NBA Graveyard 2016: Kings Self-Immolate, Again

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith.

On to the Sacramento Kings, who lived more of a Jester’s life…

kingsgrave

Postmortem: A million gallons of ink have been spilled over the hilariously dysfunctional Sacramento Kings in the last 18 months, so in an effort to not beat a dead horse we present a simple timeline. Here are the broad strokes of the Kings’ very public self-shaming:

  • On Dec 15, 2014, the Kings were out to a respectable 11-13 record, better than most prognosticators expected. More importantly it seemed they finally found a coach that DeMarcus Cousin could get along with in Michael Malone. So, of course, the Kings abruptly fired him.
  • A day later, owner Vivek Ranadive explained to frustrated fans that he fired Malone because the Kings need to “play less like a marching band and more like a jazz band”, not the first or last time Vivek would pretend to know more about basketball than a hired professional.
  • Vivek and GM Pete D’Alessandro picked Ty Corbin to coach out the season. Corbin’s last season as a head coach was a 25-57 campaign with the Utah Jazz, a team that played with the 5th-slowest pace in the league. Given his stated goal, it’s entirely possible Vivek hired him because he coached a team called the Jazz, without looking into any of his bonafides.
  • A couple weeks after Malone’s firing, it came to light that one possible reason for it was he didn’t play along with Vivek’s insane idea to play 4-on-5 defense with a cherry-picker waiting on the other end to make easy baskets. The one time they kinda, maybe tried it under Corbin it predictably failed.
  • Corbin lasted less than two months before he was fired with a 7-21 record. The Kings hired on veteran coach George Karl, who has a history of clashing with star players. With the mercurial Cousins in tow, what could go wrong?
  • That question was answered quickly. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! reported on June 23, 2015, that Karl was eager to have Cousins traded, leading to the famous “snake in the grass” emoji tweet by Cousins. You can’t make this stuff up.

DeMarcus-Cousins-

  • In a blatant fan-pleasing move, the team brought on former Kings center Vlade Divac as VP of Basketball Operations in March 2015. D’Alessandro saw the writing on the wall and left for Denver in the summer. This opened the door for Vivek to name Divac the new Kings GM, even though he had no experience in the ever-important GM role.
  • The 2015-16 campaign started with immediate losing, quickly exposing the token Karl-Cousins “settled their differences” storyline as a farce. After a blowout loss to the Spurs dropped them to 1-7, Cousins berated Karl in the locker room with an F-bomb fueled rant. Karl wanted to suspend Cousins for the tirade, but was overruled by Divac.
  • Two very Kingsy things followed that episode. Immediately after Cousins blew up, Vivek brought in rapper Drake to hobnob with the players. Bad timing, yes, but considering Drake is the “global ambassador” for a different NBA team (Toronto Raptors) it was a dumb idea to begin with. The second strange scene: Divac reportedly gathered the players to ask them if they thought he should fire Karl. Apparently Vivek had designs on Kentucky coach John Calipari. Players were allegedly baffled by the question from the clueless GM.
  • Things took an even uglier turn on December 3, when first-year Kings point guard Rajon Rondo hurled gay slurs at referee Bill Kennedy, who hadn’t come out at the time, but did announce that he is gay a little more than a week later. The initial act was abhorrent; the fact that it probably forced Kennedy to come out before he actually wanted to was a shame. It was a bad look for Rondo, and for the NBA. Making it worse was Rondo’s half-assed Twitter apology. Rondo was suspended, had to apologize for the non-apology, and the Kings crazy train rolled on.
  • A 5-game winning streak in mid-January got the Kings to 20-23 and briefly into the 8th seed in the West. Optimism abounded as Cousins was on an absolute tear. But these are the Kings – for them, nothing gold can stay (shout out to New Found Glory). A 2-8 stretch immediately followed leading up to the All Star Break, when it was reported that Karl’s firing was imminent. Rondo called him out (and by extension, his teammates) for making a shootaround optional, saying a team couldn’t expect to win when only a few guys show up to shoot. He may have had a point as the Kings went out and allowed 74 first half points to Boston following the optional workout. But after days of public speculation, Divac met with Karl and decided to keep him around, against the wishes of Vivek. Awwwwkward…
  • One of the reasons for the Kings’ struggles clearly is their horrible defense. Vivek wanted to play up-tempo and Karl delivered, as the Kings lead the league in pace. Problem is, their roster is not set up to run and gun. They have only a couple reliable shooters, and Rudy Gay and Cousins are more at home in a half court style. Teams are lighting them up on the defensive end; the Kings are in the bottom third in opponent 2-point percentage, opponent 3-point percentage and points allowed per game. That’s some remedial jazz music, Vivek.
  • With the playoffs clearly out of reach, Cousins finally snapped at Karl on the court during a timeout. After many blow-ups behind closed doors, this public belittling of Karl finally earned the volatile big man a 1-game suspension, renewing talk of the Kings needing to get rid of either Karl or Cousins. It’s a marriage that was doomed from the beginning. I think it was Dr. Phil who said a relationship just can’t recover from a snake in the grass Twitter emoji. Cousins even blamed his suspension on Karl after his next game back in the lineup.
  • That about brings us up to speed. The league’s biggest joke of a franchise will miss the playoffs for the 10th straight year.

