When the Kings emerge from the emotional funk caused by Wednesday’s perfect storm – rain and wind pounding Golden 1 Center, a major meltdown against the Indiana Pacers, Rudy Gay rupturing his left Achilles’ tendon – principal owner Vivek Ranadive and his front office executives will look outside and see a clear sky.
The path forward is pretty obvious. Develop the young players. Trade veterans for assets and to clear cap space. Prepare for the draft. Commit that four-letter word (tank) to memory, and do nothing, absolutely nothing, to jeopardize that top-10 protected first-round pick.
Any lingering, misguided notion about securing the eighth playoff spot and a first-round matchup against the Golden State Warriors went down with Rudy, the Kings’ second-best player and one of the game’s classiest individuals.
“A super-talented guy and just a great human being,” a somber Kosta Koufos said Wednesday night. “It’s that saying, ‘when bad things happen to good people.’ It’s unfair. He was a huge, huge, huge part of this team, and one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
When Gay entered the locker room late Wednesday on crutches, his left foot in a protective boot, the hoodie on his sweatshirt concealing most of his face, the mood was funereal. Players spoke softly or not at all. DeMarcus Cousins appeared visibly shaken. The All-Star center’s close friend, Andrew Rogers, stood off to the side, his face flushed, his eyes full. The two questions that hovered late into the evening remain unanswered: How quickly will Gay recover from the surgery, and to what extent will his skills be diminished?
The science is far from encouraging. In an article published in the June 2013, issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine, co-authors Dr. Douglas Cerynik and Dr. Nirav H. Amin studied 18 NBA players who had torn an Achilles’ (1988-2011) and concluded that they “showed a significant decrease in playing time and performance.” Seven of the players, who averaged 29 years and seven months, simply retired, including former Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas at age 32.
Gay, who is 30, already had announced plans to opt out of his contract and pursue a lucrative long-term deal this summer, probably with another franchise. The injury changes everything, at the very least forces the veteran small forward to consider returning for the final year of his current deal. Should he choose to come back, his $14.7 million guaranteed salary would count against next year’s cap.
The Kings for months had vacillated about trading Gay, whose expiring contract has limited value, or keeping him for what they had hoped would be the team’s first legitimate playoff run in more than a decade. But those prospects dipped significantly during the recent 1-6 homestand that dropped the Kings to 11th in the conference standings, with an eight-game trip beginning Friday night in Memphis.
Given their predicament – their 16-25 record midway through the season is two games worse than last season – anything and everything should be considered. Those, indeed, were boos descending onto the court during Wednesday night’s second-half collapse, and generated by many of the same fans who are being asked to renew their season tickets.
So who knows? Gay’s exit and the team’s slump might even motivate Kings general manager Vlade Divac to entertain trade offers for Cousins before the Feb. 23 deadline, though a more plausible scenario has the center signing a five-year extension in the offseason, and the Kings tabling trade talks at least into 2017-18.
The Kings’ ongoing skid – they’re 2-8 in the past 10 games – offers one benefit, though. It virtually ensures they will keep their first-round pick, though the improving Philadelphia 76ers have the option of swapping spots. The key here is not to screw this up. The four-letter word is tank, remember.
Besides being sellers at the trade deadline, Ranadive and Divac should coax coach Dave Joerger into loosening up a little bit, forcing the tempo and giving extended playing time to Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere and George Papagiannis rather than relying so heavily on veterans Matt Barnes, Anthony Tolliver and Arron Afflalo.
Now is the time to concede defeat, to embrace dramatic change. Put another fresh coat of paint on the walls. Sweep the concourses. Wipe down the video board. Begin the makeover in earnest and see if the kids are all right – or not. The result might be surprising. The Kings’ games might be fun again. And fun would soothe the masses, for a while.