Published On: Wed, Mar 14th, 2018

Better Luck Next Year: Sacramento Kings edition

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As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. This edition focuses on the Sacramento Kings.

The Good


Bogdan Bogdanovic, MVP. OK, so it was MVP of the Rising Stars game on All-Star weekend. Still, rare is the opportunity these days for a Sacramento King to outshine the competition. Double Bogey hit seven threes and totaled 26 points to win the event’s top honor. It was the highlight of a largely successful under-the-radar rookie campaign for the 2014 first-rounder, in which he has averaged 12-3-3 on 45 percent shooting (39 percent from three) and earned repeated raves for his all-around goodness from NBA scribe Zach Lowe as a strong candidate for first-team All-Rookie honors.

Skal Labissiere’s game-winner against New York. Labissiere‘s strong end to his rookie season following the DeMarcus Cousins trade last year didn’t lead to a sophomore breakout. Labissiere’s numbers have sagged across the board as he’s shuttled in and out of the Kings’ starting lineup. But he’s had his moments, including this pullup three to sink the Knicks in the final seconds.

Just have to hope it doesn’t end up costing Sacramento on lottery night.

#AfraidOfFox. It’s been a rocky season for point guard De’Aaron Fox, a quintessential “shows flashes” rook who struggled to find consistency on a not-particularly-stable squad. But one part of his season was steadily productive: opposing players appearing to duck him by faking injuries against the Kings.

It started with Lonzo Ball – presumably wary of a rematch of last March’s Kentucky-UCLA beatdown – and continued in seemingly every Kings game from there, with such luminaries as Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, and Kawhi Leonard sitting out to avoid embarrassment at Fox’s hand.

Zach Randolph, leading scorer. When the Kings signed Randolph to a two-year, $24-million deal last offseason, they probably hoped they were getting a veteran presence to mentor their up-and-coming frontcourt prospects, rather than, well, a franchise player. For better or much worse, the latter is closer to what Z-Bo ended up being for Sacramento this season, as the 36-year-old power forward has averaged 15 and seven in his first season with the Kings, leading them in both points and rebounds per game for most of the year.

“COO-LEY! COO-LEY!” If you’re gonna have a lost season, you may as well get some end-of-the-bench favorites out of it. Four-year Notre Dame product Jack Cooley showed up late enough in the Kings’ season to take advantage of the lack of rooting interest, and he played well enough in his end-of-the-bench minutes – eight points and three rebounds in eight minutes against the Magic – to earn his own chant. “Jack Cooley is the greatest Sacramento King ever,” proclaimed Sacramento sports station KHTK Sports 1140 AM.

The Bad


The 1-8 start. There aren’t many good stretches to be had in a 21-46 season, but the Kings’ 1-8 start pretty much ensured Sacramento wouldn’t be entering a new period of NBA relevance. The Kings broke 100 points only three times in their first nine games and plummeted to the bottom in the West, never approaching .500 again, and making clear that jettisoning Cousins wouldn’t be a cure-all for their lottery-bound ways.

The George Hill contract. Randolph turned out to be a decent free-agency acquisition/diversion, and fellow former All-Star Vince Carter has been fine, if unspectacular. But third offseason pickup Hill quickly grew frustrated with his role on a rebuilding squad with an anointed point guard of the future in Fox. He was shipped to Cleveland for a modest return (where his numbers have actually been worse than they were in Sacramento), ending one of the stranger free-agency experiments of last summer.

Cutting Georgios Papagiannis. Dealing the No. 8 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft to Phoenix (who used it to select the underwhelming-so-far Marquese Chriss) actually may have been the best Kings trade of the decade, landing them both Bogdanovic and Labissiere. But the then-marquee part of that trade – the No. 14 pick, used to select Greek big man Georgios Papagiannis – was proven a bust in 2018, when the Kings waived the 7-footer outright. Papagiannis’ legacy in Sacramento will likely be inspiring Cousins to subtweet the Kings organization on draft night.

