When your offseason starts with a franchise player calling his coach a snake, it’s impossible for it to be a rotund success. That was just the latest sign of profound dysfunction in the Kings’ organization. From a carousel of front office personnel to short-term moves that jeopardized the future, nothing in Sacramento inspires a lot of confidence. Yet it’s impossible to look at the roster with objectivity and not see more talent than last season and an outside shot of making the playoffs.
One of the most polarizing of the moves the Kings made was a salary dump designed to chase free agents that hadn’t agreed to sign with them. Both Monta Ellis and Wesley Matthews spurned Sacramento, leaving Vlade Divac to chase his Plan C. Luckily for the franchise, Plan C wasn’t bad at all. A team that needed some toughness inside and some shooting added Marco Belinelli to be its marksman and Kosta Koufos to both play next to and back up DeMarcus Cousins. They’re clear upgrades over Nik Stauskas and Jason Thompson.
Much has been made of the picks that were involved in the deal. In reality, the two pick swaps, slated to be available in the next two drafts, will likely never come into play. It’s almost impossible to conceive the 76ers being better than the Kings while continuing with their current plan and playing in the East. In 2019, Philadelphia is getting an unprotected pick but the Kings could be legitimately good by them, just by keeping Cousins and adding talent around him.
With the cap space the move created the Kings not only added Belinelli and Koufos but also Rajon Rondo. It’s undoubtedly a huge gamble to bring aboard a player who created such a toxic environment in his last stop that he was waived during the playoffs. Worst-case scenario, the Cousins-Karl-Rondo locker room is a disaster. If that happens, the Kings can just waive Rondo without it affecting their future, as he’s on a one-year deal. It wouldn’t be surprising to see things play out like that.
If things do work out, however, Rondo could be the perfect stopgap addition. If he’s committed to pushing the ball when he gets the chance and finding Rudy Gay and Cousins in the right spots he’ll be worth the $10 million he’s getting. There’s a small chance he also rediscovers his passion for defense on a contract year, adding toughness to the perimeter. The reason why Rondo continues to get opportunities after a disappointing three seasons is because if he gets past his mental hang ups, he could be a quality starter.
How things go with Rondo and the equally volatile Cousins will largely depend on how George Karl steers this team. Again, it’s easy to assume the worst will happen. Karl tends to alienate his stars and his style doesn’t seem to fit with the roster he has as seamlessly as in past jobs.
He’s still Hall of Famer who’s made the most of the talent available to him and someone who’s won everywhere he’s been. The ideas Karl at one point helped pioneer and that seemed unorthodox — like going small and attacking early in the shot clock — are now common practices. Karl could unlock the full potential of Gay by moving him to power forward for stretches and use Omri Casspi the same way to squeeze as much spacing out of his roster as possible. With shooting and athleticism at the wing, the running attack could work. The Kings were mediocre on offense last season despite not having shooters and going through three coaches. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to see them crack the top third of the league in offensive efficiency if a couple of things go right.
There’s a lot more work to do on defense, where the Kings were a bottom five team. The additions of Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein should help inside and Caron Butler and a more mature Ben McLemore should improve a leaky perimeter defense. It’s still very hard to imagine the Kings becoming elite from one season to the next. The good news is they won’t need to if the goal is to just be competitive. The Pelicans made the playoffs sporting the 22nd-ranked defense in the league last year. The Suns were merely average and were in the hunt for most of last season.
If the Kings can make some reasonable progress with a good coach and a better roster, there’s no reason why they can’t win at the very least 35 games after winning 29 last season. While the top seven in the West (Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies and Pelicans) seem like a lock to make the postseason, the eighth spot is there for the taking. The Suns have locker-room issues of their own, the Trail Blazers are bottoming out and the Mavericks’ offseason plans were destroyed by DeAndre Jordan‘s indecision. Even the Jazz have suffered a setback after losing Dante Exum for the season.
Things have been so messy for so long in Sacramento that optimism is hard to come by. No one would put money on that best-case scenario. Yet if we ignore the process and focus solely on the results, the talent to compete is there after this offseason. The Kings still have one of the best players in the league in Cousins, some shooting to take pressure off him, a quality interior defender to handle tough assignments in Koufos and a veteran point guard with championship experience looking for redemption. One of the winningest coaches in league history is in charge of making things work. That’s not a terrible situation by any means.
The Kings are still far from contention but could be nearing relevance. As a laughingstock, they had nothing to lose, so they gambled big. If things pan out and they chase the eighth seed, all the dysfunction from this past offseason will soon be forgotten.