The Golden 1 Center is beautiful, the mood around town is upbeat, the team appears committed to a common cause – rebuild, recharge, reconnect – and everyone who cares about the Kings is eager to find out if the kids are all right.
But this ongoing free agent frenzy?
It’s imperative to stay the course. Think of the ever-changing diet crazes. Eat meat, don’t eat meat; count carbs, don’t count carbs.
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Then there is the old-school weight-loss approach, the one that urges folks to be disciplined and push themselves away from the table. Sounds great and is less filling, but it’s hard.
While many of his NBA peers are going bonkers in this epic battle for free agents, investing enormous amounts to retain stars or acquire others, the challenge for Kings general manager Vlade Divac is to avoid overspending at the expense of salary cap flexibility when the market shakes out and the list of possibilities is trimmed to Zach Randolph, Patrick Patterson, Danilo Gallinari, P.J. Tucker and Taj Gibson.
Given their decision to proceed with a nucleus of young players – which means a few losing seasons at the very least – Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin, Steph Curry and John Wall were never coming here. It also seems unlikely Andre Iguodala reportedly met with the Kings for any reason other than being a neighborly Northern Californian with an affinity for Silicon Valley types (Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadive). Similarly, Paul George and Chris Paul had no interest in pressing for a trade to Sacramento, though this has less to do with money than the recent negative history of the organization.
The reality for the Kings – and other wannabe contenders – is understanding players both get paid large salaries and choose where they live and work. They can collaborate on a super team and pick their teammates.
Though the Kings never had a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant, two superstars who skipped out on their towns during free agency, they have their own model for how a small market franchise can compete: Divac is his own frame of reference.
A member of the Charlotte Hornets in 1998 after being swapped by the Lakers for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant two years earlier, the 7-foot-1 center entered free agency as a coveted big man. Former Kings general manger Geoff Petrie pursued him aggressively, luring him to town and then seducing him with an incoming squad that included Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Williams and coach Rick Adelman.
Divac was sold and became the franchise’s first significant free agent signee. Notably, all of the star players of that era – Webber, Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson – were retained as free agents. They stuck around because they were winning and they appreciated the environment. The front office was stable, the coach was accomplished, the owners spent willingly and the on-court product was exquisite, if not quite good enough to subdue the Lakers in 2002.
These Kings are still princes in many respects, beginning with their attempts to change perception. It will take more than two quality drafts and the haul from a much-criticized DeMarcus Cousins trade (Buddy Hield, a protected 2017 first-round pick) that is looking better by the day to alter a reputation as a dysfunctional organization with a weak front office and a meddling owner.
But it’s a start in a star-driven league. Teams are built via three means – draft, trades, free agency – and the Kings are hitting on two of three, with their nine young first-round picks.
Meantime, they still need a small forward and depth at power forward and point guard, and they have to figure out who they are and what they have before they can shoot for the free-agent stars.
Is De’Aaron Fox the answer at point guard? How good is Bogdan Bogdanovic? Can Harry Giles stay healthy? Is Skal Labissiere physically mature enough for major minutes in what looms as a trying, losing season?
Only time will tell.