The Sacramento Kings have become one of the most talked-about teams in the NBA, but very little of that discussion is about their on-court play, and even less of that talk is positive. After cycling through new owners, front offices and coaches rapidly over the last few seasons, the most stable organizational force for the Kings is currently DeMarcus Cousins, who’s perhaps the most prime candidate in the league to get double-T’d and then tossed when he’s upset with a foul call. Sacramento hasn’t made it to the playoffs — or hit a .500 record — since the spring of 2006, when Rick Adelman was still coaching the team. That was nine years ago, and they’ve had eight different coaches since then — and nobody would be surprised if it took nine more years to get back into the second season.
What Happened Last Year
The Kings combined one of the most bland on-court products in the NBA with some of the wildest and most unpredictable off-court drama in recent league history. A promising 9-5 start to the 2014-15 season was quickly forgotten as the Kings sunk below .500, cycled through three head coaches, and replaced an analytically savvy front office with ex-Kings players carrying precious little personnel experience. Even though there are other teams around the league who technically win fewer basketball games, the Kings cemented themselves as the NBA’s epicenter for unpredictable and confusing wackiness.
The team’s on-court style was a mismatched pastiche of veterans surrounding the under-development of Ben McLemore and neurotic star DeMarcus Cousins. Veterans like Andre Miller, Ryan Hollins, Reggie Evans and Derrick Williams all floated away without resistance in free agency, and other veterans Ramon Sessions, Carl Landry and Jason Thompson have all been traded away. That’s about half an NBA roster right there! Many of the players who are still around with the Kings — Rudy Gay, Darren Collison, McLemore — like to shoot first and ask questions later, resulting in the league’s 27th-best per-possession defense.
It was a lot of drama to get to a 29-53 record, or 13th in the 15-team Western Conference. Even though the Kings have changed owners, front offices, coaches, rosters and styles all in just the last few seasons, they seem destined for the same undistinguished result: for the sixth straight year, the team had a winning percentage somewhere in the narrow, mediocre window of 29-35 percent.
What Happened This Summer
Around the league, the Kings were still an object of derision this offseason — the difference being that the team may well have inflicted some serious long-term damage on themselves in the process. For Grantland, Chad Ford and Ryen Russillo blamed the Kings for the total lack of trades within the front end of this year’s draft: the two draft podcasters hypothesized that, while the Kings took Willie Cauley-Stein sixth overall, most teams had Cauley-Stein somewhere in the teens on their board. The resulting effect was that each team drafting behind the Kings essentially “moved up” one spot, as they suddenly each had one more appealing prospect available to them than they’d planned on having. With their draft picks effectively that much more valuable, it took a higher — and ultimately unrealized — asking price to get a team to move out of the lottery.
Even if Cauley-Stein ends up not fulfilling sixth-overall value with his career, that pick is a small error compared to the trade that the Kings completed with the Philadelphia 76ers days later. The trade was covered smartly and thoroughly by Philadelphia-based writer Derek Bodner: it was a stunning move in that it provided very literally no chance of upside for Sacramento. In exchange for two just-drafted late second-round picks (stashed players Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic), the Kings gave up their lottery pick from 2014 (Nik Stauskas), their first-round pick in 2018 and two options for the Sixers to swap first-round picks — all so that Philadelphia would take on the inefficient-but-not-burdensome contracts of Jason Thompson and Carl Landry. Unless the Kings put together a viable long-term strategy — the first signs of which are still forthcoming — this innocuous-looking deal could generate lottery picks for Philadelphia on the annual.
The Kings paid way too dearly for the available cap room, but at least they did mostly productive things with it. Kosta Koufos (three years, $24M plus $9M player option) and Marco Belinelli (3 years, $19M) are coming off sharp tenures as disciplined players on monstrously successful teams in Memphis and San Antonio, respectively. Do they help improve the Kings from last season’s 29 wins? Sure. By a lot? Probably not.
The Spurs nabbed little-used guard Ray McCallum in a trade, a transaction that immediately created the feeling that the Kings have been under-utilizing a player who will make the nearly inevitable Boris Diaw-esque leap into Spurs greatness.
Sacramento couldn’t make it through a couple of months without off-court operations going haywire. New coach George Karl passive-aggressively suggested that Cousins is/should be on the trading block, which prompted some passive-aggressive tweeting from Cousins.
Key Player: Rajon Rondo
There’s about one thing that Rondo could do this year that would surprise people: play quiet, smart and efficient basketball. It seemed both inevitable and way too far-fetched that the league’s most unpredictable player would match up with the league’s most unpredictable team, but it just happened. The Kings signed Rondo to a one-year,$9.5M deal — which would’ve been a total bargain a few years ago. But it’s not a few years ago, and the high price for a player who effectively went AWOL on his playoff team a few months previously makes me wonder: who were the Kings bidding against for Rondo’s services?
From the second year to the sixth year of Rondo’s career, he was the starting point guard — and sometimes the very best player — on a Boston Celtics team that won the second-most games of any NBA team over that time span. Rondo was only 25 years old at the end of that stretch, had a championship ring on one finger and was the best player on a team that took another NBA Finals to a Game 7. He really, truly seemed destined for a Jason Kidd-esque Hall of Fame career. Now he’s just 29 and this feels like his last shot in the league, and it’s hard to see how it works out well.
That said: if Rondo defies expectations and plays like his old triple-double-maniac self, it suddenly becomes plausible to see the Kings headed to the postseason.
(Also: while they’re not “key” players, I definitely feel really bad for Kings end-of-benchers Seth Curry and David Stockton. Both young prospects are related to some of the best and classiest players of all time, and their NBA experience is taking place in a riotous disaster of a locker room.)
It’s hard to argue against the Kings being a better team than they were a year ago. At the same time, it’s hard to find a spot for them in the playoffs in the Western Conference gauntlet. In some order, the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are all — barring total injury disaster — solid locks to make the playoffs. That leaves only two remaining playoff spots for the rest of the conference.
Are the Kings better than the New Orleans Pelicans, who have a bothersome lack of depth but also a new perennial MVP candidate in Anthony Davis? Are the Kings better than the Utah Jazz, whose roster in its current form (that is: without Enes Kanter) has played as well as a playoff team? What about the Phoenix Suns, who were 10 wins better than the Kings last year despite their own significant roster turmoil? The Kings would need to be better than two of those three teams in order to make the playoffs — and that’s with my assumption that the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks won’t stick around for long. I don’t see it happening.
I see the Kings doing something they haven’t done since 2007-08, which is win over 40 percent of their games (that’s 33 wins). But it’ll still be just a 36-46 season and the 11th seed in the West.