By Bryan Toporek
During an offseason overflowing with shocking twists and turns, one of the biggest surprises across the NBA was the Sacramento Kings’ sudden competence.
For years, the Kings (or KANGZZZZ) were synonymous with dumbassery. From team owner Vivek Ranadive pitching a cockamamie 4-on-5 cherry-picking defensive scheme, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, to an inexperienced general manager trading two first-round pick swaps and a lightly protected first-rounder to carve out soon-to-be-misused cap space, Sacramento’s management has been a clown show from top down over the past few years.
The Kings pulled an abrupt about-face this offseason, however, putting their history of front office missteps in the rearview mirror. If they didn’t play in the Western Conference, they would be a legitimately feasible contender for a postseason berth in 2017-18.
Sacramento’s top-notch offseason began during the 2017 NBA draft, as it resisted the temptation to trade up from the fifth overall selection despite being armed with two top-10 picks. When the draft board broke as expected, the Kings’ prized prospect, Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox, fell into their laps without them having to give up additional assets.
That was no sure thing in the weeks leading up to the draft. In early June, ESPN’s Chad Ford reported there was “talk inside the organization about combining picks Nos. 5 and 10 to move up in the draft to secure Fox.” As Ford noted at the time, “that would be a high price to pay to move up two to three spots.” With the Kings plunging headfirst into a rebuild after trading DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans in February, giving up multiple chances to acquire young blue-chippers would have been the exact wrong move for a franchise infamous for wasting lottery picks in the past.
Instead, Sacramento doubled down on the strategy it embraced during the 2016 draft. After landing Fox at No. 5, it sent the 10th overall pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Nos. 15 and 20, which it spent on UNC forward Justin Jackson and Duke big man Harry Giles, respectively. While that trade could backfire if the likes of Zach Collins (who Portland selected at No. 10), Malik Monk (who the Charlotte Hornets grabbed at No. 11) or Donovan Mitchell (who the Utah Jazz traded up for at No. 13) develop into perennial All-Stars, the Kings’ rationale was sound.
In Jackson, the Kings landed a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect who can feasibly swing between both forward spots. With Rudy Gay coming off an Achilles tear, the Kings wisely decided to move on and bank on youth at the 3, even if Jackson lacks the ceiling of a Kawhi Leonard (No. 15 in 2011) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 15 in 2013). The ACC Player of the Year shot 37.0 percent on 284 three-point attempts this past season after going just 63-of-212 from deep across his first two years at UNC, suggesting he could be a solid floor-spacer alongside Fox and Buddy Hield.
After taking a relatively safe pick in Jackson at No. 15, the Kings swung for the fences at No. 20 with Giles. The Duke product’s history of knee injuries makes him a high-variance selection, but he was Scout.com’s No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2016. He trailed only Kansas forward Josh Jackson, who the Phoenix Suns selected fourth overall this past June, among that year’s prospects.
“A couple years ago, he was one of the most impactful players out there at his age and in his class,” a Western Conference executive told Reid Forgrave of CBS Sports. “If you feel like you have a pretty deep team and you’re looking to take a flier on a kid who does have legitimate upside if he can put it all together and stay healthy, I do think he’s easily a high first-round talent. But there’s also a ton of risk there.”
For a 19-year-old, Giles already has a terrifying history of knee injuries. After tearing the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee during the summer of 2013, he tore the ACL in his right knee at the beginning of his high school senior season in 2015. Giles also underwent a left knee arthroscopy during his lone year at Duke, which caused him to miss the first month of the 2016-17 regular season.
Upon his return to the Blue Devils lineup, Giles showed only bits and pieces of why he once ranked as a top-five prospect. Though he shot a promising 57.7 percent from the field, he averaged just 3.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 11.5 minutes per game across 26 outings, often looking like a shell of his former self. Between Giles’ injury history and his dismal collegiate production, Sam Vecenie of Sporting News dubbed him “the most volatile NBA draft prospect in recent memory,” while Forgrave called him the “biggest risk-reward pick” since Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.
For a Kings team suddenly teeming with young talent, grabbing Giles at No. 20 is the type of draft-day gamble worth taking. If he busts, it won’t be a huge setback, as the expected hit rate on players within that area of the first round is low. If he lives up to his potential, though—or anywhere close to it—Sacramento could have just walked into a top-five talent without spending a premium price.
The Kings used the same logic in 2016, trading the No. 8 pick to the Phoenix Suns for Nos. 13 and 28 along with the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic. While their selection at No. 13, Georgios Papagiannis, remains a head-scratcher, taking Skal Labissiere at No. 28 was another low-risk, high-upside move. Like Giles, Labissiere was Scout.com’s second-ranked player in his high school class—trailing only eventual No. 1 pick Ben Simmons—but an underwhelming year at Kentucky sent his draft stock into the toilet. Sacramento brought him along slowly as a rookie, but once it traded Cousins to New Orleans, Labissiere went off for 10.8 points on 54.1 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in just 22.4 minutes across his final 25 games.
