade until after All-Star Weekend.

“I like him as a person,” Divac said. “He is a great talent; hopefully he can do well. Now it’s over. I tried my best to do the deal after the All-Star Game because if I do it, that morning he probably wouldn’t have played in All-Star. So I didn’t want to take that away from him. I tried to do my best in that circumstance. But every time you do that, you do wrong. You can’t make everybody happy.”

Divac acknowledged having contract extension talks with Cousins and his agent, Jarinn Akana, but Divac said no promise was ever made.

“We were talking about an extension, but it was not ever promised,” Divac said. “We were talking about extension possibilities. I had two options: do the trade or do the extension. And they said, ‘We will do the extension.’ [If he was still here], of course, I wouldn’t have had no choice.

“If a player with his contract would leave this organization and this small market, what are you going to do? At least we decided we are going to do this [trade] and now have talent that we have to work with. I felt bad because personally I like the kid. I think he is misunderstood a lot of times. He’s very passionate about the game, but he also has to take responsibility for his actions too, so it’s somewhere in between.”

Cousins told The Undefeated in late July that he was “praying” he played the Kings in Sacramento in the first game of this NBA season because he has a lot “to get off my chest. I can’t wait.” But last week, Cousins said he was not seeking revenge in his first game back in Sacramento and he was excited about being back in the city he loves that raised him.

“I’m excited to play in front of the fans and see the reaction,” said Cousins, 27. “But as far as it being like a revenge game or hating, I’m past it. I’m in a good place. I’m happy where I’m at. You know we have a chance to win [in New Orleans]. We’re playing for something. So I’m good.

“I got traded and, ‘He hates Sacramento,’ and I kind of fed into it. End of the day, it’s a business. I kind of blame myself for even putting myself at that point. You knew coming in this was a business.”

Kings guard Garrett Temple said he believes his ex-teammate will be playing with a chip on his shoulder Thursday.

“I know my guy, and I love my guy to death,” Temple said. “Cousins is going to try to take our heads off. I don’t expect anything different. He felt a certain way about being traded and the way he got traded. He may say he got past it because that’s the politically correct answer. Knowing ‘Cuz,’ he’s not past it.

“That’s the way it is. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. That makes him who he is. He said that? OK. I don’t believe him.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.