After missing the playoffs eight consecutive seasons and finishing with a 28-54 record for the second year in a row, there were plenty of reasons for the Kings’ “repeat” performance: Sluggish offense. Shaky defense. Too little passing. Too many blown opportunities on the home court.
Dare we play it again?
Here is a brief look back at a few of the events, issues, developments and decisions that left the Kings staring at sunsets and out of the playoffs:
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• The May 31 timing of the sale from the Maloofs to the group headed by Silicon Valley software tycoon Vivek Ranadive would have been a complete nightmare except that everyone was still dazed and delighted the team remained in Sacramento. With the NBA draft only weeks away, the new regime was rushed into the delicate and difficult process of assembling a front office, hiring a coach and adding scouts and trainers while physically moving into the building.
The traditional approach, of course, is to hire a general manager, who then oversees all basketball operations and selects the coach. But Ranadive went maverick here: He hired Warriors assistant Michael Malone as his head coach on June 3, essentially thrusting a rookie coach into the role of de facto general manager until Pete D’Alessandro was named GM 12 days later.
• Was Malone a mistake? After 12 years as a highly respected NBA assistant, he certainly deserved an opportunity. And he controlled the locker room even during the shakiest of times. His players respect his candor, work ethic and personal warmth. But if Ranadive had hired his GM first and waited a few weeks before choosing his coach, several established and experienced candidates would have been available, among them George Karl, Nate McMillan and Lionel Hollins.
The larger issue, perhaps, is philosophical. Malone is rooted in defense and surrounded by offense-minded executives. Whether a split-decision household can succeed and endure – even assuming the Kings have a very productive offseason – remains to be seen. For now, though, Ranadive is committed to improving the roster and giving Malone every opportunity to own the job.
• Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum were drafted with the seventh and 36th picks, and both had their rookie moments. Check back after three seasons. McLemore would benefit from a more fluid offense and the presence of a facilitator. McCallum’s jumper is erratic, but his intelligence and on-ball defense were impressive, particularly in the closing weeks.
• Signing DeMarcus Cousins to a four-year contract extension for maximum money on Sept. 30 accomplished a few things. It demonstrated early that Ranadive has deep pockets and a brave heart, and it secured the presence of one of the league’s most gifted young big men. Apart from the ongoing demeanor issues, Cousins, 23, had a tremendous season.
The pre-emptive move (extension) enables the Kings to spend the current offseason resolving the other personnel issues, which means the search for a playmaker or facilitator and rim protector continues. Isaiah Thomas once again outplayed his teammates and forced his way into the starting lineup, but his perimeter defense is poor, and he is a natural scorer, not a playmaker. Thomas’ ideal role is that of a sixth man, a Jamal Crawford, off-the-bench scorer. And that rim protector? Still looking.
• The front office of D’Alessandro, Mike Bratz and Chris Mullin made an unusual number of personnel moves, repeatedly manipulating the roster to shed salary, create cap space and audition players. Dumping the contracts of Chuck Hayes and John Salmons in the Rudy Gay deal was probably the most impressive maneuver. But signing free agent Carl Landry to a multi-year deal remains questionable – how many undersize power forwards does one team need? – and failing to land Robin Lopez in the July 10 three-team deal that sent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans for Greivis Vasquez was an obvious mistake. Lopez, who is having a career year in Portland, could have played alongside Cousins or backed him up at center.
The inordinate number of in-season moves is reflected in the stats and the win-loss record. Defensively, the Kings ranked near the bottom in points allowed, field-goal percentage, blocked shots and steals while allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from the three-point line. Offensively, they finished last in assists, with the slow-paced offense too often characterized by turnovers, dribbling and one-on-one play.
So there it was, Year One, the tipoff of the Ranadive Era. Without the relocation issue hovering, with the coaches and executives in place, the Kings will finally have an offseason to fixate on fixing the product.