An NBA franchise can make lottery trip after lottery trip without even trying. That's part of the logic behind tanking in this league: Richer rewards lie at the top of each NBA draft. And the surest way to select at the top of the draft is to bring a poor record and as many pingpong balls as possible onto the annual dais of non-playoff teams.
In a sense, an organization like the Sacramento Kings is a perfect case study of when a team never truly does bottom out. And the Kings of the early 2010s, especially in contrast to the brazenly rebuilding teams like Sam Hinkie's 76ers, failed to compete while also struggling to progress.
The following is an excerpt from my new book, Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever, where palace intrigue within Sacramento's basketball operations leaked into their decision-making and squandered the opportunity to build a playoff contender around DeMarcus Cousins.
From 1999 to 2006, the Kings made eight consecutive postseason appearances, highlighted by their controversial 2002 Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers. Sacramento hadn't returned to the playoffs since, marking one of the longest droughts in the NBA.
"Sac's been a place that, for so long, has wanted a winner," Rudy Gay says. While numerous teams had since rebuilt and rebounded into the postseason, the Kings—no matter the management in place or the coach stalking the sideline—found themselves perennially entrenched in the league's cellar. Sacramento toiled into the lottery each May yet was neither bad nor lucky enough to select higher than fourth during the DeMarcus Cousins era. The Kings seemed trapped on the treadmill of mediocrity with the machine programmed to a numbingly slow speed.
Cousins' talent was nothing short of a coup at No. 5 in the 2010 draft, but hadn't yet translated to winning basketball. In the 2011 draft, Sacramento came away with BYU's electric scorer Jimmer Fredette, but a combination of Cousins' incessant practice taunts and Fredette's inconsistent playing time prevented any confidence or early success for the sharpshooter. "He never really had any kind of opportunity," says Chris Jent, the Kings' assistant coach.
With a roster in obvious need of development, Mike Malone's coaching staff joined Sacramento in 2013 expecting a two-season cushion before expectations mounted. The idea was they would get their feet wet, establish a rapport with Cousins, regroup that offseason, and dive headfirst into the 2014-15 playoff picture. Ranadivé's patience, however, expired by December, when the Kings' 4–12 record sparked the owner's insistence to acquire reinforcements. "It all changed right away because we got Rudy," Jent says. "That two-year projection ended."
Sacramento quickly looked to find a new home for Isaiah Thomas. DeMarcus Cousins' relationship with the punchy point guard had fully soured. As their disconnect became palpable throughout the Kings' facility, team owner Vivek Ranadivé sided with his big man. The Suns and Celtics expressed interest in Thomas, but offers valued him more as the former second-round pick he had been, not the dynamic starter he'd become. Sacramento general manager Pete D'Alessandro couldn't find a team interested in adding former lottery pick Jimmer Fredette, either—not even for a single second-round pick.
Sacramento's owner believed the whirring Warriors were the future champions of the NBA, and the team that had slayed Golden State that 2014 postseason was the Clippers. Doc Rivers' scheme generated 112 points per 100 possessions, to lead the NBA.
Ranadivé was clear: He wanted Malone's staff to prepare a playbook hinged on Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, capable of that 112 offensive rating, to defeat the Warriors. That would require playing at a much faster pace, which would leave the Kings susceptible in transition defense.
"We needed better shooting, more aggressive play, and we gotta have Cousins be used more like a guard out on the floor, rebound, start our break," Jent says. "It just..." he pauses to sigh, "if you don't play defense, if you don't pride yourself on defense, you're just not gonna win."
Sacramento, of course, fell short of the 2014 playoffs. And the Kings came on during the 2014 NBA draft at No. 8. While it trailed many rival organizations quickly bolstering their analytics departments, Sacramento had launched an online challenge crowdsourcing basketball number-crunchers to submit their 2014 draft positional rankings, research, and analysis. They dubbed it "Draft 3.0."
