The longest drought
Can the Sacramento Kings make the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2006?
The Sacramento Kings of recent seasons—of the brooding big man, the plodding pace, the threatened moves—have been replaced by fresh faces, younger legs and faster feet.
The kids are all right. Hell, the kids are damn good!
In a season that has led to high praise, head-shaking incredulity and the most joy in the kingdom since the wild and wonderful teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Kings have transformed the three-year-old Golden 1 Center into their own personal playground.
They run, they jump. They pass, they cut. They shoot from deep and defend some of the time. Yes, there is still the inconsistent rim protection and defensive rebounding. But let’s not get greedy. Give it a few more weeks.
At the All-Star break, Coach Dave Joerger has led the Kings to a 30-27 record, one game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the bruising Western Conference and only two games behind the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz. Their delightful run resumes Thursday night in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, who coincidentally, would be their likely opponent should the impossible or improbable occur and the Kings’ 13-year postseason drought come to an end.
Thirteen years. Where were you when the Spurs eliminated the Kings in the opening round in 2006?
George W. Bush was president. Twitter was launched. Paul McCartney and Heather Mills split up. Dick Cheney accidentally shot his hunting buddy. Closer to home, De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles were in elementary school. Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Bogdan Bogdanovic were teenagers—the latter in his homeland, sadly monitoring the Kings demise with thousands of his fellow hoop-loving Serbians.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Hield acknowledged. “You know why? Because this city hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2005-06. It would be a joy to get them back there. This is a great fan base, and they love it so much and they’re passionate about basketball. So there is a lot of pressure, but it’s fun.”
Besides being immensely likeable and marketable, and appearing to genuinely appreciate each other, this is a dynamic and entertaining bunch. Even when they lose, they tend to falter in dramatic fashion—blowing a big lead here, overcoming a large deficit and coming up just short there.
If not yet must-see TV for the broader national audience—although you have to figure that is coming—they can no longer be dismissed as the same sad, irrelevant Kings. People are paying attention.
Hield, Fox, Bogdanovic and Bagley all received favorable reviews last weekend after showcasing their skills in the All-Star weekend events in Charlotte. Hield—the aptly nicknamed “Buddy Buckets"—kicked it in the opening round of the three-point shooting contest. In the Rising Stars game, Bogdanovic displayed his nuanced, all-around abilities, Fox dazzled with 16 assists and Bagley broke out for explosive dunks.
Yet the All-Star weekend is merely the appetizer, the warm-up act to the real deal that takes place two months from now. And what began as a wistful whisper within Sacramento’s postseason-starved, basketball-crazy community (shhhh!! The playoffs!!) has become part of the daily conversation.
When I had coffee with Kings General Manager Vlade Divac recently at a café near his Midtown home, several patrons recognized the beloved Kings icon and took photos and asked for autographs. More than a few fondly recalled the glory years, and mentioned Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Chris Webber. Yet most of them represented the current generation of Kings fans who still love Vlade and the gang, still cherish the memories, but want to move on from the past. Mostly, they wanted to talk about that elusive, tantalizing, so-close-you-can- almost-touch-it postseason.
“It would mean so much,” said Divac. “I remember my first time in the playoffs at Arco Arena. It was so loud, the floor was shaking. You couldn’t hear, you couldn’t hear anything. It was unbelievable. I want my kids to experience that because—what we are trying to build here the next three four years—when you taste the playoffs, it speeds everything up. You get hungrier because you want more. And the fans, too. They are buying in, trusting us again.”
Divac, interestingly, has a confession to make: Similar to the majority of his colleagues, the media prognosticators and probably many long-suffering fans, he didn’t expect this season to unfold as favorably as it has, either. His preseason best-case scenario had the Kings winning 30 or so games, competing hard, developing individually and collectively and earning a postseason berth a year from now.
As training camp ended, several key personnel questions persisted. Divac had added veteran Nemanja Bjelica to balance the floor with his three-point shooting and to offer front-court depth, but he was unable to upgrade the small forward position, the team’s most glaring weakness. He inquired about Otto Porter, Jr., Tobias Harris, Harrison Barnes and the improving Josh Jackson, all to no avail. And it was impossible to predict how much point guard Fox had progressed from his rookie season and to what extent Bagley and Harry Giles would contribute in their first seasons.
The Bagley-Giles puzzle was particularly significant because of Willie Cauley-Stein’s confounding inability to consistently pursue rebounds or protect the rim. Not much has changed. In the last year of his rookie contract, the 7-foot, fourth-year center is averaging 8.5 rebounds per game, up from 7 this time last season. But there are still too many occasions when he stares at loose balls or gets beaten for critical boards. (See Denver’s Nikola Jokic’s last-second stickback on February 13 that beat the Kings).
Even with the quick start by Bjelica and the emergence of Bagley and Giles after some initial rough patches, the Kings rank near the bottom in both defensive and overall rebounding.
