Draft Free agency Trades

NBA Team-Building Court, Part One

Prosecuting the case against the league's worst offenders

NBA roster construction is an inexact science. Every front office makes mistakes. No one bats a thousand. But when looking at the teams who frequent the top of the standings, a theme emerges: consistently sound decision-making and long-term planning, sprinkled with occasional lightning strikes of good fortune. The Raptors, Heat, Thunder, Celtics, Spurs, and Warriors have all made hay over entire eras of NBA history by simply sticking to a solid team-building philosophy and putting themselves in position to get lucky and/or pounce when an opportunity presents itself.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, the teams lacking front office continuity, a consistent strategy, or both. These teams frequently draft poorly, bungle simple transactions, misapprehend value, and generally make decisions in a haphazard fashion which relegates them to the lottery year after year. Well, guess what? We’ve had enough of their bumbling and malfeasance. We’re taking them to court to defend themselves for crimes against their fan bases.

Welcome to team-building court, Judge Culligan presiding.

Here’s how it works. Since it’s my column, I am not only judge, jury, and executioner; I’m also the prosecution and the defense. I will make the case for and against each team’s “strategy,” and then render a verdict based on the facts. First on the docket: an Eastern Conference team which has been trapped in purgatory for over a decade.

DETROIT PISTONS

Backstory: From 2001 to 2008, the Pistons were one of the league’s elite, inner circle contenders. Over those seven seasons, they ground out a 384-190 regular season record (.669 winning percentage), made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in six straight years, and played in two NBA Finals, winning one in 2004 with a team still remembered fondly by many basketball purists. Team President Joe Dumars was considered one of the bright, young stars among front office executives. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold during those years. [OK, except for Darko.]

After 2008, however, the team’s fortunes shifted, and its troubles began. With the championship core aging, Dumars swung for the fences, trading former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups (primarily) for Allen Iverson. The Answer was mostly washed, and Detroit limped into the Playoffs with a 39-43 record, losing in the first round. That ’08-’09 year was the beginning of a long, slow descent into putrescence for the franchise. They’ve cracked the playoff field only twice since, bowing out in the first round each time. Detroit has drafted in the top-10 five times since then (and nine total times in the top-20), with little to show for it. A series of disastrous trades and free agency signings has piled on additional misery. Dumars “resigned” in 2014 and was replaced by the combination of Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bowers, who didn’t have a whole lot better luck. They were let go in 2018 and replaced by Ed Stefanski, who still runs the team at present. Regardless of who has been at the helm, it’s been a tough decade. Let’s go through the receipts.

The Case Against: The draft can obviously be a crapshoot, and they’ve had no lottery luck since the original sin of Darko back in 2003. Even so, the record is pretty grim for a team which has had as much draft capital on-hand as Detroit. Here are the notable picks since 2009:

  • 2009: 15th overall – Austin Daye; 39th overall – Jonas Jerebko
  • 2010: 7th overall – Greg Monroe
  • 2011: 8th overall – Brandon Knight; 33rd overall – Kyle Singler
  • 2012: 9th overall – Andre Drummond; 39th overall – Khris Middleton. [OK, not bad that year!]
  • 2013: 8th overall – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  • 2014: no first rounder due to trade (hold that thought); 38th overall – Spencer Dinwiddie
  • 2015: 8th overall – Stanley Johnson
  • 2016: 18th overall – Henry Ellenson
  • 2017: 12th overall – Luke Kennard
  • 2018: no first rounder due to trade; 42nd overall – Bruce Brown
  • 2019: 15th overall – Sekou Doumbouya

Drummond is a two-time All-Star, and there will be more to say about him, of course. Monroe had some productive years for Detroit before the league moved on from him. Kennard still hasn’t reached his ceiling, and we have no idea what Doumbouya is yet. Jerebko, Singler, Middleton, and Brown were all nice finds late in the draft. Beyond that, woof.

One of the difficult but important parts of this exercise is to not get too far down the rabbit hole of opportunity cost. There is a Butterfly Effect to nearly every NBA transaction, and it’s easy, with hindsight, to say “Well, they could have just drafted [Available Player X] with that pick.” It’s technically true — Kawhi Leonard was sitting there in 2011 when they instead chose Brandon “My basketball career is a couple years away from getting murdered by DeAndre Jordan” Knight — but the whole thing unravels too quickly if we go down that path. So, to simplify things for the member of the jury (again, me), I’ll try to stick to observable effects of the decisions made.

