Not all improvement is celebrated.
With 33 wins, this is the best Kings team in a decade. But this season was supposed to be about more than marginal progress and a spoiler’s role, which is what awaits the Kings in their season finale against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
Months ago, the Kings believed this game could mean something to them. A playoff berth or seeding might be at stake. Instead, winning Wednesday’s game will hurt more than help.
While the Rockets will clinch a playoff berth with a win, the Kings will improve their odds of a better draft pick with a loss. The Kings are in a three-way tie for the league’s eighth-worst record, endangering their first-round choice.
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Because the New York Knicks secured the league’s seventh-worst record Tuesday, the Kings could lose their first-round pick depending upon their luck in the draft lottery. Move up a spot or two in the lottery, and Sacramento will be OK. Fall two or three spots – the most a team can drop – and the Kings won’t have a pick in this year’s draft.
So if the Rockets win, the Kings’ front office will not be upset. That’s why DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison did not make the season-ending two-game trip, ordered to stay home and “rest.”
Entering the season, the Kings believed they could be a playoff team if they maximized their ability. So how did they end up with their bosses preferring to see them lose?
A veteran-laden team that was supposed to win never meshed with coach George Karl. Once they were eliminated from the postseason picture, the Kings finally appeared to enjoy playing.
We’ve got to play for something, you know what I’m saying? It’s something that even though we’re playing for pride, that’s something else we can play for.
Kings forward Rudy Gay, on Wednesday’s season finale
The issues between Karl and the players nearly led to the coach’s firing in February, and this time, financial reasons or a chat with general manager Vlade Divac won’t save his job after Wednesday’s game. Multiple league sources have indicated Karl will be fired Thursday. The sources would not go on the record because they are unauthorized to speak on the matter.
In some ways, a dismissal might be a relief to Karl, as communication between the coach and the front office has not been ideal. Divac fired one of Karl’s assistants, Vance Walberg, in February, and Divac stopped Karl from suspending Cousins in November after a locker room tirade.
Players were frustrated with Karl most of the season, and it showed on the court. They distrusted the coach’s defensive schemes and needed more direction on offense. Players also privately complained that Karl didn’t hold his stars accountable.
The front office wasn’t able to tinker with a roster in desperate need of help with perimeter defense, a glaring issue many could have predicted before the season.
The latest communication breakdown came this week when the front office did not tell Karl his top players weren’t going on the final trip.
Now the Kings hope they can prevent their top-10 protected draft pick from going to the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls obtained the pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers, who received it from the Kings in the trade that sent forward J.J. Hickson to Sacramento in 2011.
33 Kings’ wins this season, their most in a decade
The Kings’ 2017 first-round pick is also top-10 protected. If the Kings keep this year’s first-round pick and next year’s as well, the Bulls get Sacramento’s second-round choice in 2017. The Kings do not have a second-round pick this year.
In the offseason, the team will try to remodel the roster with Cousins, their two-time All-Star, as the centerpiece while finding a coach who can be a bridge between the players and front office.
Cousins is a rare talent and likely will be named to an All-NBA team again, so the Kings must figure out how to get the most out of him. Otherwise, they risk wasting his prime years stuck in the lottery or watching him flourish on another team.
But one game remains, and the players on this trip aren’t interested in tanking.
“We’ve got to play for something, you know what I’m saying?” forward Rudy Gay said. “It’s something that even though we’re playing for pride, that’s something else we can play for.”