With Fox, Hield, Jackson, Labissiere, Giles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson and Frank Mason all in the fold, the Kings suddenly have one of the league’s most impressive collections of young talent. Rather than fully embrace a youth movement, however, Sacramento also brought in veteran mentors in free agency this offseason in the form of George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph.
Hill, who inked a three-year, $57 million contract with only a partial guarantee in the final season, will help ease the burden on Fox as the 19-year-old acclimates to the NBA. The IUPUI product has shot north of 40 percent from three-point range over each of the past two seasons, which should enable him to work both on and off the ball. That versatility will make him a valuable piece of the puzzle in Sacramento, as he can show Fox the ins and outs of being an NBA point guard while contributing at either guard spot at times.
Randolph, meanwhile, will teach the Kings’ young bigs how to scrap and claw their way toward regular rotation roles. Though Z-Bo is no longer a nightly 20-10 threat, the 6’9″, 260-pounder remains one of the NBA’s more physically imposing big men. If he can help Cauley-Stein, Giles, Labissiere and Papagiannis bulk up in the weight room and mentor them in the art of setting bone-crunching screens, the toughness he provides will be well worth his two-year, $24 million price tag.
For Hield, the prize of the Cousins trade, who better to learn from than a 19-year veteran and future Hall of Famer in Carter? The 40-year-old used to be one of the league’s most explosive scorers back in the early 2000s, so having him around to impart those tricks of the trade to Hield and Richardson will be invaluable. As he proved with the Memphis Grizzlies last season, he can still make a minor contribution off the bench as well. Bogdanovic, who signed a three-year, $27 million deal this offseason, will likewise help shoulder some of the offensive load until Sacramento’s younger players are up to NBA speed.
The addition of those veterans likely won’t be enough to keep the Kings competitive out West, however. Randolph’s season outlook is currently up in the air after he was arrested for felony possession of marijuana with the intent to sell, as he could face a lengthy punishment from the NBA upon the resolution of his criminal charges. Carter played well in a reserve role with Memphis last season, but he hasn’t shot above 40 percent from the field since 2013-14. Hill missed 33 games last season largely due to a toe injury that he couldn’t shake.
If Fox proves NBA-ready, Sacramento’s incumbent young core of Hield, Cauley-Stein and Labissiere all drastically improve and Hill serves as the steady old hand in the team’s starting lineup, the Kings may wind up being far better than expected this season. Regardless, due to the strength of the West, they’re all but certain to make a 12th straight trip to the lottery dais next May. That will give them yet another chance to add even more young talent to their roster before they send their unprotected 2019 first-round pick to either the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics.
While the Kings suddenly appear to be on the right long-term trajectory, one offseason loss could prove costly. Scott Perry, who the Kings hired in April as their vice president of basketball operations, departed in mid-July to become the New York Knicks’ general manager. Prior to joining Sacramento, Perry served in a similar role with the Detroit Pistons (2008-09 through 2011-12) and the Orlando Magic (2012-13 through 2016-17), which meant he brought some much-needed experience into Sacramento’s front office. Though general manager Vlade Divac may have been personally responsible for the team’s complete 180 this offseason, it’s far more likely that Perry played a significant role during both the draft and free agency.
Once Perry departed, the Kings wisely decided not to stand pat. Instead, they hired former NBA associate vice president of basketball operations Brandon Williams as their new assistant general manager two weeks after Perry left. Williams spent the past four seasons with Philadelphia as a front office executive, serving as the general manager for the franchise’s D-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers.
Having worked in Philadelphia under former general manager Sam Hinkie, Williams appears ready to embrace a similar rebuilding mindset.
“We’re looking at this long-term, not short-term,” he told James Ham of CSN Bay Area. “We want to be able to do great things. There are no shortcuts to the top. There are shortcuts to the middle, but there are no shortcuts to the top. If we not only want to be a good team, but be a good team for a long time, we’ll take our time and make sure that we’re built on the right foundational, cultural pieces.”
So long as the Kings avoid the temptation to plunge into win-now moves as they so often have in the past, they finally appear to be on the right trajectory. Without the threat of Cousins’ imminent free agency looming over their heads, there’s far less pressure to sacrifice future prospects in pursuit of an immediate playoff berth. Instead, Sacramento can let its young pups take their lumps in due time, with Hill, Randolph and Carter guiding the way as veteran leaders both on and off the court.
Barring any further curveballs from Ranadive, it soon may be time to retire KANGZZZZ from the NBA lexicon.