It’s unclear whether the powers that be in Detroit have been poor at evaluating talent, developing it, or both. Monroe and Drummond were relatively obvious value picks at their respective spots, but beyond those two, they’ve simply been unable to extract commensurate value from the first round, regardless of draft slot. [Again, we don’t know with Kennard and Doumbouya yet, but I don’t think I’d bet on Kennard to ever make an All-Star team. Sekou has all the talent in the world, but there are already rumblings about his inconsistent motor, which is a MASSIVE red flag for any raw prospect.]

They haven’t helped themselves in the trade and free agency markets, either. Once again, it’s instructive to go back to the year 2009. Franchise instability often comes from the top — a lot more on that later — and the Pistons were mired in it at the time. Long-time owner Bill Davidson had recently passed away in March of ’09, leaving the team in the hands of his wife, Karen. Dumars had already been in the habit of making win-now moves due to Davidson’s advancing age and the desire to bring him another championship, and his death set the franchise adrift. [It would be two more years before billionaire financier Tom Gores would buy the team from Karen for a shockingly low $325 million, though it’s not as if his tenure as owner has been particularly stable or fruitful, either.]

That summer, Dumars would wade into an odd portion of the free agency pool, signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva for five years each and $58 million and $38 million, respectively. Villanueva was fine, playing out the five-year contract entirely for the Pistons as a respectable role player. Gordon, however, wore out his welcome in Detroit, and after the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Dumars dumped Gordon’s contract (along with a 2014 first-rounder as sweetener) to Charlotte in exchange for the rotting corpse of Corey Maggette. The pick would end up 9th overall, and Noah Vonleh was selected in what has in retrospect turned out to be an ugly draft. This particular move didn’t come back to bite them hard, but it was a bad piece of business which portended more to come.

The 2013-14 season is when things truly went off the rails, and it spelled the end for Joe Dumars. In the summer of ’13, coming off a 29-win campaign, Detroit used its cap space to sign 27-year-old Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million free agent contract. It was semi-defensible at the time, even if the fit with young center Drummond was questionable as the league gradually moved into what would become the pace-and-space era. Well, the fit was more than questionable. It was disastrous. J-Smoove would play only 105 total games for Detroit before being waived in December of 2014 using the stretch provision. There was so much money left on his contract that Smith remains on Detroit’s books to this day, counting $5.3 million against the Pistons’ cap in the Year of Our Lord 2020. Only a few weeks later, they would trade the aforementioned Knight to Milwaukee for fellow young-ish, high upside guard Brandon Jennings. As part of the deal, Milwaukee would also receive the rights to something called a Viachesov Kravtsov, as well as Detroit’s little-used second-round pick from the prior year, future two-time All-Star and second-best player on a possible title team Khris Middleton. Ouch.

After a second consecutive 29-win season, Dumars was shown the door, but things didn’t improve much under the new regime. The following season, Van Gundy completed a three-way trade, netting them young, ascendant guard Reggie Jackson from Oklahoma City. The trade itself was fine, except they then re-signed Jackson to a five-year, $80 million extension the following summer. Jackson has battled injuries, ineffectiveness, and a questionable attitude throughout the deal, and was just bought out of the final season last week. In the bat-shit crazy summer of 2016, they handed out a four-year, $41 million contract to noted sharpshooter Jon Leuer. [His shooting is only notable because it’s roughly the only thing he can do on a basketball court. He would clog up Detroit’s cap for three uninspiring seasons before being salary dumped to Milwaukee and waived.] The next move of unfortunate largesse was to throw a five-year max extension at Andre Drummond, including a player option for the final season in ’20-’21. [Hint: this is foreshadowing.]

By the ’17-’18 season, Gores was publicly putting pressure on Van Gundy to move the team towards something resembling contention, causing the Notorious SVG to take his biggest swing. In late January of 2018, Detroit would acquire Blake Griffin from the Clippers in exchange for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 first-rounder, and a 2019 second-rounder. [The 2018 first would land 12th overall and become Miles Bridges, who L.A. would flip into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and eventually, Paul George. One can quibble with the wisdom of the PG trade, but the Clips definitely got their money’s worth out of Detroit’s pick, if nothing else.] The oft-injured Griffin enjoyed a bounce-back season in ’18-’19, being named third-team All-NBA and returning the Pistons to the postseason, though he injured his knee again late in the season and was a shell of himself in Detroit’s first-round whitewashing at the hands of Milwaukee. Whereas last season the gamble may have appeared salvageable, the chickens have come home to roost this year. A clearly compromised Blake played only eighteen games before being shut down in ’19-’20, and his outlook going forward could not be more murky. It’s sad enough to see a player who, at his apex was one of the best and most exciting players in the world, laid low by injuries. Worse for the Pistons is how they never benefited from that version of the player and are now saddled with all the downside. [Namely, an almost-31-year-old, undersized big man who has traditionally relied on his athleticism but will likely never possess it again, and has two years and a shade over $70 million remaining on his contract.]

