The Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks have been having, what feels like, a competition for “most incompetent franchise” over the last decade. The Knicks may now have the lead after trying to trade Kristaps Porzingis and signing Joakim Noah to the worst deal currently in the NBA. The Kings, however, have actually made inroads in acquiring promising young talent for the future. While the results haven’t shown up in the win column yet, Sacramento is trending upwards while their New York counterpart is stuck in the mud. To fully understand this amazing turnaround, it is important to understand how brutally dumb and horrendous the Kings have been at discovering and retaining talent.
The fact is, in 2010 the Sacramento Kings made two draft selections. The first was DeMarcus Cousins. The second was Hassan Whiteside. Although that draft yielded two max-level potential building blocks for the Kings, neither remain on the roster as the Kings induced a losing tailspin. The front office has hit on very few moves since those fateful 2010 picks, ranging from the draft to their trades. Following the double home-run of Cousins and Whiteside, the Kings missed wildly on lottery selections such as Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, and even 2016 pick Georgios Pappagiannis. Perhaps their worst miss came, in 2011, when they essentially swapped Bismack Biyombo for Jimmer Fredette. Nothing makes me “LOL” as hard as the thought of Jimmer Fredette on an NBA roster now, though the woefully imbalanced Isaiah Thomas trade comes close. Shipping Thomas, now an All-NBA player, for Alex Oriakhi, someone who never even tasted an NBA roster, is a move that will haunt the Kings for decades to come. They have even whiffed in free agency; their most notable recent signee was likely Rajon Rondo, whose Kings legacy will be calling an actually gay ref a “f*ggot.” The list goes on, but the recent picture of the Kings is one of dreadful ineptitude.
Somehow, the Kings have done a complete 180 in their rebuilding process, especially in the draft. That switch began during the 2016 NBA Draft, where the Kings wisely traded out of the 8 spot (potential mega-bust Marquese Chriss) in exchange for the haul of picks 13 and 29 as well as the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic, a nice wing from Europe if he decides to come over. While 13 netted the aforementioned Pappagiannis, a mishap, the Kings swung for the fences and seemingly hit at 29 with Skal Labissiere, a forward with sky-high talent who struggled mightily at Kentucky. However, his ability to stretch the floor on offense and block shots on defense has already started to emerge, and a more well-rounded game could certainly blossom in the upcoming years. If Skal
can reach his maximum potential, he will become a crucial building block for the Kings who can average 25 points a night and cause mayhem around the rim. Even if he never reaches his ceiling, Skal still has immense value as a 3-and-D role player with the Kings, much like Channing Frye. In addition, the Kings nabbed Syracuse wing Malachi Richardson at 22. I despised Richardson’s game entering the year, but, admittedly, he showed signs of usefulness throughout the season. Richardson’s greatest strengths are his athleticism and rangy defense, which make him somewhat of a poor (VERY poor) man’s Andre Iguodala. Though he may never develop into a plus on the offensive end, Richardson’s energy and defensive value are complementary traits that will benefit the Kings’ rotation.
Though a good draft is a stunning surprise for the Kings, the trade of DeMarcus Cousins may have even topped that. Cousins was the one bright spot for a miserable Kings franchise for seven years, especially when both he and the organization had been seemingly committed to one another. With the creation of the supermax, for which Cousins is eligible, the Kings would have had an extra year and upwards of 60 million dollars more to hurl at Cousins during negotiations. Nevertheless, Sacramento shipped Cousins to New Orleans for what, initially, seemed like a poor return; excluding ancillary pieces Omri Casspi, Tyreke Evans, and Langston Galloway, this deal boils down to Cousins for 2016 6th pick Buddy Hield and the 2017 10th pick (more on that later). The Kings seemed to get scalped in this deal, since Boogie was valued as a top-20 player in the NBA by many; the Nuggets got a similar return when they traded not-top-20 player Timofey Mozgov to the Cavs. Also, there was no guarantee that the 2017 Pelicans pick would even be a lottery pick. However, this trade has tilted considerably in favor of the Kings in recent months. Most importantly, the value of Sacramento’s return is higher than originally believed. Buddy Hield seemed destined for mediocrity after a slow start with the Pelicans, but he showed a much more complete offensive game once he came to the Kings. Though he may not become Steph Curry, as the Kings’ front office claims he will; Hield has started to solidify his place in the Kings’ starting lineup and long-term plans. Also, the Pelicans did miss the playoffs – by a relatively wide margin – and allowed the Kings to draft in the lottery with this year’s loaded class. While Sacramento’s return value being high is probably the most important outcome of this trade, the most shocking result of the trade is that Sacramento may have actually improved after Boogie left. Rumors about Cousins’ negative effects on the locker room have floated around the league for years, but his attitude concerns may have had substantial merit in Sacramento. Moreover, Cousins’ role as an effective post player was useful, but without any floor spacing, opposing defenses would often sag inward and double team Cousins. Boogie was probably their best 3-point shooter last year, which negated any attempt at good floor spacing or flow on offense. Cousins was also a liability defensively where his effort really slacked; while the Kings are not a great defensive team, Cousins was not a positive contribution. Cousins was, and still is, an amazing player, but Sacramento wisely purged his negative attitude and poor defense to rebuild around a young, fresh, and modern core.