Nonetheless, their surprising success convinced Divac to dip into the available salary cap space and acquire Barnes and swingman Alec Burks at the February 7 trade deadline.
“The kids put themselves in a position to make a run at the playoffs,” Divac explained. “They really jelled. When that happened, we did what we could to help rather than wait for the off season.”
Can Barnes make a difference?
The hope is that the addition of the 6-foot-8 Barnes, who averaged a career-best 6.1 rebounds last season, solidifies the small forward position and improves the club on both ends.
“He’s a good fit for me,” Joerger said after the trade that sent Justin Jackson and Iman Shumpert to Dallas. “He’s a versatile player, a little bit of an iso player. He has improved his jump shot. I can move him around, play chess with him a little bit. He can play the 3, and if you want to downsize he can play the 4. I like our core, and Harrison Barnes is a guy I tried to trade for (back in Memphis). They obviously knew what they had in Golden State.”
Barnes, who posted up more with the Mavericks than he did during his earlier seasons with the Warriors, will have to make some adjustments. These Kings rank second overall in pace and are all about playing fast and having fun, and not mucking up the offense with too many plays—sort of a minor leagues throwback for their 44-year-old head coach.
Later, during Joerger’s three seasons with Memphis, the Grizzlies of Mark Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley excelled with a physical defense and superb execution in their half-court sets. With DeMarcus Cousins on the roster during half of Joerger’s first year in Sacramento, and with free agent acquisitions George Hill and Randolph receiving serious minutes last year until the All-Star break— when Hill was traded and Randolph’s role reduced—those Kings in no resemble today’s Kings.
But even with Divac calmly, but persistently urging him to speed things up, it took Joerger time to again embrace an up-tempo philosophy.
“Over the course of the summer, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to play all these young guys and be competitive,” he said. “I thought about priority, about what’s the most important thing and that was De’Aaron Fox. Playing fast complemented the skills of Buddy Hield, helps him find open shots in transition, and Bogi—who was hurt early. And by playing Nemanja at the four [power forward], it opens up the floor. But it was literally two weeks before our first meeting at training camp that I decided ‘I’m gonna play really, really, really fast,’ for all of the reasons I just mentioned.
“Once we developed an identity as a team, we started believing. We just ran!” Joerger added. “Go play fast and focused and locked in. And while we’re not where we want to be on the court and where our roster is going to be in two years, we’ve made major strides. It’s fun to go to the gym every day.”
And like the coach said, it starts with Fox. The exciting style of play. The accelerated growth spurt. The winning record. The postseason push. While the slender 6-foot-3 second-year guard displayed flashes of spectacular potential as a rookie—notably his ability to slip between defenders and finish at the basket with either hand and from numerous angles, appearing like a contortionist at times—it was obvious that he was capable of so much more.
The Kings urged him to use his sprinter’s speed to blow past opponents, to utilize his long arms and cat-quick hands to strip the ball and create turnovers, to continue working on his jump shot, and more than anything, to command the floor.
“We knew De’Aaron was working hard on his game last summer,” said Divac, “and we are confident about the player he is going to be. I talked to him this summer about his leadership. That was his next step. … I told De’Aaron in camp that I wanted him to be more vocal, more of a leader. And I also told him that if I was putting too much pressure on him, to let me know. He said, ‘No, Vlade, no, no. I can handle this.'”
While Hield has been the Kings’ best player this season, Fox has elevated his game at a pace consistent with his playing style, which is to say fast and furious. His numbers are up from his rookie season in scoring (17.2 points), assists (7.2), rebounds (3.7) and steals (1.7), and he is shooting 46.1 percent from the field and 36.6 from the three-point line.
And talk about pressure. Divac passed on rookie sensation Luka Doncic and drafted Bagley with the second overall draft pick last June for two reasons: He projected the Slovenian as a point guard and believed the uber-athletic Bagley better filled a need and projected as a future star.
“I like Luka,” Divac said, “and he’s going to have a great career. Dallas fits well for him, like Marvin fits for us. Look, we know who is our guy (Fox). He’s our marquee player, the guy who takes us to the next level, and he needs the ball. We needed to address other positions.”
The Doncic-Fox-Bagley debate isn’t ending anytime soon, but it’s hard to argue with success, even modest success. After everything Kings fans have endured, being three games over .500 with 25 games left in the regular season is cause for a few smiles and a cautious emotional investment in what figures to be an excruciating and suspenseful playoff chase.
So what took so long?
If post-traumatic sports disorder were a recognized ailment, Kings fans would still be in treatment. The Kings have been the masters of disappointment, disarray and dysfunction for the better part of a 13-year stretch that featured an ownership change, three front-office overhauls and nine coaching changes since the Maloofs fired Rick Adelman in 2006.
That’s right, nine coaches in 13 years. Eric Musselman. Reggie Theus. Kenny Natt. Paul Westphal. Keith Smart. Michael Malone. Ty Corbin. George Karl. Dave Joerger.