Even if Blake comes back next season healthy, he may find himself a fish out of water. Under new head honcho Ed Stefanski, the Pistons seem to have finally signaled they are prepared for a full-scale rebuild, but they aren’t even nailing the tear down. The trade deadline would have been a great time to sell off any veteran piece not nailed to the floor, but that didn’t go quite as planned. Detroit signed both Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris to two-year deals this past summer (Kieff’s second year was a player option), yet couldn’t (or wouldn’t) find a deal for either guy at the deadline. Rose has actually had a surprising statistical season, and probably could have been an effective, low-cost third or fourth guard for a contender. [Lakers, I’m looking in your direction.] Instead, they held on to the former MVP to soak up minutes on a 19-40 team going nowhere because…why, exactly?

Markieff has been less effective than D-Rose this season, but is he truly that much less valuable than his twin brother, who makes five times as much and garnered a first-round pick, an expiring contract, and a young prospect from the Clippers? Apparently he is, because Detroit bought Morris out last week, allowing him to sign with the Lakers for the rest of the season in a move absolutely everyone could have seen coming. The only other scuttlebutt coming out of Detroit at the deadline was that they were engaged in talks to trade Luke Kennard to Phoenix, which is utterly nonsensical. Along with Doumbouya and perhaps Christian Wood (who we’ll get to), Kennard is about the only player on their entire roster they should be looking to build around as a bridge to whatever the next iteration of a competitive Pistons team looks like. A bad plan is better than no plan at all, but it’s not even clear which column to place the Pistons in right now.

Which, at long last, brings us to Andre Drummond. Was there a reasonable alternative to throwing Drummond the full max back in 2016, even knowing his limitations? Maybe not. It doesn’t make what happened at the deadline any less jarring. Two things stick out to me:

  1. Imagine going back in time and telling a basketball fan from the 80’s or 90’s that a 26-year-old, hyper-athletic, 6-foot-11, 265-lb center who has made two All-Star teams, led the league in rebounding three times, and has no appreciable injury history would be traded in 2020 for what amounts to absolutely nothing.
  2. The Pistons happily gave him a player option on the 5th year back in 2016, and by 2020 were so terrified Drummond — who was averaging a 17.8/ 15.8/ 2.8 on 53% shooting, mind you — would actually exercise it that they were willing to trade him…for absolutely nothing.

Building a contender around Drummond — or maximizing his value as an asset — was always going to involve threading a tiny needle in today’s NBA, but Detroit has done whatever the exact opposite is. They paid him a metric shit-ton of money, sacrificed assets to build a winner around him, failed, and then sold him off for pennies on the dollar. Maybe paying him $28 million to be the same player next year is even worse, but that’s a pretty weak silver lining. The mismanagement of Andre Drummond is simply the logical conclusion of an entire decade of organizational malpractice. Their guilt before this court is manifest. The prosecution rests.

The Case For: This is about as close to a nolo contendere as one can get. The defense may not have a ton to work with here, but not everything has been awful. Dwayne Casey is a solid head coach, and they didn’t repeat the mistake of granting him too much power like they did with SVG. The Monroe and Drummond draft picks were the right moves at the time, even if neither guy ever became the centerpiece they were seeking. The Rose signing was a low-risk, high-reward move. In a vacuum, the trade for Reggie Jackson made sense. The Kennard and Doumbouya picks were defensible given the draft positions. [Yes, the next two picks after Kennard were All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo, but I said we weren’t going to go there, so we’ll give Detroit a pass.]

Stefanski smartly snagged Christian Wood off waivers from the Pelicans over the summer, and the 24-year-old UNLV product has become an extremely productive big for them this season, particularly in the wake of the departures of Drummond and Morris. In ten February games, Wood is averaging 19.3/ 9.0/ 1.4 on 52/39/79 shooting splits in 30.8 minutes a night. He’s shown the athleticism and versatility to play either big man spot, along with burgeoning floor spacing ability. He’s been a real revelation, and the only downside to the Pistons unleashing him is he’s now going to command quite a bit more cash as a free agent this summer.