That core was substantially bolstered by this year’s draft, too. With so many draft gaffes, the Kings had very few pieces to rebuild with, until now. However, for the second year in a row, Sacramento traded back in the draft to stockpile picks and made prudent selections at each spot. Many rumors swirled about whether Sacramento would offer picks 5 and 10, their two first round picks, for pick 3 in order to land De’Aaron Fox, the lightning rod guard from Kentucky. That trade never materialized, but it didn’t matter as Fox fell into their lap at 5. Without Lawson or Collison under contract for next year, the Kings have no point guard, so Fox will step right into that lead guard role. While he may have some rough patches, Fox’s game has a lot of strengths that will serve him well immediately. His speed and athleticism will be elite from day one, meaning good transition scoring opportunities will continue to be available for him. That athleticism should help Fox get into the lane, too, where he is both a good scorer and passer. Fox’s length and effort will also be useful on the defensive end while he learns the ropes. Fox is the point guard of the future for the Kings, even if his jump shot never comes full circle. If it does, Fox will become downright lethal. Instead of picking tenth, where no more true stars were available, the Kings flipped the pick to the Trail Blazers for selections 15 and 20, earning themselves an extra first round talent. With those picks, Sacramento landed North Carolina All-American Justin Jackson and number 1 high school recruit Harry Giles, two perfect fits for their team. Jackson finally emerged as a star for the Tar Heels his junior season as he canned a school record of 105 three pointers en route to a national championship. Jackson’s shooting will make him an immediate contributor for the Kings off the bench, but his measurables and athleticism should enable him to become useful on both ends of the floor. At 6’8”, Jackson can defend wings, but he has the length to potentially bulk up and guard 4s. Also, Jackson didn’t get to the rim as often as he should have, often pulling up for a mid-range jumper or a floater. If Jackson can become stronger, he would become incredibly versatile on both ends of the floor as a dynamic 3-and-D player. Giles might not be that 3-and-D player, but his skill set may surpass Jackson’s. Giles was undoubtedly the number one high school player, with some saying he was the best since Anthony Davis. Giles’ offensive game is complete; he can score in the post very creatively, step out to about 15 feet and hit jumpers, pass from the post, and rebound voraciously. Defensively, Giles can bang with big men in the post and has good instincts for shot blocking, but also has the lateral quickness and basketball IQ to get on the perimeter and stop wings. The only major concern with Giles is his dual ACL tears, which caused him to miss his senior season and some of his freshman season at Duke. Whether or not that second tear has now sapped some of his athleticism is a real fear. However, if the knees were a grave concern and the medical prognosis was poor, Giles would not have gone at 20. There is definitely hope for Giles to make a full recovery, and if he does, the Kings may have their franchise star gifted to them with the 20th pick. If not, Giles was still a risk worth taking. To top it all off, Sacramento landed Naismith Award winner Frank Mason III at 34, whose competitiveness and cool leadership will be invaluable off the bench for the Kings. Mason is the perfect pick to pair with Fox and solidify the point guard spot for the future in Sacramento. No matter how you slice it, the Kings did an excellent job with the draft capital they had, and their core is now well-stocked.
Now the Kings are poised to break into the top tier of the Western Conference, which is fairly loaded. Immediate results will certainly not be forthcoming; this team comprised of mostly rookies and inexperienced players will likely be bad for a couple years as they play major minutes and learn the NBA game with “trial by fire.” However, giving this promising core major NBA experience early in their careers can only benefit the Kings down the road. Consider this group of players (in order of acquisition): Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, and Harry Giles. That’s seven players who all have clear upside and room to grow on the Kings roster and seven players that can contribute for a winning team, even if they don’t maximize their potential. Even if one busts (let’s say Harry Giles’ knees give out), that’s still six useful players, not counting European wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, who awaits overseas, and the 2018 first round pick the Kings still possess, which will likely fall in the lottery again. Skal, Fox, and Giles are all potential superstars; it seems likely that at least one of them will become the face of the franchise that Cousins was (with a better attitude). Not only does Sacramento have this growing core of talent and their next potential superstar, but their pieces also fit very nicely together. With Fox at the point and Cauley-Stein manning the post, their other pieces create a lot of floor spacing for Fox and Cauley-Stein to work with, creating better looks for both the shooters and the drivers. This team can also run in transition more effectively with Fox at the helm than it could when Boogie was the cornerstone. Defensively, the Kings were weak last year, but there is reason for optimism on that end as well. Fox, Jackson, and Giles are all above average defenders, and Cauley-Stein should return to his elite rim protecting self next year. Richardson and Labissiere also provide good value on defense, and Dave Joerger, the Kings coach, is known for his defensive prowess.
This Kings team could not be more prepared to contend in the modern NBA. All the front office has to do at this point is bring in a couple experienced players to fill in the roster and guide the younger players through the early stages of their NBA careers. Outside of that, they don’t need to do anything else. Let this immensely talented core work through their growing pains and mesh together on and off the floor. Allow them to have a rough season or two, and then reap the benefits in the draft (I would love to see Miles Bridges in a Sacramento uniform in 2018-2019). With a little direction and a little time, this Sacramento Kings team could become a contender for the next decade. Gasp.