Trusting ‘The Process’
*This article was published in the Sacramento News & Review on 11-2-17*
For a franchise, the decision to break up even a semi-competitive team and begin rebuilding can be an agonizing one. It’s akin to leaving a comfortable relationship going nowhere in order to work on yourself and commit to staying single. It will be painful, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find happiness, but it’s the right thing to do.
Two very significant games cross the Kings’ early-season schedule that help put their future in perspective. Last Thursday’s matchup with Pelicans was a glimpse down one fork in the road, and this Thursday’s tilt with the 76ers offers a look at another.
It’s always hard to see an ex enjoying themselves with someone else. DeMarcus Cousins returned to Sacramento last week, a standing ovation drowning out scattered boos, his 41 points and 23 rebounds leading the Pelicans to a 114-106 victory. “I’ve got nothing but love for this city,” Cousins said after the game. They were the kind of words one says months after a breakup, given some time to heal.
Love was never enough to keep Cousins and the Kings together. Two partners in a codependent relationship, a superstar with attitude problems and a dysfunctional organization - in six and a half seasons together, they failed to make the playoffs even once. Finally, the Kings decided to part ways.
“It’s tough, because it wasn’t his decision to leave,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said of Cousins after Thursday’s game. “I think when that happens, it stings, it hurts initially. I think he has found himself in a position where we really appreciate everything he brings to the table.”
Boogie appears to have found a quick rebound in New Orleans. It may only be the happy early days of a new relationship, but Cousins is playing the part of a good teammate, while displaying the tantalizing skill set that always made him so attractive. Yet it still might not be enough to go all the way. Even alongside another superstar in Anthony Davis and a max-contract point guard in Jrue Holiday, Cousins and the Pelicans find themselves with a short bench and long odds for a championship.
Four years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers were mired in their own kind of mediocrity - four playoff trips in five years, but never making it out of the second round. Philadelphia took a shot at adding a Cousins-like talent in Andrew Bynum to take them over the top. They gave up a bounty for Bynum, but it backfired when injuries prevented him from playing a single game. Management was fired. Depleted of young talent and with no viable path to a championship, the Sixers and new GM Sam Hinkie shipped franchise point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans, the first domino to fall in what would become known as “The Process.”
If rebuilding a team is the equivalent of hitting the gym and working on yourself, “The Process” was joining a monastery and taking a years-long vow of silence.
Over the course of three seasons, the Sixers traded their veterans for draft picks, while fielding teams with little NBA talent brought them even more picks. Pundits acted appalled, talking heads called them a disgrace to competition, league executives exerted enough pressure on Sixers’ ownership to force Sam Hinkie out. But now with three potential franchise cornerstones in Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz, the Sixers are undoubtedly in a better place than they were four years ago.
The Kings must now demonstrate the same organizational patience and commitment that Philadelphia showed in its Process. The Cousins trade brought a similar return of young players and picks to build around that the Holiday trade once did for Philly. The Kings will likely have a high lottery pick in next year’s draft. The Sixers, though, also aided their rebuild with savvy trades that took advantage of front offices clinging to contention, most notably the Kings themselves. Two years ago, Kings’ GM Vlade Divac traded the Kings’ unprotected 2019 1st round pick, the rights to swap draft picks in the next two drafts, along with Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, and Nik Stauskas (the Kings’ first round selection a year prior) for the rights to two overseas prospects. The Sixers exercised their pick swap right this year to move up to the third pick, and still hold the Kings’ 2019 pick, looking more valuable than ever after Cousins’ departure. The Kings used that cap space to sign...Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli.
The Kings, now at the onset of their own rebuild, are forced to overcome the loss of next year’s pick in the same way the Sixers had to recover from losing the picks sent out for Andrew Bynum. With the 2019 pick still hanging over his head, Divac has since demonstrated an ability to learn from his mistakes. Last year’s trade of Marquise Chris for Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic was a great start. Labissiere is sporting an ultra-efficient 52-40-100 slash line alongside spry defense in the early going, while Bogdanovic has combined high-percentage shooting with high-IQ playmaking, making that move look like a clear win for the Kings. Swapping Belinelli for Malachi Richardson was another solid step in the right direction. The haul they got for Cousins has looked better and better as other stars traded around the league fetched much less for their teams, and Buddy Hield blossoms into a capable starter.
The draft will always be the fulcrum of any rebuilding effort, particularly in cities without much free agent appeal like Sacramento. Early returns are promising. Justin Jackson and Frank Mason III look like potential rotation mainstays. Georgios Papagiannis and Harry Giles are waiting in the wings. And despite shooting just 39% in his first six games, De’Aaron Fox has already shown he has the talent and makeup to be the leader of an NBA team. “He shoots the ball better than what I did coming in,” Wizards’ star point guard John Wall said of Fox after Sunday’s matchup with the Kings. "He's been great for those guys," Wall told Sactown Royalty. "He's got some great veterans around that's going to help him.”
It is impossible to overstate the importance of coaching and player development. Coach Dave Joerger has a tricky balancing act on his hands distributing minutes to his veterans without hurting his young players’ growth. The leadership of Vince Carter, Garrett Temple, and George Hill will be instrumental, but hope within in the organization is that the young players emerge into starting roles sooner than later. The Kings showed faith in Joerger by offering him a two-year extension before the season, an important statement for an organization on its sixth coach in six years. “Because most of our players are young, we have to go back, like to high school and college, and teach,” Divac said before the season opener. “That’s the challenge. But we chose to go down that path and we think it’s the right thing to do.”
We’re single right now. It’s tough, but necessary. It will all require the patience of an already longsuffering fan base eager to love a team that loves them back, like the glory teams of the early 2000s, the one that got away. We want love. We want a championship. Let’s trust the process.