If there is any saving grace for this franchise, it has been their ability to find diamonds in the rough like Wood, Singler, Jerebko, Middleton (briefly), Dinwiddie, and Brown. Even so, the knack for finding unheralded talent pales in comparison to the high-profile draft busts, panic trades, and ill-advised free agent signings the Pistons have heaped upon their downtrodden fans.

VERDICT: GUILTY AF

SACRAMENTO KINGS

Backstory: The Kings, as you have probably heard, are in the midst of a 13-year postseason drought, and it does not appear the streak is going to end this season. Look, the West is brutal year in and year out, but even so, eight of the fifteen teams make the playoffs in any given season, and every other West franchise has figured out how to build at least one team which doesn’t totally suck during the span. Everyone except the Kangz. How much is bad luck and how much is organizational incompetence? Let’s break down the facts of the case.

The Case Against: As with Detroit, it’s instructive to start with the team’s draft history. In 2006, 2007, and 2008, the Kings used their first-round picks on Quincy Douby (19th), Spencer Hawes (10th), and Jason Thompson (12th), respectively. These were all understandable misses for a team entering its fallow period — for reasons we’ll discuss shortly — after a run of contention. Over the next decade, the ping pong balls would only bounce their way twice (2017 and 2018, though there will be more to say about the ’17 draft), but Sacramento would be “blessed” with a top-10 pick in every single draft (and two in 2017 following the Boogie Cousins trade). Here’s the crux of what they did:

  • 2009: 4th overall – Tyreke Evans; 23rd overall – Omri Casspi
  • 2010: 5th overall – Boogie Cousins; 33rd overall – Hassan Whiteside
  • 2011: 7th overall – Bismack Biyombo (sent to Charlotte in three-team, draft night trade; ended up with Jimmer Fredette); 60th overall – Isaiah Thomas
  • 2012: 5th overall – Thomas Robinson
  • 2013: 7th overall – Ben McLemore
  • 2014: 8th overall – Nik Stauskas
  • 2015: 6th overall – Willie Cauley-Stein
  • 2016: 8th overall – Marquese Chriss (traded to Phoenix for picks 13 and 28, which became Georgios Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere)
  • 2017: 5th overall – De’Aaron Fox; 10th overall – Zach Collins (traded for picks 15 and 20, which became Justin Jackson and Harry Giles)
  • 2018: 2nd overall – Marvin Bagley III; 37th overall – Gary Trent, Jr. (traded to Portland for two future second-rounders)
  • 2019: no first rounder due to trade (trust me, we’ll get to this debacle)

It’s only fair to give credit where it’s due. Tyreke Evans became the Rookie of the Year in a draft class also featuring James Harden, Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jrue Holiday. [Reke has since become something else entirely, but let’s set that aside for now.] Cousins has as much talent as you’ll ever see in a 5th overall pick, and despite his many foibles, he is a 4x All-Star and 2x All-NBA selection. Those don’t grow on trees. De’Aaron Fox was the correct pick at 5th in 2017, and even with the ongoing trauma he is suffering at the hands of the Kings, still looks the part of a future star. Casspi and Whiteside have outstripped their draft positions, and IT was obviously a home run with the final pick in 2011.

Again, no one slays the draft every year, and Sacramento has had its share of relative successes. But damn, have the failures been colossal. The stretch from 2011 to 2016 is BRUTAL. Six consecutive top-ten picks, not one of whom remains on the roster today. [Yes, Chriss was immediately traded for two guys further down the draft, but neither of them stuck, either.] Three of them are out of the league entirely, and the others are merely fringe rotation players. Giles could still end up being a useful player, but it will probably require a change of scenery. The Kings would be better off if they just kept the 10th pick (which was one of the spoils from the Boogie-to-New Orleans trade). Cousins and Evans both had several productive years for the Kings, but their troubled paths (along with those of Whiteside, McLemore, Stauskas, and Cauley-Stein) beg the question: why can’t Sacramento stop drafting head cases?

The Maloof brothers (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It’s very important to understand when it comes to NBA franchises, ownership sets the tone for everything. Personnel, scouting, spending, fan and media relations — every person in the organization takes his or her marching orders from the top because it’s where the money comes from. [Cue Knicks fans nodding sadly.] Sure, some don’t meddle too much with the decisions of their GMs or Presidents, but you damn well better believe those front office guys know the direction the owner wants to go and what (if any) sort of financial constraints they have on them. We’ll get to how this relates to current owner Vivek Ranadive, but first we have to go back and talk about the Maloofs.