General manager Pete D'Alessandro selected the best entries to join his Draft Advisory Council, which included Hall of Famers Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. Sacramento's old-school scouting department had already determined its top targets, they just wanted to confer with the numbers.
With Ranadivé's mandate to play faster in mind, the front office shifted their 2014 draft strategy, targeting Nik Stauskas at No. 8. Their analytics crew had confirmed Kings scouts' projection of Stauskas' potential creation ability. The data suggested Michigan's shooter was also proficient when pulling up off the bounce. When the Draft 3.0 winners finished their presentation, Sacramento's front office burst into applause.
"I'll tell you what," general manager Pete D'Alessandro said. "You guys did a great job."
"You guys cleared it up for us," assistant GM Mike Bratz said. "You guys were pretty right on, too. I mean, very, very good."
"Either that or we're all wrong," D'Alessandro laughed. "We'll know that in two years."
Come draft night, Stauskas became a reality at No. 8. After failing to trade with Philadelphia at No. 3, picks Nos. 4-7 unfolded exactly as Sacramento hoped. Ranadivé and D'Alessandro shouted as Marcus Smart went to Boston and Julius Randle went to Los Angeles.
Then as the clock started on their selection, Sam Hinkie called D'Alessandro back. He'd declined the Kings' earlier trade, but now Philadelphia's savvy president offered his upcoming No. 10 selection and two second-round picks for the right to draft eighth.
Many Sixers evaluators maintained their interest in Stauskas. The coaching staff longed for a bona fide outside threat. Brett Brown fawned over Stauskas' skill set, closing his eyes and imagining a young Manu Ginóbili in 76ers blue. D'Alessandro, however, dismissed Hinkie's attempt.
Kings officials went around the room one last time. Their vote was unanimous. Stauskas was the pick. "We knew he was gonna be somewhere in that range, but all the way up to eight?" says Michigan coach John Beilein. "That was cool."
D'Alessandro grabbed his cellphone and dialed Stauskas in Brooklyn's green room. "Didn't we tell you you were coming to Sacramento!" the general manager cheered. "Congratulations, man. We're really excited about this. You've got a whole table full of people here with smiles on their faces."
The executive handed off to Ranadivé, who requested the call be placed on speaker. "We just want to give you a California welcome!" Ranadivé sang. The Kings owner instructed his front office to collectively shout a specific cheer.
"And he was like, ‘1...2...3,'" Stauskas recalls, chuckling.
"Nik rocks!" the group bellowed.
Stauskas, wearing a navy-checkered suit, could only giggle an uncomfortable laugh. "That whole thing caught me off guard because I didn't really know what to say back," he says now. "At the time I was obviously so excited they drafted me, but it was so awkward. I was sitting at my draft table and I was like, ‘Thaaaaanks, guys! Appreciate it!'"
Isaiah Thomas had thrived since becoming a Kings starter. Sacramento coaches had hoped for a long inside-out partnership between Thomas and Cousins, valuing Thomas' competitive edge and endgame stoicism. "We definitely thought it would be good for our team to bring him back," says assistant Chris Jent. Management, however, sided with Cousins, who wished for Thomas to play elsewhere.
Vivek Ranadivé saw past Cousins' on-court temperament. The Kings owner believed he understood a misunderstood giant, so uncomfortable in a losing environment. Ranadivé admired Cousins' community involvement and made exhaustive efforts, along with advisor Chris Mullin, to help Cousins make USA Basketball's 2014 FIBA World Cup roster.
At Ranadivé's behest, Sacramento's front office prepared to let Thomas walk, without regard for their coaches' opinions and without matching any offer sheet he signed in restricted free agency.
The Kings projected Darren Collison, the Clippers' sturdy guard, as a more compatible table-setter for Cousins and forward Rudy Gay, and Sacramento landed his services on a three-year, $16 million deal instead.
