What an odd story the Sacramento Kings have become. The franchise once turned around their fortunes in one summer by drafting Jason Williams, signing Vlade Divac as a free agent, and trading Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe for Chris Webber. They went 27-23 in the lockout-shortened 1999 season after going 27-55 the season prior.
But the Kings haven’t made the playoffs since the last season Peja Stojakovic played for the team. In total, they’ve missed the playoffs nine consecutive seasons and haven’t broken the 30-win plateau since 2007-2008. The situation also brought new ownership, the discussion of moving the team to Seattle, talk about playing 4-on-5 defense and an overall ugly situation.
The good news for the Kings is that this run of awful basketball has brought a few decent players with high first-round draft picks. The bad news is most of those high picks didn’t really pan out for the Kings outside of DeMarcus Cousins.
Enter George Karl. Karl was signed to coach the team in February of last season, as the Kings finished up yet another dismal year. I wrote back in April about some comments that Karl made that were eyebrow raising on the topic of Cousins. He seemed to imply that the Kings wouldn’t rule out trading Cousins if the right offer presented itself, but I thought there could be more to it.
“Karl was presiding over the Sonics when they traded Shawn Kemp, the Bucks when they dealt Ray Allen, and he was with the Nuggets when they traded for Allen Iverson, traded away Allen Iverson and traded Carmelo Anthony. In short, it seems that Karl isn’t afraid to shake up his roster. Does that mean Cousins is a top candidate for a trade?”
Fast-forward to the days leading up to the draft when there were rumors that the Los Angeles Lakers were pursuing Cousins, and that Karl was pushing the Kings to do the deal. What followed was this coy tweet from Cousins’s account:
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) June 23, 2015
But what complicates matters is that Karl was supposedly the one pushing for a trade, not Divac (now the team vice president). This even prompted an irritated Divac to address whether Cousins or Karl might have to go (via The Sac Bee):
“It is not happening,” an irritated Divac told The Bee when asked about the reports earlier today. “We’re looking for ways to improve our team. We need time to work on that, and draft a good player. I don’t care what the agents or the media people are saying.”
It’s worth pointing out that, while I was on top of it with my article in April predicting the problems with Karl and Cousins, I also assumed that the Kings knew they’d be fools to trade him:
“Trading Cousins is a potential mistake that could haunt the franchise for years, but Karl and the Kings aren’t worried about all that. They just want to make the best possible moves to position their franchise to win. I wouldn’t count on Cousins leaving being one of those moves.”
Even crazy team owner Vivek Ranadive gets it, as he’s not pushing for dealing Cousins either. With the intent of calming all sides, Ranadive told Cousins’s agent to go ahead and seek trades if Cousins is really angry enough to want out, but truly he has no intention of letting Cousins go. Further complicating things, Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated shared some inside information on Twitter just three days after the initial rumors popped up:
Relationship between Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and George Karl deeply strained right now, per sources. Some tense moments last few days.
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) June 25, 2015
I won’t read too much into what “deeply strained” might mean for a relationship between the head coach and the franchise owner, but just ask Jerry Reinsdorf how he might treat a head coach that he feels is pulling in the opposite direction of the rest of the franchise. Not to mention, the rumors that Ranadive was talking to Kentucky head coach John Calipari about taking a role within the franchise.
There’s an appeal here, because Calipari coached Cousins in college and the thought process is likely that they believe he might help soothe Cousins’s psyche (although the two had their issues at Kentucky). Calipari denied any such talks took place and reiterated that he’ll be the head coach of Kentucky next year, for what it’s worth. But I wouldn’t go as far to say that means the talks didn’t happen. It just means Calipari wasn’t offered enough money to pry him away from the sweetest gig in college basketball.
So here the Kings are, with an angry star player and a draft selection of Willie Cauley-Stein because Cousins wants a defensively-elite big man on the team to lighten his load. They had the Lakers lighting up their phone lines with trade proposals, a coach who doesn’t want the best player on the team, an owner who wants a new coach, a coaching candidate who doesn’t want anything to do with the situation and Divac, who’s probably just closing his eyes and trying to remember 2001.
It wasn’t always like this in Sacramento. The Kings have assets, and there’s no excuse for them to be mucking things up as much as they have with one of the top young players in the NBA still on the roster. But they continue to muck things up, and now they’re making bad trades to create cap space for the pursuit of Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo (that duo worked so well in Dallas), and the possible right to overpay Wesley Matthews, who’s coming off an Achilles injury. Management is so desperate to regain relevancy that they keep trying to make quick-fix moves that often end up backfiring.
Until they get out of their own way, the fun stretch of uptempo basketball and playoff matchups with the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs will continue to be just a distant memory in a town once known for how much they love their Sacramento Kings.