If you can recall a more combustible season from an otherwise anonymous team, at least from the modern era, I’d love to hear it. Anything to get my mind off of the 2014-15 Sacramento Kings.
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The team itself may have had playoff aspirations entering the season, but those outside Sacramento (figuring that it would take around 49 wins to make the playoffs in the West) would have settled for, at the very worst, competency. This was still a mismatched roster working off of a series of lottery draft pick whiffs, trying to settle on a rotation and a cogent philosophy.
Instead, the owner and the general manager fired the team’s highly-regarded coach (thought of well by observers and franchise players alike) just after an illness to DeMarcus Cousins sent the Kings on an early-season swoon. A season that began with a 9-5 start was sent reeling once the Kings ownership group promoted Tyrone Corbin to the We’re Obviously Going to Fire This Guy After the Seasons Ends Interim Head Coach role, promising the basketball lifer that he’d have the gig for the rest of the year prior to firing him after a 7-21 run.
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Enter George Karl and, because the team’s owner enjoys doing this, Vlade Divac. Karl finished the Kings’ season by winning as many games as the coach that the Kings fired to start the season, Michael Malone, but it took him six more games to do as much. Meanwhile, Divac ascended from what felt like a ceremonial role as team ambassador to a fully-fledged gig as the team’s personnel chief. This was news to the incumbent GM and his staff, who fled in Divac’s wake.
Yet again, the Kings were left with a coach that was hired prior to the personnel director, which has never worked in Kings history and rarely works in NBA annals. The owner of the outfit squelched any goodwill he earned for helping keep the Kings in Sacramento by valuing name guys over substantive decision-makers, digging deeper holes for one of the NBA’s saddest franchises along the way.
Good thing the name guys, despite what looks to be an ongoing disconnect, have potential.
George Karl will, eventually, burn your team. He will clash with your front office, possibly your owner, and he will piss your players off. Before he gets to that point – and that point will come – he will sand down the edges and help your team win. He will think on the fly, call appropriate sets, and he will motivate. Karl has never been good at running teams with heavy expectations, but if you’re looking for an “it’s just us against the world, men”-sort of leader, he’s your guy.
And the Kings need that guy right now because, well, nobody trusts this roster.
Vlade Divac, meanwhile, knows how to run organizations. He might come off as the affable 7-footer that smoked as a Laker and flopped as a King, but he can put things in order. Just a few months after moving up the ranks in Sacramento he managed to put Karl – a man who is fighting to earn the record for most coaching wins in NBA history, mind you – in line after Karl said some accurate-yet-pointless things on record about DeMarcus Cousins, before pushing to trade his star center.
“But it’s my responsibility to be smart enough to not say things like that,” Karl continued. “So I did apologize because I thought that was the only thing, maybe some other things, but really the only thing that got us separated was that comment that then everybody wrote the we’re going to trade [Cousins].”
“To be honest with you, I apologized to DeMarcus for making the trade comment that I’ve never coached a player that’s untradeable,” Karl told Christensen. “That was wrong for me to say, because you all (the media) took it and blew it up into crazy.”
Yeah, George. The media. Because Woj totally makes stuff up, and because we totally didn’t say you were right in pointing out that any player is just about available for the right price before slamming you for going public with those thoughts – the actual thing you apologized for.
Can we talk about basketball now?
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
In the sense that it mostly kept George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins away from each other, and away from the media, yes. We apologize for clinging to the soap opera aspect of this, but players and coaches rarely come more combustible than DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl, and Karl tried to get Cousins traded against the wishes of his bosses. He’s been there since February.
Beyond that, the Kings did truly shore up a bit. We hope.
Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein was reported to look somewhat winded and zaftig during the first week of camp, but if he’s able to translate that “I’m Shane Battier, but I’m also 7-feet tall”-game to the pros, he could be the perfect frontcourt pairing with Cousins eventually. Signee Marco Belinelli has fared well on teams with both great and poor spacing (the Kings figure to be the latter), while Kosta Koufos remains as good as reserve centers come.
Meanwhile, the team signed heady types like Quincy Acy, Luc Mbah a Moute, and swingman Caron Butler while retaining Omri Casspi (who enjoyed an NBA rebirth under Karl last season).
These aren’t boffo names, but if Karl and Divac are working in concert this could settle into a solid enough rotation.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Anytime your team acquires Rajon Rondo, it’s going to be Rajon Rondo.
