The Sacramento Kings: No Playoffs Without the Right Culture
The Kings are bad. They spent 2018 racing alongside the NBA’s worst to reach the bottom of the standings in order to get the best odds possible of landing the top pick in the 2018 draft. This is a familiar story for the Kings. They have now missed the playoffs for the 12th straight year, giving them the longest playoff drought in the league. Every team goes through a rebuilding process at some point in their franchise, but the Kings have not been close to making the playoffs in over 10 years and it all starts with their management and culture.
The biggest problem for the Kings is arguably their draft history. Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Georgios Papagiannis, and Thomas Robinson are all recent Kings lottery picks that never reached their potential and flamed out. For a rebuilding team, drafting well is arguably the best way to get back into contention. Every team has missed in the draft, but for a team perpetually in the lottery the Kings have failed to maximize their draft assets. To be fair to the Kings, they have not been completely terrible in the draft. In 2009, they drafted Tyreke Evans who had a great rookie season where he averaged 20 points per game, 5 assists per game, and 5 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, Evans was plagued by injuries and his rookie season would turn out to be his best year with the Kings until they eventually traded him in 2013.
The Kings also drafted DeMarcus Cousins in 2010 and finally had a great chance to turn their franchise around. Cousins was easily one of the most dominant centers in the league, making three All-Star appearances and two All-NBA teams in his stint as a King yet the team still could not find success. This was partially due to Cousins's attitude as he would often throw tantrums on the court and didn't show much interest on the defensive end, but it was not helped by the amount of Sacramento’s coaching turnover. In Cousins's seven years as a King, he had six different head coaches, which led to the Kings trying to find a new identity with a different coach every season. This speaks to the utter lack of direction the team has suffered in the past decade and why they have struggled so much.
Trading Cousins was supposed to give the Kings a fresh start. Without him on the team, they wouldn't have to worry about trying to throw together a playoff contender and could fully commit to a rebuild. In the following offseason however, the Kings proceeded to sign Zach Randolph to a 2-year, $24 million-dollar deal and George Hill to a 3-year, $57 million dollar contract. The logic behind this was probably to have solid veteran leadership for the young players in the locker room to help them develop but that is entirely too much money to invest in older players who won't help them win now.
This has been a common mistake during this moribund King's era where they overpay for veteran players in an attempt to fast-track team success and are then left with bad contracts that they need to unload. George Hill ended up being traded for Iman Shumpert in a move that can only be classified as a salary dump and Randolph currently has one of the worst defensive RPM ratings among power forwards. Needless to say, these moves have done more to hurt than help the team going forward. Instead of blowing their cap space frivolously, the Kings could have used that money to take on bad money in exchange for assets. Teams like the Nets did so by trading for DeMarre Carroll and two draft picks when the Raptors were looking to dump his salary and by taking on Timofey Mozgov's horrible contract to get D'Angelo Russell. The logic behind this is that if you're a team looking for a young star to take you to the top, you must use every resource available to find that star and that includes using cap space and draft assets to do so.
The good news for the Kings is that they have a ton of young prospects with potential. De'Aaron Fox, Skal Labissière, Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, and Bogdan Bogdanovic have all shown signs that they can be valued starters in the NBA. It is unclear if any of these players can become perennial All-Stars or carry the burden of being a franchise cornerstone but it is a start. The biggest challenge for the Kings now is to be patient. No big free agent is going to Sacramento in the offseason so it is a good time to stockpile assets, establish an identity, and evaluate the players they have now. Maybe the Kings won't be in the playoffs one or two years from now but they do have the chance to start fresh and build the foundation of a good team if they can change their culture.