As yet another NBA season shapes up, and the fanbases of 30 cities hold their breaths to find out how their teams will fare this year, the predicament of those in sunny Sacramento is an interesting one. The franchise is steeped in mediocrity in terms of performance on the court, and has a history of unpredictability off it.
After a poor 29-53 record last season, the Kings had an opportunity in an underrated draft class to find a diamond that will shine for years to come. The names that were most floated at 6th were Mario Hezonja (went to Orlando with the 5th pick), Emmanuel Mudiay (7th to Denver) and Willie Cauley-Stein, who will be wearing the purple and silver this year. All are seen to be long-term prospects, but Cauley-Stein should mesh especially well with the game of DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, and wouldn’t have fitted well in Denver (with Jusuf Nurkic and Kenneth Faried already established), and Orlando (with Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic set as their future).
It was a tumultuous offseason, with Vlade Divac exercising his long arm of power as President of Basketball Operations, replacing GM Pete D’Alessandro, and immediately set to work to reshape this disappointing mish-mash of a team into one that will compete in the tough Western Conference.
Veterans Jason Thompson, Carl Landry and young bloods Nik Stauskas and Ray McCallum were moved to Philadelphia for a couple of second rounders. It was audacious, especially given the experience, stability and long range marksmanship they lost in the process. However, it gave the Kings some much needed flexibility to start to build from the ground up.
They replaced Nik Stauskas from outside with Marco Belinelli, interior defense in Kosta Koufos, and a creator with a point to prove in Rajon Rondo. Along with this, he added experience in Caron Butler and an injection of youth in Seth Curry (brother of Steph, the reigning MVP) and Duje Dukan. Belinelli and Rondo come to Sacramento not as by-products of the machine that is the NBA, but with points to prove and careers to resurrect. Belinelli is coming off drops in production across the board, shooting only 37.4% from downtown last season in a reduced role, and Rondo’s stint in Dallas last year was a well-documented disaster after a declining 2013-14 season in Boston.
In a strong Western Conference, the Kings likely aren’t widely expected to perform, given their history of well, not. But let’s look at this objectively: they have an interior presence that’s among the best in the NBA right now, period. With the trend towards small-ball growing, going against the grain may prove fruitful for the Kings. DeMarcus Cousins is coming off a career high in almost every category, on top of the first All Star selection for Sacramento since 2004, and his dominance inside, along with THAT footwork is part of the reason that he gets so many teams in foul trouble. He’s only improving at the charity stripe, and that should be a significant factor for the Kings this year. Sacramento ranked inside the league’s top 10 in rebounds last season, and that’s only going to get better; Rondo is known as one of the league’s better rebounding point guards, and Kosta Koufos should add to that.
When we say all of this, though, this is still Sacramento. The Kings haven’t given anyone a reason to believe in them over the past 7 seasons, given that they haven’t hit 30 wins. This summer saw the addition of a passionate, bordering on violent point guard who publicly attacked his coach in Rajon Rondo, a coach-player duo in George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins that are ALREADY feuding, and the hope of instant success in a big gamble from Vlade Divac. Divac has a win-now mentality, and if his roll of the dice doesn’t come up with a hard eight, who’s going to be the first to go?
There’s a lot of optimism coming from the top of the Kings camp, but only time will tell if that trickles down into the entire organization, and whether they can turn a winning mentality into winning results on the court, and perhaps, a playoff spot this year.