The Kings worked a sign-and-trade to send Thomas to Phoenix on a four-year, $27 million deal. In return they received Alex Oriakhi, the Suns' 2013 second-round pick, who never played in the NBA.
Malone's staff finally believed the scuttle that Sacramento's front office indeed dissented from the coaching staff, which Ranadivé had hired before naming Pete D'Alessandro general manager. "There were rumors about them not appreciating what we were trying to become," says Chris Jent, the Kings assistant. "We were trying to teach defense first in order to build a foundation of winning."
Staffers began hearing about potential Malone replacements. In preparation for July's annual exhibition games in Las Vegas, Malone revealed a startling confession to his staff.
"We gotta win this summer league," Malone said.
"What?" a confused Jent responded. Few teams valued the two-week event as more than an instructive period for young players and networking around the league.
"Yeah," Malone continued. "We kinda need to win summer league, just to get them off my back."
Fear of job security panged Jent's gut: "I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is not good.'"
As Kings coaches exited La Pescheria on the Vegas Strip, Vivek Ranadivé and Chris Mullin walked into a lunch with longtime NBA coach George Karl. "It was really bizarre," Jent says.
All parties insist Karl was simply meeting Ranadivé through mutual connections. He'd coached Mullin during a short late-1980s stint in Golden State, as Pete D'Alessandro studied at Mullin's alma mater, St. John's. And just before Ranadivé poached D'Alessandro from Denver back in 2013, Karl was finishing his last season as the Nuggets' head coach. The new-and-improved Warriors eventually upset Karl's group in the playoffs before the coach was terminated.
Karl and Ranadivé reminisced inside La Pescheria about that Golden State series. "The one thing that we agreed with at the time was that the game had to be played fast," Karl recalls.
Ranadivé also showed his penchant for hoping to push basketball's ideological envelope. "Vivek had some wild thoughts. He's an out-of-the-box thinker, as am I," Karl says. "But you know, I just think he had this, in a strange way, an inexperienced enthusiasm that on one side of the fence I admired, but on the other side of the fence it's a little crazy."
Karl wondered if he'd passed the owner's test. It seemed as though Ranadivé was weighing the coach's amenability to his unorthodox philosophies, in contrast to Mike Malone. "I think they were probably taking a pulse on me and I was taking a pulse on them," Karl says. "There was no handshake or no thought of the future other than, ‘Good luck.'"
Damage had still been done. The temperature seemed to scorch hotter on Malone's bench. Kings coaches began embracing the possibility of 2014-15 marking their last in Sacramento.
Cousins had participated in a few Kings practices in Las Vegas during summer league and buzzed excitedly throughout training camp. Coaches wondered if Cousins' Team USA experience had exposed their All-Star talent to better winning habits. "He was a leader of the practice and the hardest worker," assistant Chris Jent says. "It was just very different."
That fall, a thrilling double-overtime victory at Phoenix brought the team to 5–1 on November 7. They still stood at 9–6 on November 26 before DeMarcus Cousins developed a debilitating case of viral meningitis.
The timing couldn't have been worse. Cousins had scored 24.2 points and grabbed 13 rebounds per game during November.
Sacramento couldn't muster much with the 24-year-old star sidelined. The Kings went just 2–7 without Cousins before axing Mike Malone late on Sunday evening, December 14, bringing those long-whispered rumors to rest. Pete D'Alessandro maintains the decision came from ownership. Vivek Ranadivé claims he merely approved the choice that his general manager and advisor, Chris Mullin, pitched.
Malone's staff believed Ranadivé. They'd already seen D'Alessandro let go of Shareef Abdur-Rahim in September. Sacramento's former director of player personnel was the only front-office holdover from the Kings' old regime, and Abdur-Rahim staunchly supported drafting Elfrid Payton over Nik Stauskas all of June. Many staffers believed D'Alessandro ultimately fired Abdur-Rahim for continued disagreement on personnel decisions.
