Whereupon an NBA free-agent fan sets about selecting a team to root for during the 2013-14 NBA season.
The Sacramento Kings are such an easy out from the NBA Fandom Games, it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner. They can’t be compared to the Portland Trail Blazers or Toronto Raptors, recent dismissals whose quiet ineffectiveness is what prevented more urgent eliminations, because the Kings are regularly on everyone’s radar for reasons most teams commit huge portions of their existence to avoiding. So how could the Kings have lasted so long?
Maybe the Kings earned a little leeway with the long overdue sale of the franchise to a seemingly viable owner. The prolonged catastrophe of the Maloof Brothers, one that dates back longer than most of us care to recall, started out as the tragic demise of one-time (arguably) beloved figures, but as the years dragged on, the whole tale lost its edge as we were gradually numbed by the dramatic on-the-court impact of it all. When a Seattle-based hedge fund manager tried to hijack the team and bring it north (in what would’ve become a fifth home for the nomadic franchise), even his icky behavior didn’t pose too big a problem for many fans, because his victory would have marked the overdue end to the Maloof debacle. Really any end would have done.
Some residual love for Kings teams of old is playing a role, too. Those early-millennium Sacramento squads would’ve steamrolled through the Fandom Games. Low roster turnover, veteran leadership and a thrilling participatory offense, The Greatest Show On Court could have written the Fandom Games survival guide back then. It’s hard to think of the Kings and not see one generation’s very own Rocky Balboa of basketball.
Although, perhaps, the team’s survival up to this point is most of all because the Kings are simply too easy a target. Sacramento has been unable to crack 30 wins even once in the last five years and hasn’t posted a winning record since Rick Adelman’s last season on the bench in 2006. In the seven years following Adelman’s departure, they’ve employed six head coaches, added five top-ten draft picks and contemplated a move to four different locations. It’s been chaos in Sacramento. This is not a franchise that ever stood a shot in the Fandom Games, but maybe these fans have been through quite enough, and deserved a little delay in the team’s inevitable banishment.
Really it’s a confluence of factors that have enabled the prolonged survival of the Kings, including all of the above, as well as something else at play here, something that seems insane but deserves some tentative acknowledgment: the Kings may be, impossibly, perplexingly, taking early steps to force their way out of the NBA’s basement.
To call the long overdue arrival of an owner with bank a step in the right direction would be a hilarious understatement. Almost no matter what Vivek Randadive does with the franchise, the financial anchor that has disabled the team for several years is gone at last. And in fact, what Randadive has done in the early days of his reign has been promising, sacking ex-general manager, Geoff Petrie (once the franchise’s resident genius, but outlived his usefulness), replacing him with well-regarded Denver Nuggets executive Pete D’Alessandro, and hiring admired assistant coach Mike Malone away from the Golden State Warriors. So far so good.
The arrival of a new brain trust appears to be paying immediate dividends in terms of roster management, too. When it became clear that the Kings would lose Tyreke Evans they orchestrated a sign-and-trade that brought worthwhile point guard Greivis Vasquez to town along with two second-round draft picks from Portland. The Kings also snatched Luc Mbah a Moute from the Milwaukee Bucks’ fire sale, who while he can’t shoot a lick will bring some much-needed defensive emphasis to Sacramento’s perimeter. These are promising moves. In years past, the Kings never would have had as much success spinning so much out of so little.
And, contrary to every instinct most fans have about the Kings, the roster is not in terrible shape, all things considered. This is a team loaded with solid NBA rotation guys, with John Salmons and Chuck Hayes the only thoroughly below-average players who might get burn (one assumes that Travis Outlaw only plays in case of injuries, plural). Separate four-year deals for Carl Landry and Jason Thompson were perhaps overkill but both are veteran contributors and Landry, in particular, can be a key part of a winning team (as he demonstrated with Golden State last season). Isaiah Thomas, Patrick Patterson, Jimmer Fredette and Vasquez are all young and promising enough to be worth a tryout under the new regime, particularly considering their small salaries. And let’s not forget Ben McLemore, a terrific prospect to have fallen to seventh in this year’s draft. Nothing to be too excited about, but overall this is not as big a nightmare as the win column might suggest.
The elephant in the room, of course, is DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins is extension eligible and, unless the Kings foolishly meet his demand for a max extension by the end of October, will be a restricted free agent next summer. Cousins is one of the NBA’s most gifted big men, a widely-accepted and routinely-repeated fact, but he is a flat-out non-entity on defense and creates incredible roster and game plan management challenges for his team. Figuring out how to utilize a prodigious talent with one-too-many holes in his game is one of the great conundrums an NBA team can face. On one hand the Kings may be best-served dealing Cousins while his talent remains more enticing than his flaws debilitating, but he’s also the closest thing to a franchise player on the team’s roster, in a landslide.
How the Kings decide to deal with their Cousins problem will certainly dictate the short-term success of the franchise, and may have longer-term ramifications, too. Talent at the level of Cousins is hard for a small-market franchise to come upon and dealing him to some willing masochist might ensure mediocrity for Sacramento for many years to come, and while mediocrity is a dramatic upgrade over what’s been happening with the Kings in recent years, it can’t be what the new ownership group has in mind.
The new Sacramento Kings have passed some early tests, hiring well-regarded leadership and working some decent roster moves. Their first real test comes sooner than they would’ve liked, but their viability in the 2014 Fandom Games will be determined in large part by what they do with Cousins, like it or not. Better luck next year, Sacramento.
NBA Fandom Games Eliminated Teams List:
New York Knicks
Golden State Warriors
Portland Trail Blazers
Oklahoma City Thunder