The Sacramento Kings are just now beginning to convalesce after Maloof-sized balls of fire rained on their organization the past few years. Recurring threats of a move to Seattle, poor player development, draft choices and numerous head scratching decisions before the trade deadline had cast a dark cloud over the whole city.
Today things look better. There’s new ownership, a new general manager (both of whom command the utmost respect), plans to build a downtown arena and, last but not least, a legitimate franchise player.
Right now it isn't enough to throw a ticker tape parade. But it's a fantastic start.
Are Small Market Teams Still at a Disadvantage?
When it comes to building a consistent contender, intelligence and a little bit of luck almost always tops big money. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement has made it so that repeatedly barging into the luxury tax will be unseemly for everyone, including organizations with the deepest pockets.
As you’re probably already aware, this penalty is aptly known as the repeater tax (Read Mark Deeks' thorough explanation on SB Nation). It was done to level the playing field.
The best example of a small market team finding consistent success is the San Antonio Spurs. Look around the league, and a handful of teams also stand out.
The Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder could very well square off in the NBA Finals this season or next. The Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat (small market indeed—they amnestied a key playoff performer before the season for a reason) are all swimming in similarly choppy waters.
As long as they draft well, watch their cap sheet and make intelligent personnel decisions, there’s no reason to think all they've worked for will be taken away because a big money shark says so. The Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks could each afford the Grand Canyon, but they've found out the hard way that money can't buy consistency.
The Sacramento Kings are looking to join the aforementioned group. Their market size is in the same ballpark, sure, but what they’re more focused on emulating is the organization-wide brain power. New general manager Pete D'Alessandro embraces new forms of thinking that have proven advantageous across the NBA landscape, most notably his acceptance and usage of advanced analytics.
That's all just the tip of the iceberg. How can Sacramento join the ranks of San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indiana? There are moves to be made on the court as well as away from it. Here’s a closer look at both.
How Long Before Sacramento is Competitive?
Right now the Kings are 18-35. They haven’t made the playoffs in seven years. They've employed six head coaches in that time, including current master chief Mike Malone.
Their last series win came in 2004, when Peja Stojakovic was their best player.
To sum it up, things have been bleak. But look at their roster right now. DeMarcus Cousins (the aforementioned legitimate franchise player) is 23 years old, has the sixth highest PER in the league and is under contract until 2018.
From there two guys stand out—Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas. The oft-maligned Gay has been a revelation since joining Sacramento and playing beside a low-post threat like Cousins, averaging 20 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting from the field.
Thomas is the plucky 5’9” point guard who was famously selected last in the 2011 NBA draft. There are a ton of nice things to be said about him, but instead let this side-by-side statistical comparison with Kyrie Irving (the first pick in Thomas' draft) do the talking (basketball-reference.com).
When Cousins, Thomas and Gay share the floor Sacramento scores 104.9 points per 100 possessions—or, as it’s better known in relative terms, are a top-10 offense. A lot hinges on what Gay decides to do with the humongous $19.3 million player option on his contract next season, as SB Nation’s Paul Flannery wrote last week:
If Gay decides to stay for the final year of his deal then the Kings will be right up against the luxury tax line before adding another lottery pick and addressing Thomas’ impending restricted free agency.
Starting at this trade deadline, though, they need to chisel away a few imperfect contracts rotting their books. The team is rebuilding, which means Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson (a truly awful contract), Travis Outlaw and Carl Landry don’t fit. All need to go.
Moving them won’t be easy. Sacramento already has a few protected draft picks locked up in ongoing deals, limiting their ability to dump money with a sweetener. Looking at it optimistically, Thornton and Outlaw come off the books in only a year.
What the Kings must do is develop talent better than they did in the past. Cousins is their foundation, now it’s time to build around him. It’s too early to know what they really have with rookie shooting guard Ben McLemore and second-year forward Derrick Williams (who they acquired in a trade with Minnesota for Luc Mbah a Moute earlier this season). The latter is only 22 years old, but has yet to show he can help an NBA team win games.
This year’s first round draft pick is top-12 protected, meaning if Sacramento descends to the 13th pick, then the Chicago Bulls will get the asset. Should Sacramento end up with the 12th pick or better, it stays with them, and the protection drops to top-10 through the next two seasons, which is why Sacramento can’t trade a future first round pick until the particulars of this deal expire in 2018.
Only three teams in the league have more losses than the Kings right now, so it’s probable they keep the pick this season—especially significant considering how deep the pool of talent appears to be.
If another blue chip prospect joins McLemore, the Kings will have two tradable assets who may double as building blocks. Sacramento is finally able to build on sturdy ground.
Hope Spreads to the Business Side
Now onto what they can accomplish away from the court. All successful franchises, large and small, are backed by enthusiastic, insightful ownership. The Maloof brothers were neither. New owner Vivek Ranadivé appears to be both.
Born in Mumbai, India, Ranadivé is the founder and CEO of a multi-billion dollar computer software company called TIBCO. Majority owner of the Kings for less than a year, he’s already applied several innovative ideas into the organization.
One example? The Kings are set to become the first professional sports organization to accept Bitcoin. Here Ranadivé speaks to Darren Rovell of ESPN about what led him to that decision:
"When I sold the NBA on keeping the team in Sacramento, my pitch included using the sports franchise as a social network to push the technology envelope. This is an example of that."
The Kings are also on the fast track to becoming one of the most internationally accessible teams in North America. One week before the season began, the team declared its plan to launch a website in Hindi, making it easier for basketball fans in Ranadivé's native country to follow along.
More important than all that, though, the team finally has its sights on a new arena. Where money was once a problem, it doesn't appear to be anymore, and there's no need for the team's dedicated fan base to stress about overnight movement to Seattle or Anaheim.
Will Sacramento’s next few years be as bright as the current forecast predicts? There are no guarantees in the NBA, but this organization finally has a future to be excited about. Cousins did not make the All-Star game this season, but that's more a statement on how amazing the Western Conference is than any indictment on how awesome he's been.
The current cap sheet isn't great, but it's headed in the right direction. The Kings were once a lost organization, on the verge of disappearing forever. Now, deservedly, they're filled with hope.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.