The NBA trade deadline came and went, and so did George Hill, Malachi Richardson and Georgios Papagiannis.
Hmmmm. Anyone excited yet? Any cowbells clanging out there? Didn’t think so.
The Kings’ moves executed during an exceptionally active Thursday can be summarized in three words. Not. Very. Sexy. They acquire an injury-prone Iman Shumpert, a veteran seeking a buyout (Joe Johnson), a 2020 second-round pick, an estimated $3 million in cash and a player (Bruno Caboclo) who has spent most of the season in the G League.
What this should illustrate to Kings fans – and what Kings fans should remind the organization – is that this clears the lane for the kids to get on their tricycles and ride for the duration of the season. After All-Star Weekend, Feb. 16-18, Dave Joerger should send combinations of De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, Frank Mason III and JaKarr Sampson onto the floor and keep them there for 30-35 minutes per night or until they drop in exhaustion, whichever comes first.
No more one foot in, one foot out. No more attempts to placate the veterans with playing time. For all the contributions of Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Garrett Temple, both on the court and in the locker room, the only way to salvage a rebuilding season is to grab a shovel and dig straight into the guts of the rebuild. Start moving the dirt around. Who knows what might be unearthed in the closing months?
On Thursday, the Kings were far from the only team shaking up the terrain. More than a dozen players changed zip codes, among them Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Emmanuel Mudiay, Devin Harris, Doug McDermott and Derrick Rose. Nothing compared to the abrupt roster makeover in Cleveland.
On life support for the past several weeks, the three deals orchestrated by first-year general manager Koby Altman immediately provide an infusion of youth, athleticism, energy and defense, while sure to dramatically alter the dynamics in the locker room.
The addition of Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood – coinciding with the departure of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Rose, Wade and Shumpert – gives LeBron James at least a few reasons to contemplate sticking around this summer when he becomes a free agent.
Hill, 31, is a critical piece there. Here, he was a mismatched piece of furniture. Though respected by his teammates, he was subdued and uninspired, confused by the conflicting messages of competing hard and trying to win, while embracing a youth movement and his role as a mentor. Unlike Carter, 41, and Randolph, 36, Hill was too productive to sit, simply wasn’t old enough to concede defeat or start planning for a front office career upon retirement.
“Whatever happens, I’ll just be professional,” he said a few weeks ago. “I can’t control that. But if I get traded, I will thank Vlade (Divac) and the Kings organization for everything they’ve done for me.”
One back scratches the other. Hill goes to a contender and the Kings get out of paying him $20 million over the next two seasons. The salary cap flexibility could become even more advantageous for the Kings, depending upon whether Temple ($8 million), Kosta Koufos ($8 million) and Shumpert ($11 million) opt of the remaining year of their contracts.
With Hill’s departure speculated for weeks and Richardson struggling to stay healthy and force his way into the crowded backcourt, the real surprise coming out of Golden 1 Center was the decision to cut ties with Papagiannis. To cut ties with Papagiannis now rather than send him to the G League decide his future during the offseason.
Divac was widely criticized for acquiring the draft rights to the Greek center who was taken 13th overall in 2016. But the GM apparently joined the chorus of NBA types who were wary of Big Papa’s slow feet, defensive issues and lack of mobility. Papagiannis could have had a nice career in the 1980s, when behemoths Artis Gilmore, James Donaldson and Mark Eaton were major contributors, but in a league trending away from conventional bigs, he was a long-term project at best.
The departures of Papagiannis and Richardson, who was taken 22nd in 2016, deposits a healthy smudge on Divac’s drafting record. Though he acquired Bogdanovic and Labissiere (28th overall) that same summer, this makes it two first-rounders who couldn’t make it onto the floor. Additionally, the Kings are still feeling the effects of the previous two front office regimes and dubious first-round selections Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas.
But the draft is a ridiculously inexact science, and Divac deserves credit for cutting his losses and trying to recoup something from nothing. And despite his draft misses in 2016, Cauley-Stein (2015) and current rookies Fox, Bogdanovic, Jackson and Mason continue to show promise and develop. Privately, team officials also project forward-center Harry Giles as a superstar, which explains their agonizingly measured approach to his rehabilitation from knee surgery.
So on it goes, small steps that hint at progress, while awaiting the game-changer via picks, trades, free-agent signings. Meantime, the final months should be all about the kids. Let them roam, let them run, let them play.