Ben McLemore was shooting inside Sacramento's facility when Kings point guard Ray McCallum texted the news of Malone's ouster. The coach rang McLemore's phone soon after. "I kind of got teary-eyed," McLemore says. "I was devastated."
The Kings' full roster echoed that sentiment. "I think that whole situation was messed up," says forward Rudy Gay. "He was getting his feet wet. You gotta give your coach a chance." Players and assistants recognized the obvious timing of the decision. Cousins' sickness presented the perfect excuse to make a change at head coach. And even with Sacramento looking like a playoff team before Boogie got sick, reports immediately linked George Karl, quite expectedly, as the leading candidate to replace Malone.
Ranadivé first lobbied for Mullin to assume the post. When he declined, Mullin sensed he began falling out of favor with the owner. In the interim, Pete D'Alessandro met with Malone's staff individually that next morning and explained assistant Tyrone Corbin would handle head coaching duties. "It wasn't really a why, it was, ‘This is how it is,'" Chris Jent says. By the end of their discussion, Jent resigned out of loyalty to Malone. "I was so jacked up," Jent says. "I just couldn't wrap my mind around why it was happening. I was just like, ‘I can't do this.'"
Firing Malone angered Cousins as well. He'd finally found a coach who he trusted could shepherd the franchise toward contention, in a style that he enjoyed. Malone never called Cousins out in the press. They handled their business face-to-face. On the first day of training camp, Malone hollered at Cousins in front of everyone. He threatened to kick the burgeoning All-Star out of practice. "As a rookie, I was like, ‘Oh, OK. This coach obviously means business,'" Kings guard Nik Stauskas recalls. Malone's screams were underscored with a care that shaped his criticisms as constructive. "All the coaches we had, Mike Malone was actually the guy that kept DeMarcus in check," Stauskas says.
Losing Malone, without any prior warning, gutted the star big man. "He was really, really frustrated and felt betrayed," Jent says. How could the Kings ever forge forward if their leadership was constantly trying to survive a game of Ranadivé's musical chairs?
Corbin stood no match for Cousins' outbursts. Kings players knew the coach was nothing more than a lame-duck stopgap. "Tyrone had no control," Stauskas says.
Cousins particularly jawed at the Kings' first-round pick. It was no secret Stauskas' representation had attempted to steer the Michigan product away from Sacramento. Walking off the court one early practice, Stauskas even told Jent his agent said he'd be traded by Christmas. "When he revealed that to me, I was like, ‘Oh boy. This is gonna be tough,'" the assistant says.
When Cousins taunted teammates, he would specifically target Stauskas, knowing he was searching for greener grass within a different franchise. "That's just how DeMarcus expressed his feelings and wanted to help the next guy in line," explains McLemore.
Cousins loudly questioned Stauskas' toughness during five-on-five action. He routinely called for Stauskas to toughen up after plowing him with a screen. He shouted with each of the noted shooter's misses. "It's just hard on a young player," Jent says. "You gotta have thick skin and it was tough for him to take. When it's tough to take, you become a bigger target."
Stauskas' practice struggles manifested in games. He made just 26.1 percent of his threes before the All-Star break. Cousins continued to chirp. "As a rookie to begin with, you're gonna have it tough," Stauskas explains, "but Boogie...he's an interesting guy. That's all I can say."
By the new year, Stauskas finally understood his agent's warnings. "I started thinking, ‘Is this how it is everywhere?'" Stauskas says. "It's just chaos and drama all the time."
During one pregame locker room session, Rudy Gay turned to counsel the floundering rookie. "You'll probably move on to other teams," Gay began, "you'll learn from your mistakes. This isn't a normal situation. From here on out, it's only gonna go up for you."
But the Kings skidded to just 17–29 by the end of January. Another lottery trip seemed predetermined for Sacramento.
This excerpt of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever, by Jake Fischer, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information to order a cop, please visit Triumph Books, Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.