The Maloof family purchased the Kings back in 1998, and operations of the team were handed over to scions Joe and Gavin. At the time, they were running a highly successful casino business in Las Vegas, which would lead to the building of the Palms in 2000. So long as the casinos were thriving, the Maloofs were happy to pour resources into the Kings, which in part led to their successful stretch of play in the early 2000’s under head coach Rick Adelman. Sacramento almost certainly would have won the title in 2002 if not for the, ahem, controversy surrounding the officiating in the Western Finals against the Lakers.

In any case, things began to turn right around 2006. The Maloofs were in a feud with the City of Sacramento over public funding for a new arena, including threats of moving the team to Las Vegas. The front office and Adelman “mutually agreed” he would not return to the team after the ’05-’06 season. And behind the scenes, the Maloofs were slowly going broke. As the Palms began bleeding money, the budget for running the Kings got a corresponding haircut. It is honestly hard to know how much blame to place on former President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie (who ran the team all the way from 1994 up through the sale in 2013) because he was — to borrow a poker term — short-stacked for the entirety of those last seven years.

Because I’m a masochist, I went back through all the personnel transactions the Kings made during that period, and it became utterly necessary to look at each move through this cost-cutting lens. Otherwise, one would only be able to conclude the team was being run by Heath Ledger’s Joker because it almost appeared as if creating anarchy was the whole point. They signed zero notable free agents, which makes sense when one views them as a failing business rather than a professional sports team attempting to compete for titles. Petrie systematically sold off all of the highly paid veterans who formed the core of the earlier contending teams in exchange for pupu platters of journeymen and non-premium draft picks. Any young player they acquired who became good enough to warrant real money (Kevin Martin, Carl Landry, John Salmons) was immediately shipped off for something cheaper and, generally speaking, less useful on the court. [A washed-up Salmons would later be re-acquired by Sacramento in 2011 as part of the draft night Biyombo-for-Jimmer trade. Good God, there’s a lot wrong with that sentence.] The players they took back in trades, even ones who could actually play, would often be bought out of their contracts shortly thereafter to further trim costs.

It was an untenable way to run a franchise, and the results bore it out. The Kings went 187-371 from ’05-’06 through ’12-’13, when Ranadive and the “Sacramento group” bought the team following the Maloofs unsuccessful attempt to sell the team to the “Seattle group” led by Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen. [Think about the Butterfly Effect there for a second.] That 2012-13 season was particularly chaotic, as the team continued to flail on the court (28-54) while Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (!) worked to come up with local investors for the team and a new arena in order to defeat the relocation bid from the Seattle group. Ultimately, the NBA Board of Governors voted against the relocation, and the Maloofs agreed to sell to the Ranadive group the next day, paving the way for the next generation of Kings’ dysfunction.

Mike Malone, Pete D’Alessandro, and Vivek Ranadive (Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Explaining the team’s failures during the Ranadive regime is a bit more complicated. The Maloofs were a decidedly old school ownership situation. Casino magnates who suddenly weren’t so wealthy anymore (and perhaps never were as wealthy as they liked to appear) is a simple enough narrative to understand. An Indian-born tech mogul who was previously a minority owner of the Warriors and came to the league with a much more modern (some would say strange) conception of both basketball and corporate governance is quite the opposite. Ranadive came into the job with the perfectly reasonable notion of hiring and empowering the smartest people, but as with most any profession, there has been a learning curve.

The first thing he did was hire a new head coach in Mike Malone, who Ranadive knew from his time as an assistant with the Warriors. And you know what? That’s a great hire! Malone is an excellent basketball mind, as his current tenure with the Nuggets is proving. But the new owner made a crucial mistake in his order of operations. He hired Malone while Geoff Petrie was still running the team, even though Ranadive had every intention of replacing the old head honcho with his own choice. Sure enough, within two weeks, the team announced it would hire Pete D’Alessandro (formerly a deputy in Denver’s front office; hold that thought) as its new GM. Problem is, there is no evidence D’Alessandro actually wanted Malone to be the coach of the team, and someone as business-savvy as Ranadive should have realized immediately taking decision-making power out of the hands of your new chief executive isn’t the best way to foster organizational harmony.

Regardless, D’Alessandro set to the task of remaking the roster. He quickly pulled off a three-team sign-and-trade to send restricted free agent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans in lieu of matching the 4-year, $44 million offer sheet the Pels were preparing to tender. The return wasn’t massive, but at least it was something for a player who clearly didn’t factor into the team’s long-term plans. [Based on the injuries, ineffectiveness, and off-court troubles that have befallen Evans since, it’s fair to call this one a win for Sacto.]

