Northern California has become the epicenter of professional basketball. But a weird thing is happening this summer. The Sacramento Kings are trying to attract some of the seismic waves, moving them northeast up I-80 a bit.
What the hell is going on with our NBA?
We’ve had only a few years to adapt to the idea that the Golden State Warriors aren’t the lovable losers we assumed they’d always be. They are a basketball-breaking superteam. And no sooner have we gotten our minds around that one than the Kings — the Kings — are acting as though they want to be part of this tectonic shift.
Folks, are you familiar with the Kings? They moved from Kansas City to Sacramento 32 years ago, and have finished above .500 exactly eight times since. The most recent was 2006; only the Minnesota Timberwolves (2004) have a dimmer recollection of postseason excitement. Sacramento has made the playoffs just 10 times, eight of them bunched between 1998 and 2006, the era of Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovich and Jason Williams.
If these Kings wear crowns, their domain is dysfunction. Only the New York Knicks could challenge their legitimacy to that throne.
Principal owner Vivek Ranadive, who once suggested his team play defense 4-on-5, leaving one King to cherry- pick on the offensive end, has run through coaches as if they are disposable plastic water bottles. In the summer of 2014, Sacramento sent Isaiah Thomas to Phoenix for a trade exception and the rights to someone named Alex Oriakhi. This year Thomas, playing for the Celtics, finished fifth in MVP voting, just behind LeBron James and ahead of Stephen Curry.
Things didn’t immediately get better when the Kings hired Vlade Divac as general manager in the spring of 2015. Divac had been largely removed from the NBA for most of a decade. For a story that ran in January, several NBA agents and team executives told ESPN that they found “working with the Kings to be confounding, and negotiations, in the words of one, to be ‘abnormal.’ ”
Their most recent franchise player, center DeMarcus Cousins, was a bubbling cauldron of talent and volatility; they traded him to New Orleans in February.
Despite this toxic environment, the Kings have managed to stockpile several promising young players, like center Willie Cauley-Stein and shooting guard Buddy Hield, who averaged 15.1 points per game after arriving via the Cousins trade. Critics loved their draft last month. The Kings got Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox with the fifth overall pick, then traded the No. 10 for Nos. 15 and 20, which they used to acquire North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson and Duke power forward Harry Giles, respectively. For good measure, they added Kansas’ Frank Mason III, the NCAA player of the year, in the second round.
And yet many remained skeptical. With few solid veterans to set an example, the Kings would waste these kids, or even damage them.
Then came the real stunner. As the offseason dominoes began to fall, the Kings emerged as major players.
Within a short window, they agreed to contracts with Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill, three highly coveted free agents. Sacramento had added an intriguing mix of battle-scarred vets to its eager millennials.