Before you go to any topic regarding the Sacramento Kings, you have to sidestep the oncoming obstacle presented by that important word. It has defined the organization, and the perception, fairly, never left when its countless moves were met with laughter.
The stench has worn off a bit after an applauded draft in which analysts on all sides agree the team made smart picks—De’Aaron Fox at No. 5, Justin Jackson at No. 15, Harry Giles at No. 20 and Frank Mason at No. 34. But there remains a great divide following their free-agency approach: Is competent management truly winning out, or has a failure to lean into “The Tank” left Sacramento without a clear direction?
On one side are the believers, those who see merit in what the Kings are trying to undertake. And what are they trying to do, exactly? Well, they seem fully committed to an organizational makeover that’ll try to heal the scars that have haunted the franchise for years. There are a variety of ways they can go about the process, and bringing in prized veterans with highlighted leadership skills has become the chosen path.
This ideology flies in the face of the extreme decision to leave the cupboard dry of veterans, hoarding mounds of cap space and giving plenty of playing time to the youngsters. That direction is commonly referred to as a “Process” of sorts. You may have heard of it. With the Kings unable to contend, the thinking goes, it’s smarter to tank hard enough to shoot up the draft board, take on assets through salary dumps and build upon the collected core.
So which direction is correct? Were the Kings right to act now by signing George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to provide veteran leadership?
Before answering fully, it’s important to tackle perhaps the biggest points of contention: evaluation. Differing opinions on the ceiling of the young core is at the root of a lot of this. If you think they lack a possible future star, then you may opt to believe they should have focused on putting forth a greater effort to lock up a high-end draft pick. If you think they may have that star, then their current plan looks fine. The Kings are locked in with eight players under 24, and each one carries varying degrees of potential.
The rookies haven’t played, and Malachi Richardson hasn’t yet crossed the 200-minute threshold. That leaves us with the surplus of big men and the prized acquisition in the DeMarcus Cousins trade.
Georgios Papagiannis hasn’t played much in the NBA, but his profile suggests it would be a bit unrealistic to expect him to become an All-Star. He may be a decent rim-protector, but his lack of explosiveness makes him heavily reliant on his size and intelligence. To survive on offense, he’ll need to suck in defenders with runs to the rim or extend his game out toward the three-point line—neither of which seem likely at the moment. In a very small sample size, he took fewer than 10 percent of his total shots outside 16 feet last season. His outlook is more Jonas Valanciunas than Marc Gasol at this point, making him a saturated asset in today’s NBA.
Willie Cauley-Stein is the oldest of the bunch at 24. For years, his obvious comparison was Tyson Chandler. Honing his defense and rim-rolling is the easiest way for him to reach that level, and though he’s struggled up to this point, he found a spark after the All-Star break He averaged 12.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks in those 25 games, while flashing a face-up game. Tapping into that offensive potential is the key to making him a star. Even if he keeps developing into a strong defensive presence who cleans up the glass and explodes toward the rim, he’ll be incredibly valuable to the Kings long term.
The apple of Vivek Ranadive’s eye turned a corner when he arrived in Sacramento during his rookie year. Buddy Hield popped with his three-point touch, hitting nearly 43 percent of his shots from deep in 25 games. That range makes his presence imperative to a shooting-starved roster, but he still needs to beef up his ball-handling and defense. George Hill could be an excellent mentor in both areas, since he’s shown versatility at the point by playing off-rock and defending at a high level. Specifically, and perhaps most valuably, he could help Hield use his pesky 7’0″ wingspan to disrupt pick-and-rolls.
Skal Labissiere was the best bang-for-the-buck value of the Kings’ draft picks when they took him at No. 28. Similar to Cauley-Stein, he didn’t take off until the departure of Cousins. Once he did, he was able to find consistent minutes and produce numbers that proved he could be a key piece of the future. His tour de force came against the Phoenix Suns when he went off for 32 points and displayed some power moves inside, along with decent touch from mid-range.
At only 21, he has plenty of time to develop and would be wise to take some pointers from Zach Randolph.
The chances that one of these non-rookies morphs into a top-three player on a championship team is low. But getting even a few starters from this crew represents major progress, and fostering that progress through a poor organizational structure is just like putting a plant in rocks and gravel: It’s not going to grow. Exceptions exist (just look at Cousins), but you can make a case that not having a Boogie-type player makes it even more important to strengthen veteran leadership.
The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat have served as model franchises where strong ethos has maximized the potential of those who were discounted in the draft and free agency. They have gotten major contributions from the likes of Danny Green, Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons, Tyler Johnson, Jason Richardson, Hassan Whiteside and more.
But that’s not always the case.
When the Brooklyn Nets acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce back in the 2013, they arrived as a duo that had experienced winning for years. Even they were susceptible to the pitfalls of a fragile support structure, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
The problems, however, started long before [head coach Jason] Kidd banished his lead assistant. [Deron] Williams was the first falling domino when he sprained his ankle working out in Utah and missed both training camp and most of preseason. Somehow, his fragile psyche never recovered. Garnett and Pierce were two of the first to arrive at the Nets’ practice facility for offseason workouts, and, according to sources, were surprised by the lack of attendance and immediately disappointed with the overall attitude of their new organization. Disappointment was an ongoing theme for those two.
‘When we came in and implemented our style, you know a lot of people there didn’t understand that,’ Garnett said recently on his TNT show. ‘Everybody is preparing differently. We had to kind of adjust.’
One underrated aspect of the Carter, Hill and Randolph signings is their contract length. The only agreement that goes longer than two years is Hill’s deal, and he has a partial guarantee worth only $1 million in the final season. That affords the Kings flexibility to move one if a rival suitor gets desperate, or if cap space is needed in two years to improve an up-and-coming team.
The counter to all this is fair.
Sacramento may end up hurting itself ever so slightly in the tanking race, and soaking up cap space to sign Carter put it out of the running to make a deal and take on DeMarre Carroll’s contract. But those might-haves are not strong enough to completely smear an entire offseason. Being bad and moving your organization in the proper direction are not always ideas that go hand in hand.
The Kings are finally pushing the right buttons, and it’s time to give them the credit they deserve.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @Trende19.