It wasn’t a matter of if, but when the Kings would begin sitting their five most experienced veterans to give their younger players more time on the floor.
That day was Monday, when Zach Randolph, the Kings’ leading scorer and rebounder, and Vince Carter did not play in a 95-88 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
For the rest of the season, the Kings will not play at least two of the veterans – George Hill, Kosta Koufos, Garrett Temple, Carter or Randolph – coach Dave Joerger said. In some games, three veterans could sit.
“It’s not an easy conversation,” Joerger said. “They’re very professional, they’re competitive. All of them are rotation players on a playoff team. So to ask those guys to step aside at different times is not enjoyable for me. They handled it well, they’ve been pros.”
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Joerger said he will tell the veterans in advance which games they would play so they can be prepared.
That leaves the Kings to rely on their players with up to three seasons in the NBA to gain experience and be evaluated as the front office and coaching staff figure out who fits in the franchise’s long-term plans.
“If you’re in the first three years of your contract, you can expect to play a little, a lot or none,” Joerger said. “But you should be ready to play.”
Temple was the only player with more than three NBA seasons under his belt to start Monday. He said Joerger telling the team about what’s happening is appreciated because there would be “no questioning” and “no second guessing” the situation.
“Obviously, people want to play, but you have to respect that when somebody tells you ... this is the situation that we’re in,” Temple said. “It’s a tough conversation, but, at the end of the day, we want to be transparent. ... We’re all professional guys and it is what it is.”
This was the front office’s plan from the start of the season, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for players like Hill, who has never missed the playoffs, to take a seat.
Like the last two seasons – when the Kings began sitting veterans – their draft position is likely to benefit from the youth movement.
The Kings have lost five in a row and eight of nine. At 13-30, Sacramento has the worst record in the Western Conference. Only Atlanta and Orlando, both 12-31, have a worse overall record in the NBA.
It’s expected the Kings will lose a lot over the final 39 games of the season while trying to find areas of improvement, even on nights when they do not win.
Temple said the older Kings’ focus is to remain professional and continue to help their younger teammates, even when they aren’t playing.
“Point out things that we see (and) be coaches off the court because a lot of our veterans really have a lot of knowledge about the game,” Temple said. “Just continue to stay positive with the guys and point things they may not be able to see when they’re on the court.”
Willie Cauley-Stein is the oldest of the young group, in his third season. He’s played more late in the last two seasons when the Kings shifted to evaluating players. He said the team has a good group of veterans who can “coach us on the fly on certain situations.”
Still, there are some things that can only be learned by playing.
“There’s not much you can tell somebody,” Cauley-Stein said. “You’ve just got to learn it.”
Though there will be rough stretches, Joerger continues to keep the big picture in mind.
“I’m excited to see where De’Aaron Fox is 24 months from now,” Joerger said. “You get in the middle of his third season and you just keep plugging away. Sometimes fans just want to hear the short view. That’s the long view and that’s what we’re trying to do by doing this.”
Joerger believes his players learned from Monday’s loss and competed hard against the Thunder (24-20).
The Kings had a good start and led by 15 in the first half before the Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony led a 31-16 charge in the third quarter, when he scored 15 of his game-high 20 points.
Russell Westbrook had 19 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists and 10 turnovers before picking up two technical fouls and being ejected with 2:51 to play. Paul George scored 18 points.
Buddy Hield led the Kings with 16 points. Cauley-Stein had 15 points and seven rebounds.