Vlade Divac breaks down the progress of the young Kings
Kings general manager Vlade Divac beamed as he prepared to meet with team management for dinner in Chicago last month.
The Kings had moved up to second in the NBA draft lottery, five spots higher than where they were slotted. He was convinced it was a gift from the basketball gods. Good karma for not being fully committed to tanking while fans and media criticized the Kings for every late-season win.
Karma did its part. Now Divac must do his.
This is Divac's most important draft because if it goes badly, it might be the last first-round pick he makes. The Kings do not have their first-round pick in 2019 because Divac traded the rights to it away in 2015 in his first trade running basketball operations.
Divac is signed through the 2019-20 season and has promised the Kings would be better this coming season than they were when they traded DeMarcus Cousins in February 2017, while 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. He said if the Kings weren't better in two years, he'd step down.
No one expects Divac to quit next February if the Kings aren't winning, because no one realistically expects the Kings to be a playoff team next season.
But to set up a successful summer of 2019, one where the Kings will have space under the salary cap to pursue an impact free agent, it begins with getting Thursday's first-round pick right.
If it blows up and free agents want no part of Sacramento next year, Divac could find himself a lame duck executive in 2019-20 with someone else calling the shots in 2020.
Divac is much more prepared to make this pick than he was in 2015, when he agreed to the widely criticized Philadelphia trade before his first draft.
The front office isn't woefully undermanned. Nor is it in flux with key pieces being added or departing in the weeks before the draft.
There isn't a coaching search to divert Divac's attention. Nor have top prospects run away from the Kings in droves as they did earlier in Divac's tenure, hoping that skipping out on a visit to Sacramento would force the Kings to bypass them in the draft.
That leaves Divac to focus on the draft — one that has the potential to shape his and the Kings' future beyond 2020.
The Kings have the longest active streak of missing the playoffs, 12 seasons, and desperately need a player who can be the cornerstone of the franchise.
The Kings are hopeful De'Aaron Fox might be their future All-Star, but he has a lot of work to do to live up to that expectation. His rookie season was solid, but largely unspectacular — save his game winners. It was not at the level of other rookies from his class, such as Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma, or even past Kings rookies like Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas.
Harry Giles might be that player, but he's still bottled-up hope until he proves the flashes he's shown in practices carry over into games.
So this is Divac's chance to take another swing at finding his transcendent star.
Is it Marvin Bagley III, Luka Doncic or Michael Porter Jr.?
Does Divac trade down for the third year in a row?
The draft is always a gamble, but when Divac traded Cousins, he bet on himself for this moment. Ownership doubled down by extending his contract months after the trade.
Now it's time to collect.