We’ve prattled on endlessly about the Cousins and Karl dynamic, and for good reason. With that established, Rajon Rondo is going to have the ball in his hands this year. He’ll be directing Karl’s offense and running – George hopes – Karl’s plays. He’ll have an entire training camp, a purportedly healthy knee, and a learned knowledge of the roster to lean on.
In short, Rajon Rondo has no excuses.
His turn in Dallas in 2014-15 was a flameout of the highest order. Not only did he drag the team’s top-ranked offense into the muck, but he was basically banished from the Mavericks during the playoffs despite beginning the postseason as the team’s starting point guard. That’s something that you usually don’t see, in 2015. That’s something that happens in 1978, and usually Bolivia’s Finest would have been involved. Rondo has no such off-court hiccups, he just hated his setting and his coach’s sets and the rest of the squad didn’t exactly care for him.
Rondo now joins the Kings, led by Karl – a coach who has literally feuded with every significant ball-dominant guard he’s coached dating back three decades. That isn’t hyperbole, and Karl isn’t always wrong, that’s just the history. He’ll have the task of acting as the first creative passer in DeMarcus Cousins’ NBA history, and he’ll be charged with acting as the go-to veteran leader that the Kings so badly need.
On paper, it should work. If you’ve read the papers, though, you’d be worried about this pickup.
One year, $10 million. Still trusting the owner?
We’ve overplayed the cohesion angle at this point, but it is the most significant obstacle as this team attempts to make it out of the lottery. Even if Karl was a cheery genius, and Cousins the same, the acquisition of Rondo to pair with a team that rarely shot three-pointers as it was last season threatens what little advancements they made last season on the Michael Malone-led road to mediocrity.
You’d hope that a training camp and early run to the season would take care of that, but you can’t really afford to be figuring things out, in the West, during November and December.
Beyond that? The Kings are a miserable defensive outfit, and they’re relying on a once-great defensive point guard (who has looked abysmal on that end, frankly, since tearing his ACL nearly three years ago) and an out of shape rookie to help change the shape of things.
Contributor with something to prove:
Ben McLemore won’t even turn 23 until 2015-16’s midseason point, and yet he’ll be relied upon to serve as the tipping point for this team in his third season. The shooting guard turned in two rather poor years with the Kings since being drafted seventh overall in 2013, but the shape of his shooting stroke and near-average mark from behind the three-point line (35.8 percent last season) should give the Kings hope.
If he can stretch the defense without turning into a one-dimensional player, fitting in with a coach in George Karl that has long embraced heavy reliance on the long-range shot (that lovable ABA scamp, he), then McLemore could set a cling-heavy Kings offense ablaze. It’s true that Sacramento’s real worry will come on the other end of the court, but with this roster the Kings will have to win with what they have on the scoring end, and the team badly needs McLemore to take a giant step forward.
Potential breakout stud:
There are never any guarantees in this realm, so one has to fall back and hope that the one-time feel-good story in Seth Curry turns into something you can count on. Count on to bust a 25-footer in a backup guard’s face during a 12-2 run in the second quarter.
Reserve scoring guard Darren Collison was fantastic last season before submitting to a hip injury that he later admitted had been hindering him for years, and though he’s enjoyed an impressive exhibition season these sorts of maladies tend to linger. Enter Curry, a scoring guard in a point guard’s frame, working in a league that is becoming more and more adept at finding room for these sorts of talents.
If Seth doesn’t treat every look like it’s his chance at a lasting NBA career – something that should dissipate with his new two-year contract – he could relax enough to rely on that well-honed touch, and carve out a role as this team’s scorer off the bench.
Rajon Rondo, weirdly, develops chemistry with fellow Wildcat DeMarcus Cousins, while Rudy Gay slashes and McLemore shines from the outside. George Karl influences the whole lot to want to talk and move on defense, and the squad improves despite its side-to-side limitations – because when motivated, even a slow lineup can lock the gates.
The team stays in the playoff hunt until mid-April, and for the first time in ages enters the offseason with a sense of purpose. On the same page, all at once.
If everything falls apart:
Well, I mean, let’s be honest. Everything will fall apart. The question is whether or not it happens this year.
Nothing here makes sense. Rudy Gay (who had played well and tried hard as a King) still comes through with the strange shot selection at times, and Rajon Rondo (and he might be correct in this regard) seems to have completely abandoned his. An all-world year from DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t enough to push this team toward respectability last season, and despite the improved depth it’s hard to see how this club handles a schedule mostly played in the Western Conference.
Most of all, though, this franchise has to prove that it has the ability to stay on the same course for an entire season. Based on the actions of its owner, we’re not holding our breath.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
34-48, 11th in the West.
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