As the Kings plot their course for the remaining two months of the season, with an emphasis on accelerating the development of the younger players, there are an abundance of unknowns.
Can De’Aaron Fox stay healthy? Is this new and improved Willie Cauley-Stein for real and for the duration? Can Skal Labissiere expand his range and become a stretch four? Is Justin Jackson a fit at small forward? And what about the two-headed shooting guard combination? Will Buddy Hield continue to embrace his sixth-man role behind his friend, Bogdan Bogdanovic?
Then there is the front office. What is general manager Vlade Divac up to these days?
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Creating salary cap flexibility. Maintaining roster maneuverability. Prepping for the NBA draft and another opportunity to select a stud. Cutting his losses and waiving center Georgios Papagiannis, the 13th pick in 2016 who struggled with the pace and athleticism of the NBA game, and chafed when the Kings wanted him to spend time working on his skills with their G League affiliate in Reno.
Yet none of this matters – none of this works – unless Divac’s basketball operations department completes the transition into an innovative, aggressive, shrewd and stable decision-making body capable of going toe-to-toe with 29 other franchises.
And the answer is: Small steps. Baby strides. The Kings are making progress.
They are nearing a point where they are no longer a chronic embarrassment, where they are starting to be regarded as more than just another pretty face/arena. It’s been a while, a long while. Though the wins or losses of the past two drafts won’t be fully realized for another season or so, there is clarity to the rebuild. You can see the road map from here. It is strategic and professional, and at least leaves an impression that Divac and his staff can take on Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Bob Myers, Danny Ainge, R.C. Buford, and walk away with the goods and without giving away the farm.
Besides Divac’s sharp learning curve – and he was tossed into the oven when Pete D’Alessandro and Chris Mullin split before the end of the tumultuous 2014-15 season – some of this can be attributed to the influence of assistant GM Brandon Williams, who was hired last summer after Scott Perry bolted to become the Knicks’ GM.
“We’re a good team,” Divac said. “We have good chemistry, and (assistant GM) Ken (Catanella) is on the other side, with the numbers. Brandon brings organizational skills, experience from his time in the NBA office, and he knows the rules. We work well together.”
Williams, 42, is unlike any other past or present Kings front office type. He is a part of the new generation of dynamic young executives who grew up with mobile devices in hand and analytics on the brain. The other Northern California resident who played for Bob McKillop at Davidson – the one not named Steph Curry – played overseas and in the development league before accepting a job at league headquarters in Manhattan.
As part of his duties under former Commissioner David Stern and current NBA boss Adam Silver, Williams was instrumental in establishing a players’ dress code and creating the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J. Additionally, he somehow found time to shuttle between Manhattan and Rutgers’ Law School, where he earned a degree in three years.
He was lured by the Philadelphia 76ers to run their D-League team in 2013 by then-GM Sam Hinkie, and was retained when Hinkie was replaced by Bryan Colangelo. Divac, who offered him the No. 2 spot in basketball operations last summer, sees himself and Williams as a yin and yang of Sacramento hoops. His implicit and increasing trust in Williams was apparent during Friday’s news conference that addressed the decisions to trade George Hill and Malachi Richardson, and waive Papagiannis.
After his opening comments, Divac, who speaks with a heavy Serbian accent and occasionally gets tripped up by the language barrier, repeatedly turned to his assistant for a more elaborate explanation.
“We talk among teams,” said Williams, “among front offices, and the question was: So where are you guys as opposed to us? Two teams retooling. ‘Are you guys all-in on the young guys or would you take vets from us?’ We believe in our young guys. We’ve talked a lot about knowing our roster. Now is an opportunity to take another step. Get more minutes, more opportunities (for the youngsters), and sort of commit to the development over the back end of the season. Everything we do now – call it phase two – start to establish and understand our core. The next big thing for us is the draft.”
Although Papagiannis was a disappointment and Labissiere is experiencing a sophomore slump, there is reason to be encouraged about the other recent draft picks. Cauley-Stein has become a more consistent presence, and Fox, Mason and Jackson are showing promise. Harry Giles (knees), one of the three first-round picks last summer, has yet to enter a game, but his upside is enormous. Bogdanovic and Hield, both obtained in trades, have solidified the confounding two-guard spot.
Without a first-round pick in 2019 – unwisely relinquished to the 76ers during Divac’s opening weeks on the job – the pressure to draft wisely in June is considerable. The Kings can ill afford another Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore or Papagiannis, mistakes that spanned three different front office regimes.
The free agent landscape presents another challenge. After a huge increase in the salary cap (from $63 million in 2016-17 to $99 million this season) triggered an unprecedented flurry last summer of player movement and massive contracts, next year’s cap is only projected to bump up to $101 million, casting a chilling effect on opportunities and earnings.
According to ESPN, only seven teams are expected to have significant cap room this offseason. But the Kings are hoping to crash the party. The swap of Hill for Iman Shumpert alone trims the overall team salary by about $8 million. With the expiring contracts and the possibility that Garrett Temple ($8 million) or Kosta Koufos ($8 million) could opt out of the final year of their deals, that number could exceed $27 million.
“We’re looking to be tactile,” said Williams. “Go back just a little in time. No flexibility. Fifteen guarantees (contracts). So you can’t even listen. Teams don’t call because they know you can’t do anything.”
Divac, who plans to push his younger players into a “fifth or sixth gear” for the duration of the season, has no intention of slowing down. “We had a plan to continue to put ourselves in situations where we can develop our young guys and have flexibility in the summer with roster spots and salary cap,” he said. “I think we did just that.”