Low Moments: See above. Garth Brooks was singing about the Kings when he said “I got friends in low places.” Low is their MO.

One extra clip just for laughs: here’s Rondo getting called for consecutive delay of game technicals in a game against the Thunder, when he was unable to catch the ball from the ref on an out of bounds play in a timely fashion – twice!

Bright Spots: I mean, for all his faults, Cousins is still averaging 27 points and 12 rebounds on a nightly basis. He’s the most dominant center in the game and an ideal piece to build a franchise around. Until he gets pissed off.

Also, rookie 6th overall pick Willie Cauley-Stein looks to be the Kings’ first successful draft pick since Cousins, with a frenetic defensive-minded game in the mold of Joakim Noah. WCS is a real asset, posting per 36 minutes averages of 12 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.

Assets: The most disappointing part about this failed season is that the Kings added real talent in the offseason with eyes on finally getting back into the playoffs. Dysfunctional ownership/management, poor strategy and the endless supply of on- and off-court drama derailed those plans. But the cupboard isn’t bare, either. Here’s how I’d rank their assets:

  1. Cousins – At 26 years old, he will have another two years on a reasonable deal this summer. His trade value will be at its peak, should they go that route. With two years left, he’d be more than a “rental” for any trade partner. Personally I don’t think they should move him just yet. Take Karl out of the situation and nail you next coaching hire. Too bad they don’t have Malone anymore, who’s been great in Denver.
  2. Cauley-Stein – A long-term fit at 22 years old and on a rookie deal. They’d be wise to groom him as its insurance policy at center should they move Cousins.
  3. 2016 1st Round pick – The Kings currently have the 7th-worst record in the league, important because if the Lottery balls bounce the wrong way and move them out of the top 10, their pick goes to Chicago. So at this point losing is their best option, as they need all the Lottery balls they can get.
  4. Gay – Like him or dislike him, the 29-year old still produces (17 points/7 rebounds/50% on 2’s). The Kings have him for only one more year of team control, so expect him to be shopped aggressively.
  5. Omri Casspi – At his contract ($3M this year and next) he’s a steal. Casspi has shown flashes of being a game-changer, especially his barrage of nine threes in a 36-point game against Golden State.
  6. Ben McLemore – A disappointing former Lottery pick, he’s still on a rookie deal through 2016-17. A cheap contract, still only 23 and with a Lottery pedigree, they have to hope they can conjure production out of him.
  7. 2017 1st Round pick – This one also could go to the Bulls if their 2016 doesn’t. It’s top-10 protected but at their current trajectory, it’s a good bet they’ll keep it.
  8. Kosta Koufos – Under team control through 2017-18 on a digestible contract. He doesn’t fit with other bigs (Cousins and WCS) ahead of him in the rotation. But who knows if Cousins will be around much longer. He’s solid insurance at the 5.
  9. Darren Collison – If Rondo leaves in free agency – likely – he could be their starting point guard next season, at least in the beginning. The 28-year old is a solid player and will be on an expiring deal next season.
  10. Seth Curry – He’s Frank Stallone without the Mark Rylance insults. While he’ll never be his brother, Curry is youngish (25) and can shoot. He has a player option this summer, so it’s likely they’ll have to pay more than his scheduled $1M to keep him.
  11. Duje Dukan – The D-League star is under contract through next season for $874k. This team needs to develop players better, so it’s worth a shot seeing what Dukan can do. He scored 14 points per game with the Reno Bighorns.

Free Agency prospects: They might lose Rondo this summer to free agency, which won’t necessarily be a bad thing. Aside from his gay-bashing, he’s also weirdly chased assist numbers this season. It’s been uncomfortably noticeable at the end of games, which would seem to suggest he’s fattening up his numbers to make himself more attractive to teams with big checkbooks. If he’s gone, that will leave the Kings with around $20M in cap space. Trouble is, Sacramento is not a destination for NBA free agents, and all the turmoil there won’t have players lining up to join the circus. And chances are good that Vivek and Vlade won’t see eye to eye on potential signees and the discord will be shared publicly. That’s just how the Kings get down.

As far as needs, they have a lot of them. More shooting, more defense, a new point guard and very likely a new coach.

Resurrection Scale: 5% (Animals are Carrying Off the Remains). Vivek resurrected this team for the city of Sacramento after the Maloof Bros. went broke and the team was expected to move to Seattle. He then proceeded to immediately shovel dirt back on them.

 

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