The time frame also included terrible draft picks, questionable trades and a chaotic, often toxic atmosphere. DeMarcus Cousins overpowered the franchise for most of his turbulent seven seasons, though as it turns out, the divorce worked out well for both parties. Hield is performing at an All-Star level, Cousins is thriving with the Warriors and the Kings emotionally are in a better place.
Then there was the decades-long saga of relocation hell, with the Kings on any given day rumored to be moving to Anaheim, Las Vegas, San Jose, Virginia Beach, Kansas City, and then, of course, Seattle.
Even majority owner Vivek Ranadive—only weeks removed from hero/conqueror status for outdueling Chris Hansen and assembling a group to buy the Kings in 2013— contributed with his share of rookie mistakes, among them hiring a head coach (Malone) before a general manager (Pete D’Alessandro), and then firing Malone while Cousins was out sick for several weeks.
And now? For those hoping that peace and prosperity reign again in the kingdom, that terms such as dysfunctional and turbulent are buried deeply in the past, well, sorry to disappoint.
These Kings are not there yet. They still have their moments. Sometimes, it just seems like the adults have very short memories.
While the kids were running around and making friends in the opening weeks, Joerger and assistant general manager Brandon Williams engaged in a nasty and much chronicled private feud that became public. Convinced that Williams was leaking damaging information and trying to get him fired for not giving Bagley and Giles more playing time, Joerger banished the assistant GM from a game-day shoot-around—an almost unheard of development even in the gossipy, melodramatic, often petty world of the NBA.
The relationship between the two remains nonexistent, which threatens to become increasingly problematic unless Divac, who was the diplomat in the locker room in his day, somehow fixes the dynamic.
“Look, I make the decisions,” said Divac. “They each report to me. Brandon Williams is doing a great job, Dave is doing a great job and that’s all that matters.”
Divac’s diplomatic skills were tested again more recently when several of the minority owners joined the chatter and threatened to become a distraction. Divac scheduled a conference call and, in arguably his boldest display of leadership, reiterated his vision and asked the owners to stay out of the way.
“I reminded them, ‘We have a plan,'” Divac explained. “We have a good thing going here. It’s like I told Vivek when I took over. ‘It will happen. Just give me time and let me do my work.’ Now everybody is seeing what the plan looks like.”
Divac’s return and rise
If the big man walks with a bit of a swagger these days, is less tolerant of internal nonsense and more inclined to put down his foot, he has certainly earned that right. This is personal, unfinished business, he likes to say. He returned to Sacramento after 10 years pursuing basketball and business ventures overseas because he loves the city, is invested in the community, was a major player during the glory years and, like a lot of folks around here, still feels the pain of that crushing 2002 Western Conference finals loss to the hated Lakers, who are now competing with the Kings for that last playoff spot.
Besides, these are his Kings, his kids and their future is bright. Apparently so is his.
No longer the “embattled” general manager who vowed to resign by the end of this season if he failed to turn the franchise around, all indications are that the Kings will offer a contract extension before his current deal expires at the end of next year.
Divac won’t talk about his or Joerger’s long-term futures with the Kings, but unless the third-year head coach entertains offers from teams closer to his young daughters in South Dakota, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, either.
“I just don’t want any distractions,” Divac said with a slight frown. “This time is for the kids. I don’t want to take anything away from them. They deserve the attention, and I want them to enjoy this. About me? I don’t care.”
But, yes, Divac is having a blast. He stands in the tunnel during games, leaning against the stands, living and dying with every play. Understandably, he is receiving pats on the back these days—and mea culpas from the national media—and no longer hears suggestions that he should step aside or slide into another position.
That said, he openly admits his early mistakes, among them the 2013 trade with Philadelphia that cost the Kings their 2019 first round draft pick; his failure to act more forcefully and suspend Cousins for his locker room outburst against Karl in the opening weeks of the 2015-16 season; and acquiring the draft rights to Greek center Georgios Papagiannis (13th pick) in 2016, though that swap yielded a gem in Bogdanovic. He also took an inordinate amount of time assembling a front office, largely because he was away from the league for so long and unfamiliar with many of the rising young executives.
But you can’t argue with success or disregard the nightly entertainment in the Golden 1 Center. Perhaps no Kings player embodies the team’s upbeat mood more than Hield, the 26-year-old Bahamian with the legendary work ethic.
“This feels so good,” he said with his infectious smile. “As a young team, nobody expected us to excel. You get to prove them wrong. And as a kid, you dream of winning close games and getting to the playoffs. I really think we will get there this year. I know Harrison can play, and Alec. That [trade] was big. Those are two guys we need to get to the next level.”
Whether or not the Kings reach their postseason goal, a solid, promising foundation has been established. Finally!
“I have friends all over the world,” Divac said, “and I hear the same thing from them. They like watching the Kings again. We all like watching the Kings again, and this is just the beginning.”