Updated: December 27, 2012, 1:00 PM ET

1. Kings Sink Lower Without Troubled Big Man

By Kevin Pelton
ESPN Insider

PORTLAND, Ore. -- DeMarcus Cousins never made it to Portland on Wednesday. The rest of his Sacramento Kings teammates got run out of the Rose Garden. With their leading scorer back home in Sacramento, the Kings were blown out by the Portland Trail Blazers 109-91, tying the Blazers' largest margin of victory this season.

Two days after Cousins' "indefinite" suspension for unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team was lifted, he did not travel with the team. Sacramento coach Keith Smart indicated before the game that Cousins' reinstatement did not automatically mean his return to the lineup.

"I just made the decision," said Smart. "We'll get back and he'll prepare to start playing. I wanted him to be back around the team and eventually start playing."

When Sacramento earned a rare win -- one of just two in the team's last nine games -- over these same Blazers on Sunday at home during the one game Cousins missed, it sparked the inevitable talk that the Kings are better off without him. That doesn't match up with the overall results during the five games Cousins has missed this season due to a variety of suspensions. Sacramento is 1-4 in those games.

DeMarcus Cousins
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinDeMarcus Cousins sat out Wednesday's game.

Over the course of the season, the Kings have been better with Cousins on the bench. However, that's almost entirely the result of him playing opposite defensive savant Chuck Hayes, his backup at center. Smart can only extend Hayes' minutes so much with Cousins out of the lineup, forcing him to rely on small-ball lineups. Sacramento has started a front line of forwards James Johnson and Jason Thompson in Cousins' absence.

The smaller group can space the floor on offense and has shared the ball effectively, which led to hot shooting in Sunday's win. The bill came due Wednesday night at the other end of the court, where Portland pounded the ball inside to big men LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson. The two players combined for 45 points and 26 rebounds and both recorded double-doubles -- the ninth consecutive for Hickson, who was cast off by the Kings in March and claimed off waivers by the Blazers.

In general, Portland owned the painted area. The Blazers collected nearly half their own misses and scored 27 second-chance points. Those easy buckets fueled a 50-36 advantage in points in the paint. In addition to the scores from the big men, rookie Will Barton also took advantage of the lane to the rim to score a career-high 14 points. Sacramento could stay in the game with hot outside shooting for a quarter, but overcoming Portland's paint dominance was too much to ask of a short-handed group also playing without guard Tyreke Evans, the Kings' second-leading scorer.

"Especially with our two big guys out, there's not a lot of margin for error," said guard Isaiah Thomas. "We've got to really focus in on all times and do the little things."

Without Cousins, Smart has few alternatives to small ball on a roster featuring just four true big men. Lottery pick Thomas Robinson still looks lost much of the time two months into his transition to the NBA, and tweener forward Travis Outlaw poses the same defensive issues as Johnson without the athletic upside.

Fortunately for Sacramento, Cousins' return is near. "We'll get a practice [Thursday] and incorporate DeMarcus back into our basketball team and start getting ready for the next game," Smart said after the game, although he made no promises that Cousins would play Friday against the New York Knicks at Sleep Train Arena. His most definitive statement? "We'll see once I get back in town."

The Kings aren't a very good team right now no matter who's on the court. The team's play without Cousins is most relevant as ownership and president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie consider possibly dealing their troublesome star prior to the trade deadline, a task already complicated by the difficulty of finding a partner willing to offer value for Cousins. To stay afloat the rest of the season and balance the roster, Sacramento would need to get frontcourt help as part of the return package. (Take note, maestros of the Trade Machine.)

If the Kings want to avoid more ugly outcomes like Wednesday's, trading Cousins won't be a simple task.

Kevin Pelton is an author for Basketball Prospectus and a contributor to ESPN Insider.

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