Faith in front office faltering?
Is history repeating with Kings GM Vlade Divac’s latest moves?
“Lord, give me strength.”
DeMarcus Cousins’ tweet hit timelines on draft night 2016 after the Kings selected another center, Georgios Papagiannis, with the 13th overall pick. But those four words spoke to much more than the draft.
Eighteen months later, Cousins was in the midst of a career year in New Orleans, set to start the All-Star Game before an Achilles injury derailed his season (get well soon, Boogie!). Nineteen months later, the Kings cut Papagiannis—not even two seasons after he was drafted, and after they’d already picked up his third-year option—meaning they’ll be paying Papagiannis $2.4 million not to play for them next year.
Cousins’ tweet now reads as the first line of a prayer on behalf of the entire Kings fan base, still stuck sitting in the Valley of Death, but paying twice as much for tickets.
Papagiannis was one of three first-rounders selected by Kings general manager Vlade Divac in 2016. Just ahead of last Thursday’s trade deadline, Malachi Richardson (picked 22nd overall that year) was traded to Toronto. In return, the Kings got Bruno Caboclo, a 2014 Raptors project about whom ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla proclaimed: “He’s two years away from being two years away.” Perhaps Divac saw that phrase as prophetic rather than pejorative.
The Kings’ most notable deadline move was shipping veteran point guard George Hill to the Cavaliers in a complex three-team trade.
Last Thursday’s transactions are less worrisome in a vacuum than they are in the context of a decade-long lack of organizational direction, perpetual shifting of goalposts and asset mismanagement. The good news: The Kings cut bait with a young player and a veteran who wasn’t working out, and have some financial flexibility ($8 million this year and $1 million in 2019) and a modest draft asset to show for it. The bad news: It’s the same front office that will oversee the management of these assets.
In fairness to Divac, he ended up hitting on his third selection in the 2016 draft, Skal Labissiere, while also acquiring Bogdan Bogdanovic, now perhaps the Kings’ most consistent player. One out of three is not a terrible batting average, but that’s precisely the point—the draft can be a crapshoot, and it’s been mostly craps for the Kings. To maximize your odds, you need to give yourself as many swings as possible.
Competent organizations understand that whether rebuilding or sustaining success, you must win on the margins—especially in a small market, where room for error is razor-thin.
After trading their 2019 first-round pick to the 76ers, the Kings are attempting to rebuild with one hand tied behind their back. By bungling their salary-cap situation this past off-season, they effectively used their free hand to slap themselves in the face.
The signings of Hill and forward Zach Randolph this past summer represented an attempt to rush the rebuilding process rather than augment it. Besides being obvious overpays, their presence blocked the development of the team’s younger players and put coach Dave Joerger in the precarious position of having to allocate minutes to an oddball assortment of veterans and youth. Beyond that, it was a wasted opportunity to bolster the draft capital the team so desperately needs. This coming offseason presents what may be the last shot this front office has to get it right.
The Kings now have the rest of this season to give their young players an opportunity to develop. Vince Carter’s likely buyout should free up another roster spot, and they would be wise to explore more two-way contracts. The on-court product will surely struggle, but the Kings are fortunate to own what projects to be a high lottery pick in a vaunted 2018 draft class, and will enter the offseason near the top of the league in available salary-cap space.
Divac has shown incremental improvement in his three years in office, but the team can ill afford any more missteps. Nail the draft, add talent around the edges, use the cap carefully, and, in addition to the young corps already in place, the Kings could be in excellent shape in a year’s time. Take the wrong approach, and the team will remain mired in mediocrity, whether those currently in power are around to see it or not. Lord, give us strength.