In December, the Kings took a big swing, trading for highly-paid-but-possibly-overvalued swingman Rudy Gay from Toronto. The move was a signal the Kings were ready to spend again to improve the team, though it didn’t do a whole lot in that regard. [The Kings were 6-13 at the time of the trade; they would go 22-41 thereafter to finish at 28-54 yet again. Conversely, Toronto was 7-12 when the trade was consummated, and would go on to finish the season at 48-34, make the playoffs for the first time in six years, and be a fixture in the postseason each season thereafter. It also should be noted the Raptors’ new GM that season was Masai Ujiri, who happened to be D’Alessandro’s boss in Denver, and has done some notable things since.]

The decision-making would only get more bizarre from there. In the ’13-’14 season, diminutive scoring machine Isaiah Thomas — who, you’ll remember, the Kings smartly plucked with the final pick in the 2011 draft — had come into his own, averaging a 20/3/6 on 45/35/85 shooting in 35 minutes a game. So in the summer of ’14, naturally the team decided to bestow a 3-year, $15 million contract on lesser player Darren Collison, then trade Thomas to Phoenix for Alex Oriakhi and a trade exception. [In other words, nothing.] Within three seasons, IT would be a two-time All-Star and the best player on a Celtics team which was a few bounces from knocking off LeBron and going to the NBA Finals. Collison played out his contract with the Kings and was…fine, I guess.

Despite the odd personnel choice, Sacramento began the ’14-’15 season with a glimmer of hope. By December, the Kings were 11-13, a pretty respectable record for a franchise which had by now been a steaming pile of dog crap for a solid eight years. To commemorate the occasion, D’Alessandro decided he should…fire Mike Malone? Yup, the coach the GM never wanted was told to kick rocks, and trust me, it made absolutely no sense at the time, either. After a summarily terrible 7-21 stint by interim coach Ty Corbin, D’Alessandro revealed his “masterstroke,” hiring his former Denver colleague George Karl as the new head coach in February.

Even without the hindsight of Karl’s eventual 44-68 record as Kings’ coach, it was clear by this time D’Alessandro was simply unfit for his position. The former political consultant had made a habit of leaking negative information to the press about players, Malone, and even Ranadive himself. In March, the owner liquidated the front office but spared Karl, possibly as a face-saving PR move. Then, in place of manifestly terrible hire D’Alessandro, the managerial wizard who vowed to hire people smarter than him brought in…Vlade Divac. There can be value in keeping things in-house, but the former Kings’ center is by no means the first name one would bring up in a discussion of which ex-player should be tasked with running a franchise.

Vlade’s inexperience would be exploited in short order. In July 2015, Divac made his first significant move as GM, and it completely beggars belief. Seeking cap relief, for some reason Vlade thought the ideal trade partner was the Patron Saint of Absorbing Bad Contracts in Exchange for Assets himself, former Sixers’ GM/Process enthusiast Sam Hinkie. Look, NBA teams frequently execute trades where they get nothing of real value in order to shed salary. Sometimes it’s even the right thing to do. But what the Sixers and Kings did in July of 2015 might be the single dumbest, most lopsided trade in NBA history. And unlike many idiotic trades which kind of get lost to history because everything basically evens out or the impact is muted, the ramifications of this deal will be felt for at least the next decade, if not longer.

In the deal, Sacramento sent Carl Landry, Nik Stauskas, and Jason Thompson to Philly, along with swap rights on their 2017 first-round pick, and an unprotected 2019 first-round pick. In exchange, Sacramento opened up about $16 million in cap space and received the draft rights to international “prospects” Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic, neither of whom ever played a single minute of NBA basketball. [Some intrepid NBA fan should create a game called “Six Degrees of the Idea of Arturas Gudaitis.” Seriously, look at how many NBA players he has been tangentially involved with in trades. Could we work our way back to George Mikan or Bill Russell? My head hurts.]

Why were the Kings so desperate to open up cap space that they would willingly endanger multiple future drafts, you ask? Obviously because they had already come to verbal agreements with free agent needle-movers Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos, and Omri Casspi, none of whom they had the cap space to absorb. It’s OK, though, because the signings helped the Kings transform from a 29-win laughingstock in 2014-15 into a 33-win powerhouse in 2015-16.

