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When Vivek Ranadive became the owner of the Sacramento Kings last spring, he did so triumphantly, as the man who had saved the franchise from a relocation to Seattle and kept the NBA in California's capital. However, beyond that very obvious status, he promised a new era of competitiveness simply because he was not a member of the Maloof family. For years, Kings ownership pinched pennies and seemed to have little interest in putting out a quality basketball team. Ranadive would at least make a meaningful effort to return the Kings to glory.
More than a year later, no one can say that Ranadive and general manager Pete D'Alessandro have not made that effort. Unfortunately, the Kings' on-court future looks increasingly average, to the point where a course correction may be required soon.
On Thursday, the franchise made its latest move, acquiring free agent point guard Darren Collison for a deal at their non-taxpayer mid-level exception worth three years and $16 million, as reported by Yahoo's own Marc Spears and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. In isolation, it's not a bad move. Collison is a veteran point guard with a history success, having dipped below a PER of 15.5 just once in his career (2011-12 with Indiana) and having topped 16.2 in each of the last two seasons. With the Los Angeles Clippers last season, Collison averaged 11.4 ppg on 46.7 percent shooting and 3.7 apg in 25.9 mpg, while starting 35 games due to several injuries to Chris Paul. It may have seemed like a luxury for the Clippers to employ a quality reserve to CP3, but Collison contributed more than you'd expect from an All-Star's backup and even starred in one of the team's most dramatic playoff wins. They'll miss him, even if the team has understandably decided to focus on improving on the wing.
There is reason to think that Collison can perform ably in an enhanced role with a lottery team, but that's not the real question of this deal. Instead, it's whether the Kings can afford to keep restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas, a fan favorite (and Pizza Guy) who averaged 20.3 ppg and 5.9 apg with a 20.5 PER in 2013-14. As explained by Dan Feldman at ProBaksetballTalk, the Kings are going to have a really tough time keeping Thomas without paying the luxury tax, which doesn't seem like a smart move for a team that figures to need a lot of help to make the playoffs. At 5-9, Thomas is far from a prototypical point guard in size (and tends to think scoring first anyway), but he's also a truly talented player on a team that needs all the help it can get. There's reason to think that Thomas is near his peak — he turns 26 in February, while Collison hits 27 in August — but his present is already higher than Collison's ceiling. Plus, even if the Kings end up retaining Thomas, why do they have a special need for a quality backup of when they have much more glaring needs?
The answer, it seems, is that the Kings want to maximize their chances at winning now, and the most apparent ways of doing so often involve picking up players with skillful reputations and/or associations with successful clubs. Unfortunately, they seem to be assembling this group haphazardly, with little attention to the way pieces fit. Rudy Gay, obtained via trade with the Toronto Raptors last December, is more useful than his ballhog reputation suggests but still needs lots of shots on a roster that already includes DeMarcus Cousins (and Thomas, if he returns). Collison can help, but will he expect to compete for a starting job no matter Thomas's status? Shooting guard Ben McLemore struggled mightily as a rookie, but how will he mesh these players if he does improve? And how does recent draft pick Nik Stauskas fit into all this? If head coach Michael Malone preaches defense, then what exactly is this team supposed to be?
No matter what the Kings are aiming for, they look like the sort of squad that will finish 10th, at best, in the perpetually loaded West. It's very understandable why they're making moves, because Ranadive and D'Alessandro have needed to communicate a desire to improve the squad. For that matter, this team's path is far preferable to a few more years of Maloof neglect. But if we judge the franchise by the example of other NBA teams, and not the Kings' recent past, then it's hard to say that the Kings are making coherent moves. Their brain trust has already changed the franchise for the better, but they may have to adjust their own thinking soon.
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