Faith in Front Office faltering?
This article was published in the Sacramento News & Review on 02.15.18.
“Lord, give me strength.” DeMarcus Cousins’ tweet hit timelines on draft night 2016 after the Kings selected another center, Georgios Papagiannis, with the 13th overall pick. But those four words spoke to much more than that. Eighteen months later, Cousins was in the midst of a career year in New Orleans, set to start the all-star game before an Achilles injury derailed his season (get well, soon Boogie!). Nineteen months later, the Kings cut Papagiannis not even two seasons after he was drafted and after they'd already picked up his third-year option, meaning they'll be paying Papagiannis $2.4 million not to play for them next year. Cousins’ tweet now reads as the first line of a prayer on behalf of the entire Kings fan base, still stuck sitting in the valley of death, but paying twice as much for tickets.
Papagiannis was one of three first-rounders selected by Kings GM Vlade Divac in 2016. Malachi Richardson, picked 22nd overall that year, was traded to Toronto before Thursday’s trade deadline in exchange for Bruno Caboclo, a 2014 Raptors project about whom ESPN college basketball expert Fran Fraschilla proclaimed, “He's two years away from being two years away.” Four years removed, perhaps Kings GM Vlade Divac saw that phrase as prophetic rather than pejorative.
The Kings’ most notable deadline move was shipping veteran point guard George Hill to the Cavaliers in a three-team trade, netting Cavs guard Iman Shumpert, a 2020 second-round draft pick via Miami, the draft rights to Dimitrios Agravanis, $3 million in cash, and forward Joe Johnson from the Jazz, who has since been bought out and joined the Houston Rockets.
Thursday’s transactions are less worrisome in a vacuum than they are in the context of a decade-long lack of organizational direction, perpetual shifting of goalposts, and asset mismanagement. The good news: The Kings cut bait with a young player and a veteran signing that weren’t working out, and have some more financial flexibility ($8M this year and $1M in 2019) and a modest draft asset to show for it . The bad news: it’s the same front office that will oversee that cap space and pick.
In fairness to Divac, he ended up hitting on his third selection in the 2016 draft, using the 28th pick on Skal Labissiere (while also acquiring Bogdan Bogdanović, now perhaps the Kings’ most consistent player). One out of three is not a terrible batting average, but that’s precisely the point - the draft can be a crapshoot, and it’s been mostly craps for the Kings. To maximize your odds, you need to give yourself as many swings as possible. Competent organizations understand that whether rebuilding or sustaining success, you must win on the margins - especially in a small market, where room for error is razor-thin. After trading their 2019 first-round pick to the 76ers, the Kings are attempting to rebuild with one hand tied behind their back. By bungling their cap situation this past offseason, they effectively used their free hand to slap themselves in the face.
The signings of Hill and forward Zach Randolph this past summer represented an attempt to rush the rebuilding process rather than augment it. Besides being obvious overpays, their presence blocked the development of the team’s younger players and put coach Dave Joerger in the precarious position of having to allocate minutes to an oddball assortment of veterans and youth. Beyond that, it was a wasted opportunity to bolster the draft capital the capitol’s team so desperately needs. This coming offseason presents what may be the last shot this front office has to get it right.
Fortunately, Sacramento is not the first to forge this path. The Kings can look across the country to the only team that has made a worse trade than they have this century - the Brooklyn Nets. In 2013 the Nets gave up four - FOUR! - first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018, and a pick swap in 2017) to the Celtics in exchange for a group of past-their-prime players, not one of whom remain on their present-day roster. Nets management can point the blame at their predecessors for that debacle, but the current regime has rebounded smartly.
The Nets could have chased free agents this past offseason to boost their short-term outlook and save themselves the embarrassment of giving up (yet another) high draft choice. But they rightly resisted that urge and assessed their lack of a pick this year as a sunk cost. Instead, Brooklyn used their cap space as an asset, taking on other teams’ bad contracts in exchange for sorely-needed draft picks and young stars in need of fresh scenery like D’Angelo Russell. Along the way, they’ve scoured the G-League for diamond-in-the-rough talent like Spencer Dinwiddie, who has since developed into their best player - they reportedly rebuffed multiple offers of first-round picks for Dinwiddie at Thursday’s deadline. Rebuilding without four picks was akin to having their arms AND legs tied up. Instead of struggling and tightening the ropes, the Nets chose to use their teeth and chew through them.
The Kings now have the rest of this season to give their young players an opportunity to develop. Vince Carter’s likely buyout should free up another roster spot, and they would be wise to explore more two-way contracts in hopes of unearthing another Dinwiddie. The on-court product will surely struggle, but the Kings are fortunate to own what projects to be a high lottery pick in a vaunted 2018 draft class, and will enter the offseason near the top of the league in available cap space. Divac has shown incremental improvement in his three years in office, but the team can ill afford any more missteps. Nail the draft, add talent around the edges, use the cap in Nets-like fashion, and in addition to the young corps already in place, the Kings could be in excellent shape in a year’s time. Take the wrong approach, and the team will remain mired in mediocrity, whether those currently in power are around to see it or not. Lord, give us strength.