So what did this quick injection of “talent” cost the Kings? After a decade of dodging having their number called in the draft lottery like they were — oh, nevermind — their luck finally changed in 2017, when Sacramento jumped up to the #3 spot. Unfortunately, the Sixers, who had drawn the 5th spot, owned the swap rights on the pick, which they obviously exercised. Boston drew the top pick, one of the last vestiges of another disastrous trade, the 2013 deal which sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. Based on what transpired, we know the Celtics coveted Duke’s Jayson Tatum, and felt he would still be available at no. 3 overall, so they struck a deal with Philly to move back to that spot. The Sixers got the no. 1 pick and would select Markelle Fultz. [For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter how that turned out, but yeah…yikes.] In exchange, Boston got the 3rd pick — which should have belonged to Sacramento — and another future first-round pick. The deal was structured such that the additional pick was a 2018 Lakers’ first-rounder Philly owned, but if the pick didn’t fall between nos. 2 and 5 (which it ultimately did not), it would convert to the 2019 Sacramento first-rounder, which Philly also received in the cosmically stupid 2015 trade.

The Kings would select Fox with the 5th pick in 2017, and his development was a big driver in pushing Sacto towards something resembling competence in ’18-’19, which thankfully allowed the unprotected pick they owed Boston to drop all the way to 14th overall (the Celtics selected Romeo Langford, who is now beginning to get rotation minutes for a contender). Again, the Butterfly Effect complicates any analysis of this, but what on Earth happens if Philly doesn’t have that pick swap in its pocket in 2017? Would Boston have any interest in trading the no. 1 pick, knowing Tatum probably wouldn’t be there at 5? What happens to Fultz and Fox in that scenario? What about Lonzo Ball? Do the Kings still end up with the no. 2 pick in 2018, since their ’17-’18 record would likely have been different? Weirdly, it ended up costing the Sixers the most, as if the basketball gods were not about to let the clever kid prosper from conning the dumb kid out of his lunch money. [The gods were unavailable for comment on why they continue to allow the Celtics to get away with this shit. There is no justice.]

Anyway, the Kings sucked yet again in ’15-’16, which gave Vlade cover to fire George Karl, as one suspects he had wanted to do from the moment he was hired. Somehow, Sacramento stumbled into another good hire, tapping former Memphis head coach Dave Joerger. They pulled another Homer in the 2016 draft, trading the rights to Marquese Chriss (who is bad) to Phoenix for the rights to Georgios Papagiannis (also bad) and Skal Labissiere (ditto), but in the process getting the rights to top Euro prospect Bogdan “Double Bogey” Bogdanovic (who is good!).

In spite of these minor victories, it was lather, rinse, repeat to begin the ’16-’17 season. Divac once again burned their cap space on multi-year deals for roster flotsam (Arron Afflalo, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Tolliver), and the team sleepwalked to another disappointing 32-50 finish. In February, facing the reality of having to either offer disgruntled star DeMarcus Cousins a maximum extension the following summer or risk eventually losing him for nothing, the Kings showed a surprising bit of self-awareness and shipped Boogie to New Orleans at the trade deadline. The package they received in return was headlined by young sharpshooter Buddy Hield and a 2017 first-round pick, which would become Zach Collins (who they flipped for Justin Jackson and Harry Giles). Given the questionable leverage they held and what has become of Cousins’s career since, it turned out to be a pretty good piece of business for the Kings, as star trades go.

Would Boogie’s career have played out differently had he been drafted by an organization which could better accentuate his unique strengths and help him mature beyond his mistakes rather than exacerbating them? Hard to say, but why would we give them the benefit of the doubt when the Kings’ franchise is the common thread in the stories of so many highly drafted busts?

With the Boogie drama in the rear view and high-character youngin’ Fox on board, things were surely looking up, right?

In the summer of ’17, Vlade would once again flush cap space down the toilet, this time throwing massive overpays at George Hill and a washed Zach Randolph. Fox struggled to acclimate as a rookie, and the team limped to yet another twenty-something win season, finishing 27-55 in ’17-’18. Lottery luck would strike twice, this time granting the Kings the 2nd overall pick in the 2018 draft. They would get to keep the pick this time, but instead of spending it on Euroleague MVP and manifestly generational talent Luka Doncic, Sacramento chose athletic power forward Marvin Bagley III out of Duke. I know I said we wouldn’t go down the “what if” rabbit holes, but this one doesn’t require much imagination. It was the obviously wrong pick at the time, and the Kings have chosen to double- and triple-down on the decision, even as Luka has rapidly blossomed into one of the league’s brightest stars, while Bagley has alternated between being injured and looking out of place in the modern NBA game.

