The current Kings job market isn’t for everyone. With the franchise committed to young prospects and a complete rebuild, the requirements for the over-30 crowd reads something like this: Be a good citizen. Mentor the youngsters. Realize you are on a relatively short-term contract, which means you can be here today and asked to turn in your jersey tomorrow.
But stiffs need not apply. After a decade spent wandering the NBA wilderness, being neither good enough to make the playoffs nor shrewd enough to promise a promising product, the Kings flipped the switch and took the plunge. The idea is for the kids to dive in, but not drown, and to wear nose plugs during the seven-game losing streaks, all while the front office preserves those precious future assets and maintains salary cap flexibility.
The climate change inside the Golden 1 Center? This ordeal will take years – two or three, maybe four or five – but it’s happening. The evidence is overwhelming: Eight first- or second-year players are on the Kings roster in the Las Vegas summer league, as the baby steps, move-fast-but-don’t-hurry pace proceeds.
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac is surrounding his rookies and young prospects with George Hill, Zach Randolph and most recently Vince Carter, three seasoned veterans who have traveled the NBA world, overcome adversity, injuries and bone-crushing trades, and persevered into their 30s and 40s. And Hill and Randolph, in particular, can still touch their toes and contribute.
A versatile, if oft-injured lead guard who signed a three-year, $57 million deal, Hill is assigned to tutor point guards De’Aaron Fox and Frank Mason III. Carter, the 40-year-old guard once championed as “half man, half amazing,” is more legend than performer these days, but fans and his peers love him. Randolph, the bruising power forward who turns 36 next week, pretty much gets the run of the locker room; he is the most intimidating player of the bunch. Rewarded with a two-year, $24 million deal that easily eclipsed the Memphis Grizzlies’ offer, he apparently had few qualms about moving west, reuniting with former Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, and signing on to the youth movement.
Randolph, whose warmth and smile threaten his imposing mien, benefits the Kings in multiple areas. He averaged double figures in scoring and rebounding last season as a reserve, yet maintained top billing within the community; no Memphis player is more beloved.
Former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins for weeks has been lobbying the franchise to retire Z-Bo’s jersey in appreciation for establishing and then reinforcing the team’s rugged “grit and grind” personality. On Thursday, management complied in an open letter to the public.
Owner Robert J. Pera credited the big man with helping “turn a lottery team into a perennial playoff contender. You helped make a basketball team a model of community service. No. 50 will never be worn by another member of the Memphis Grizzlies.”
Randolph, who reached the playoffs in seven of his last eight seasons, adds another element to the Kings. He knows all about changing perceptions, altering images, overcoming negative reputations. Today’s Z-Bo in no way resembles the player who had off-court issues and was nobody’s role model during his early seasons. When the Grizzlies acquired him from the Clippers in 2009, the move in fact was met with considerable resistance both within the community and the organization.
“I fought with them (management) over it,” Hollins recalled. “I said, ‘What has he done that is vile?’ He’s done marijuana. A lot of players have done marijuana. He fought with his teammates. Well, I fought with my teammates. That’s it? Come on. We had a young team with Rudy Gay, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Zach became the anchor, the linchpin for eight years. But, sure, it took some work.”
Hollins often recited Randolph’s physical concerns – big guys with bad knees often have shorter careers – and convinced his stubborn forward to shed weight and body fat. On the court, he convinced his 6-foot-9 lefty to develop his right hand and expand his repertoire, adding a hook shot and mid-range jumper to his old-school post moves, power dunks and putbacks. A quick study, Randolph also started passing out of double teams, then began finding cutters and teammates in the corners, a la the superb passing Gasol.
“It was beautiful to watch,” said Hollins, who was replaced four years ago by Joerger. “We talked about legacy. What does all the money really mean? His reputation had been worse than all the rest, and now look at him. You still can’t cross him. You still gotta coach him. But he comes in, he works hard and, when there is a game to be won, put him in for those last minutes and he wins games.”
As for Randolph with the Kings? Or with the princes, as it were? Hollins endorses the signing for both parties.
“This is a process,” he said, “and the process is enhanced by the quality of your veterans. You can’t have guys who sit on the bench, get paid and don’t help their young teammates. You have to have the right veterans because that will help the young players move up faster. So the young kids better come ready out there, because Zach is going to teach them how to be tougher, more physical and professional. I’m glad to see him getting that $12 million in Sacramento, but at the same time, he needs to sign a one-day deal and retire as a Grizzly. He deserves that.”