The 46-point loss to the Hawks. Losing by 46 to anyone is pretty well guaranteed to be a low point. But losing by 46 to the Atlanta Hawks – their biggest margin of victory in franchise history – in a season where the Hawks were cellar-dwellers in the East and would go on to win 20-something games themselves, was particularly ungood for these Sacramento Kings. Eight Hawks scored in double figures (to only two for Sacramento) on the night, the team hit 16 threes, and Atlanta was already up 29 at the end of the half. “Losing’s one thing but we’ve got to do a better job of competing,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said after the game.

Harry Giles, out for season. With the New Orleans lottery pick the Kings landed in the Cousins deal, they traded back with Portland to No. 15 and No. 20, selecting UNC three-year wing Justin Jackson and Duke project big Harry Giles. Jackson put up middling stats across scattered starts in a pretty inconclusive rookie season, but Giles was ruled out before he ever got a chance, missing the entire season with knee problems – a large part of the reason he slipped to 20 in the draft to begin with). Zach Collins, taken by Portland with that No. 10 pick, hasn’t been productive enough as a rookie to really haunt Sacramento, but he’s coming on late, and he doesn’t have to do much to dwarf what Sactown got from their two picks in return.

The Questions


Who’s the core? A lot of the Kings’ young players had seasons that were “fine,” but didn’t engender a ton of confidence in them as franchise fixtures. Fox was promising but frustrating, Buddy Hield was more efficient but less productive, and Willie Cauley-Stein improved on offense but stagnated on defense. Bogdanovic seems like a keeper, and a couple of their other young guys may be just a season or two from breaking out, but this team goes into the offseason without a clear franchise player or future star – a tough pill to swallow for a team that hasn’t seen the playoffs since ’06.

How much longer do Dave Joerger and Vlade Divac have? It’s been two years on the sideline for Dave Joerger and three in the front office for Vlade Divac, and you certainly couldn’t say either has definitively turned the franchise in the right direction. Both may get an extended chance in the name of franchise stability – the team has had so much turnover in the past decade that another culture reset might be untenable – but there’s not a lot of job security to be had in seasons with win totals in the low 20s.

What to do with Zach Randolph? Z-Bo has another year on his deal, but it’ll be hard to justify keeping him in a high-volume role on a squad that’s clearly still just entering its latest rebuild. That said, the market for a late-30s power forward with defensive limitations making eight figures a year won’t be particularly robust. The Kings may have to figure out a buyout situation for Randolph, or just keep him as a time-killing distraction for another year as they figure out where the hell this franchise is going.

How much is losing their 2019 first-rounder gonna hurt? Failing an act of extraordinary free-agency charity from LeBron James, 2018-19 figures to be another season with the Kings in the lottery mix – which wouldn’t be the worst thing for a team in this stage of development, except that they already coughed up their 2019 first-rounder in the disastrous Nik Stauskas trade of three summers ago.

That pick will most likely go to Boston via Philly, and the Kings will be left in the Brooklyn-like situation of essentially tanking for nothing. The Nets have been able to grin and bear that humiliation without further short-circuiting their long-term plans to save face; we’ll see if Divac can muster that kind of patience.

Will this ever end for Sacramento? Up until this season, the Kings had the luxury of being overshadowed by the Minnesota Timberwolves for the NBA’s longest streak of postseason futility. But Minnesota’s run seems likely to end this seasons with its first playoff appearance since 2004, and even if not, it’s well-situated for the future with at least two star players. The Kings don’t have any playoff appearances on the horizon, and they still don’t have a surefire star – though they’re likely to have their best shot at landing one since decade’s beginning in the upcoming lottery.

If they don’t get one this year, or if they do but fail to properly build around him, it’s fair for Kings fans to ask what evidence there is that the bad times will end. They haven’t been relevant in more than a decade – a period marked by draft busts, free-agent misses, shaky ownership, and a perpetual-motion coaching carousel – and they’re facing the future with an overmatched GM, an uncertain coach, and a roster of aging vets and unproven prospects. If there’s reason for hope in Sacramento, it better get here soon.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)



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