It's been a long, treacherous and painful road for the Sacramento Kings since the team last made the playoffs. The franchise has endured seven consecutive losing seasons and looks well on its way to extending the streak to eight. But for all the bad that's gone on in the state capital, things are actually looking up for the Kings.
For the first time in a long time, there's a buzz surrounding the team. Fans are once again showing up to games in droves, as 92.5 percent of the tickets have been sold so far this season compared to only 79.4 percent a year ago, per ESPN.
What's the biggest difference? That's simple. It's Vivek Ranadive, the team's new owner, and his commitment to Sacramento is turning the franchise around. Kings fans are no longer fearful of the team bolting for greener pastures, nor are they concerned with an ownership that's not willing to do what's necessary to right the ship.
Ranadive is hellbent on getting this franchise back into the NBA's elite. It may not happen overnight, but that doesn't mean the owner is sitting on his hands waiting. He's doing everything humanly possible to turn this thing around, which is why the Kings are headed in the right direction in spite of their early-season struggles.
Bringing in the Right People
We often see owners of professional sports teams getting too involved in the operations of their franchises. They don't hire the right people to run them, and they don't allow those individuals the latitude to do their jobs.
Ranadive has hired the right people to run the Kings, and he's allowed them the freedom to operate. But don't mistake that for complacency. As Bill Herenda, who's the morning sports anchor for radio station KFBK and an analyst for ESPNU, explains, Ranadive's just employing some of the lessons he's learned from his other business ventures.
"I think there’s no question that his Silicon Valley mindset and the ability he’s demonstrated in the business world to pull himself up by the bootstraps with TIBCO, he’s applying the same principles here," Herenda said. "You look at [Mike] Malone and it wasn’t a question of if he was going to be an NBA head coach, it was just a question of when. He’s attracted great people within the ownership group, from [Mark] Mastrov to Shaquille [O'Neal], and great people on the operation side from [Pete] D’Alessandro to [Chris] Mullin."
For Malone, it wasn't a question of whether he was qualified to be an NBA head coach; it was just a matter of when he'd get an opportunity. The same can't necessarily be said of the team's previous hires at head coach.
Reggie Theus and Paul Westphal certainly weren't on anyone else's short list when they were hired. The same can be said of Eric Musselman and even Rick Adelman, who was on the verge of becoming the head coach at Portland State University back when Sacramento hired him as head coach in 1998.
Obviously, the Adelman hire ended up being a good move, but the point stands that Malone is the first coach brought in by the Kings who was sought after by other franchises. That's brought some credibility to the organization, and Malone's been someone who's respected by the players.
"He’s very much different," former King Chuck Hayes said of how Malone compares to other recent Sacramento coaches. "He really knows the game. He’s a student of the game. He’s been around for a long time. He’s had some great mentors and he knows what he’s talking about. We believe in his voice. We believe in his direction."
As for the personnel side, D'Alessandro and Mullin provide two capable decision-makers. Mullin was the executive vice president of basketball operations of the Golden State Warriors for five years. He was the architect of the Golden State team that qualified for the 2006-07 playoffs, the first time the franchise made the postseason in 12 years.
D'Alessandro was an assistant under Mullin starting in 2004 and was promoted to assistant general manager of the Warriors in 2006, a position he held for four years. In 2010, then-Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri hired him as an assistant before promoting him to vice president of basketball operations in 2012.
When Ujiri left Denver for the Toronto Raptors, D'Alessandro was seen as the front-runner to replace him. Instead, he accepted Ranadive's offer to become general manager in Sacramento. Like Malone, he was a sought-after candidate by other NBA teams, showing the quality of individuals brought in to spearhead the Kings.
A First-Class Organization
Before Ranadive came in, the Kings were a franchise that didn't live up to the NBA standard both on the court and off of it. With the new owner in charge, Sacramento has quickly become a first-class organization in the way it operates.
Jason Thompson has spent more time with the Kings than any other current player. If anybody has an understanding of how much things have changed, it is Thompson. As the forward explains, it's been night and day this year compared to seasons past.
"Vivek’s come in here and pretty much changed a lot," Thompson said. "We get a lot of good things when it comes to taking care of us. We’ve got some new changes in the practice facility. When it comes to the locker room and things like that also. When it comes to being handled, Kings academy, guys learning to be professionals off the court."
Thompson also mentioned that the Kings have a personal chef who travels with them and provides quality meals on the road. The improved nutritional options are something Isaiah Thomas noted back in training camp.
And in general, Thompson mentioned the increased continuity on the road when asked which changes stood out most to him.
"I think on the road as a team we did more things individually and stuff like that," Thompson said. "I think a lot more stuff we do team-wise when it comes to eating together, scouting reports, things like that."
That's not even to mention the arena Ranadive and the Kings are working toward with the city of Sacramento. If completed as planned, the new building would open for the start of the 2016-17 season. But as is the case with virtually every other area of the franchise, Ranadive isn't patiently waiting. He's immediately upgrading the facilities and amenities, and he's making Sacramento a first-class organization in the process.
A Sense of Urgency
Ranadive's urgency in turning around the Kings doesn't just extend to the team's off-court infrastructure. It also includes the on-court product.
Barely one-third of the way into the season, the team has already made two noteworthy trades. The moves signaled two things about the Kings, the first of which is the team's committed to improving.
Herenda—who also played on the UMass Lowell team that won the 1988 Division II NCAA championship—likes the moves from Sacramento's perspective.
"I think that the trades that they’ve made, as well as the trades that they haven’t made, have demonstrated that ownership is committed to improving," Herenda said. "What they had was not working, and now they’ve got a legitimate scorer in Rudy Gay who passes the eye test, who has successfully coexisted with great big men in the past in [Marc] Gasol and Z-Bo [Zach Randolph] and now will with DeMarcus [Cousins].
"I think with Derrick Williams, they’re going to collectively have the opportunity to find out how good he can be. Obviously he was terrific at Arizona, and being a No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, this is going to be an opportunity for him to really make or break it, because I think he’s going to get a ton of minutes here in Sacramento.
"I think they’ve traded marginal talent for an established scorer, a guy who averages 19 a game, and for a guy who has tremendous upside. I think these trades have been good for them. I really do."
The moves not only show that the ownership wants to improve but also demonstrate that the revival of the team is not a long-term goal accomplished through tormenting years in the draft lottery. As Ranadive has shown through his actions, it's something he expects to see sooner than later, so much so that more moves prior to the trade deadline certainly aren't out of the question.
"I think that the manifestation of his commitment so far is Malone, D’Alessandro with these trades showing that he’s not a person who’s going to wait and hope," Herenda said. "He’s going to be a person who’s proactive, and we may see more from that standpoint before the trade deadline."
So while things certainly haven't started off as well as Ranadive and Co. would have hoped, it doesn't mean they're going to stay that way.
In Ranadive, the Kings have an owner who's committed to improving and won't accept anything less. But he's willing to go about it the right way. He's brought in the right people and allowed them the flexibility to do their jobs. He's provided the players all the luxuries of a first-class organization.
Things may not be particularly bright right now. But unlike past years, there's actually light at the end of the tunnel. There's a strong sense that things are headed in the right direction.
The reason for that is Ranadive.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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