[A quick aside, only because it helps illustrate how deeply the rot of organizational dysfunction seeps into everything. In November, rumors began circulating Vlade chose not to draft the Slovenian wunderkind because he disliked Luka’s father, Sasa Doncic. It remains unclear if there is any truth to the rumor, but given how little regard fans and people around the league have for Sacramento’s decision-making, it certainly feels like a thing that could be true. Without going too far into 1990’s Balkan geopolitics, my theory is, and has always been, this: people from former Yugoslavian countries simply do not like people from other former Yugoslavian countries. I’m not judging them; civil war and ethnic cleansing will tend to leave some pretty hard feelings. Vlade, a Serbian, and Sasa, a Slovenian, were both young men when the fighting broke out in the early 90’s, and (at least rhetorically) would have been on opposite sides of the conflict. Vlade may not have anything against Luka’s father specifically; he might just generally not care for Slovenians. It doesn’t excuse passing on a can’t-miss future Hall of Famer, but perhaps it helps explain it. Anyway: #KANGZ.]

In the summer of ’18, Vlade signed fellow Serbian Nemanja Bjelica to a rare savvy free agent deal after Bjelica spurned the Sixers in favor of the Kings. [At the time, Philly employed Croatian star Dario Saric. Take that for data.] At the trade deadline, the Kings would further gum up the frontcourt by trading for Harrison Barnes from Dallas. Bringing in two competent vets who fit best at the 4 is fine in a vacuum, but it also served to take developmental opportunities away from Bagley, which flew directly in the face of the rationale for drafting him over Doncic in the first place. [The Kings have repeatedly claimed they didn’t draft Luka because he would have hindered Fox’s development as their primary ball handler.]

Lack of internal logic aside, the Kings finally (FINALLY) showed some real progress in ’18-’19, jumping up to 39 wins and competing for a playoff spot until the latter stages of the year. Fox made a leap in his sophomore season, Barnes proved a solid fit, Hield and Bogdanovic both enjoyed breakout campaigns, and the team as a whole was a fast-paced, entertaining League Pass blur. With things at last trending in the right direction, it was naturally time to…fire the coach? Yup, you read that right. After the team’s most successful season since the George W. Bush administration, Vlade, Vivek, and Co. decided the best course of action was to can Dave Joerger and bring in Luke Walton, who had spent the prior three years stinking it up as coach of the Lakers. Shortly after announcing the Walton hire, news broke of a pending civil suit against him for sexual assault stemming from a 2014 encounter. [The suit would later be dropped.] It’s worth bringing up, not to smear Walton or infer the Kings did something morally wrong by hiring him, but merely to point out how the lack of vetting of an important hire fits the pattern of an organization which seems to go out of its way to avoid doing its due diligence at nearly every turn.

The Kings haven’t given back ALL of the gains from last season in ’19-’20 (they’re on pace for about 36 wins), but from a roster perspective, it’s been the same old story. Once again, they overspent on non-impact free agents, inking Harrison Barnes, Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph, and Trevor Ariza to a combined $188 million worth of contracts. [Dedmon and Ariza would be shipped out at the trade deadline, with Atlanta somehow collecting two extra second-round picks to take back the disgruntled Dedmon. It’s time to wrap this up because my neck is beginning to ache from shaking my head so much.] They played a wildly unnecessary game of contractual chicken with franchise cornerstone Hield before eventually inking him to a four-year, $86 million extension. If that didn’t ruffle Hield’s feathers enough, Walton then proceeded to move him to a bench role halfway through this season, elevating restricted free agent-to-be Bogdanovic (also Serbian!) to the starting five. They made a great move by signing 24SS favorite Richaun Holmes to a team-friendly deal, but not in their wildest imaginations did they think he would have the sort of impact he has.

This is all a long-winded way of saying, the more things change for the Kings, the more they stay the same. Yes, they have real building blocks in Fox, Hield, and Bagley now, but gentleman of the jury, what about the history of this franchise over the last fifteen years suggests they won’t also squander these talents as they have done with so many others?

The prosecution rests, and if it please the court, I would like to go take a long, hot shower.

The Case For: The evidence is incontrovertible, so I’ll just do the lightning round version of a defense and we can all get out of here. Cousins. IT. Fox. Bjelica. Hield. Holmes. Malone. Joerger. Bogdanovic. Reke, the first time around. Didn’t painfully relocate to Seattle or Las Vegas. That about cover it?

VERDICT: HARVEY WEINSTEIN-LEVEL GUILTY

Stay tuned for future editions of Team-Building Court. There is no shortage of criminal franchises out there to prosecute. [Cue Knicks fans, still nodding.]

0 comments on “NBA Team-Building Court, Part One

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