The Sacramento Kings have been playing much better since acquiring Rudy Gay from the Toronto Raptors in December. Gay has fit in well with the team's other key players, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, and really helped to turn the season around. However, in a recent game against the Houston Rockets, both Gay and Cousins went down with injuries.
Gay strained his left Achilles in the game, while Cousins sprained his left ankle. Neither injury is considered to be too serious, as both are listed as day-to-day.
In some respects, the injuries couldn't have come at a worse time. After finally getting on a roll, the team will surely falter while missing two of its best players.
Case in point being the team's most recent loss against the Indiana Pacers. Both Gay and Cousins were out, and the Kings were unable to pull out the victory.
Even with the two healthy, Sacramento wouldn't normally be expected to beat a quality team like Indiana, but the Kings were close. Maybe the presence of Gay and Cousins would have put them over the top.
It took two gargantuan efforts for the Kings to even stay close. Thomas dropped 38, and Marcus Thornton chipped in 42. In fact, their combined 80 points are the most ever for a backcourt in Sacramento Kings history.
Yet nobody else even reached double figures. With Cousins and Gay in the fold, Thornton and Thomas may have seen a dip in their scoring, but there'd be more balance to the offense, which is really what the Kings were lacking against Indiana. When your backcourt sets a franchise scoring record and you still lose, it shows that more quality players wouldn't hurt.
With the draft being one of the deepest in recent memory, the Kings could use it as an opportunity to bolster their roster. However, their chances of doing so will increase with every game they lose.
This leaves the Kings in a precarious position. Their injuries could be looked at as either a setback at an inopportune time or as a way to bolster their chances of landing a high lottery pick. But which one is more beneficial?
A New Team Since Gay Arrived
Before acquiring Gay, the Kings were floundering. Sacramento posted a 6-14 record in its 20 games before the trade. Thomas was coming off the bench, backing up Greivis Vasquez, who was acquired in the offseason from the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Kings were also riddled with aging players like Chuck Hayes and John Salmons who weren't providing much and who were commanding a large chunk of the salary cap.
However, the trade proved to be a godsend in more ways than one. Obviously the addition of Gay was a welcome one for a small forward-deprived team like the Kings. Yet, his arrival also allowed Thomas to take over the starting point guard role, as well as trading out Hayes and Salmons for younger, cheaper role players in Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray.
The newcomers made their debut on Dec. 13 against the Phoenix Suns. Since then, the Kings have gone 9-12 overall. They've been a much more competitive team, and the influx of talent, when coupled with players who were already in place, has made the team a formidable opponent on an almost-nightly basis.
In fact, one Eastern Conference scout who spoke with ESPN's Marc Stein proclaimed that the triple-headed monster of Thomas, Gay and Cousins provides a trio not many teams can match up with:
The Kings are relevant again. That’s why this was a good trade. Now they’ve got a point guard, small forward and center that can score 20 every night. This team still has to develop a defensive identity, but they’ve become very tough to beat on their home court and that hasn’t been the case for quite a while. They’ve taken the first step toward legitimacy. ... I’m telling you: When Sacramento’s top three guys are on, you’re not going to be able to keep up with them.
This is music to Kings fans' ears. Granted, the team has missed the playoffs for seven straight years, and regardless of how long Gay and Cousins are out, that streak will undoubtedly extend to eight in a historically stacked Western Conference.
But not only have the Kings missed the playoffs for all those years, they've also been irrelevant for much of that time. Seemingly the only time the team has made national news over the past few years is either something involving a potential relocation or some sort of tirade by Cousins.
Now with Gay in the fold, the conversation is slowly starting to change. Not only is the on-court product better, but people are actually starting to take notice.
The Draft Pick Conundrum
While the Kings are clearly improved, they're still nowhere near qualifying for the postseason. Things are looking up, but the team could still use more impact players. What better way to add them than through the draft?
If the Kings get too good, it would do more than just decrease their chances of landing a high pick in the lottery—it could eliminate their chances of drafting someone in the first round. Period.
That's because Sacramento's 2014 first-round pick is only top-12 protected. So if the Kings were to somehow land a pick outside of the top 12 selections, they'd have to convey that pick to the Chicago Bulls. In that sense, it behooves the Kings to be bad.
Now Sacramento could use more quality players. However, the 2014 draft figures to be extremely stacked, so if there were ever a year where the Kings could net that type of impact player, this would be it.
As it currently stands, the Kings have the NBA's seventh-worst record. That means they'd have a good shot of getting a top-12 pick and keeping their selection. The problem is the season doesn't end today, and if Sacramento keeps improving its play, it could leapfrog enough teams in the standings to irreparably hurt its chances of holding onto its first-round pick.
|LA Lakers: 16-28|
|Sacramento Kings: 15-27|
|Boston Celtics: 15-30|
|Philadelphia 76ers: 14-29|
|Utah Jazz: 14-29|
|Orlando Magic: 12-32|
|Milwaukee Bucks: 8-34|
Consider the Kings have been 9-13 since acquiring Gay, which comes out to a .409 winning percentage. Such inspired play through the rest of the season could be just enough to cost them their draft pick.
Even worse, they'd have nothing to show for it. In the Eastern Conference, a similar winning percentage would likely net a playoff berth. In the Western Conference, where the No. 8 seed, the Dallas Mavericks, is currently posting a .568 winning percentage, all it would do is cost them their pick.
They'd get no payoff this season, and they'd seriously hamper their chances of getting to the playoffs next year. That's not exactly an optimum scenario.
A Blessing or a Curse?
The Kings are clearly in an unenviable position on this one. On the one hand, the team hasn't had much success in recent years. Just winning 35 games, while it wouldn't get them into the playoffs, would be an accomplishment. On the other hand, it might hamstring their long-term future.
As far as Sacramento's concerned, the big picture should be more important. Yes, the team could use some success. At the same time, the Kings are trying to build a lasting contender, and the best way to do that is through the draft.
In a lot of ways, the injuries to Gay and Cousins actually are a blessing. They could provide the best of both worlds.
The key factor is that neither player figures to miss a significant amount of time. But while they're out, the Kings will surely stumble.
Sacramento could lose even more ground in the standings in the absence of two of its best players. That would at least ensure the Kings would keep their first-round pick.
Then, once the two are healthy and back on the court, the Kings could resume their relative winning ways. That would provide some momentum heading into the offseason, and it wouldn't affect their chances of building for the long term.
For Sacramento, that should be the ultimate goal. Otherwise, it'll be delaying the process—a process that has taken far too long already.
Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso.