When Vlade Divac left the Sacramento Kings following the 2003-04 NBA season, he took more than just a career average of 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds to the Los Angeles Lakers.
He took with him the heart and soul of this franchise.
Divac was the glue that helped Chris Webber reach his all-world potential. He was the father figure that eased the transition for rookie draft picks like Jason Williams, Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu. He was the reason why the Kings could gamble on players like Vernon Maxwell, Jim Jackson and Keon Clark.
While the Kings didn’t collapse into a fiery mess after Divac retired, they took a step back every season, even with a statistical equal in Brad Miller filling his large shoes.
Nine seasons later, the Kings are still searching for the type of leader that can galvanize this young, talented core. They are still searching for Vlade’s replacement.
Last season, Chuck Hayes was brought in with hopes that he was the type of personality the Kings needed to help influence a shaky locker room. The 29-year-old big man came in with a reputation as a team-first guy that played much bigger than his 6-6 frame, both on and off the court.
Hayes came to camp out of shape and quickly had his contract voided when a major health concern threatened to end his career. Hayes returned, but he was far behind the curve. Eight games into the season, he dislocated a shoulder and missed 11 games, again, setting back his physical conditioning.
By the time the lockout-shortened season was over, Hayes was a mere afterthought in the Kings’ rotation.
Jason Thompson had stolen away Hayes’ starting role and showed enough growth to land a five-year extension this offseason. And with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Kings selected Thomas Robinson out of Kansas.
If Thompson is the present and Robinson is the future, where does that leave Hayes?
The Kings are still hoping to salvage something out of the remaining three seasons and $17 million remaining on Hayes’ contract, but there are no promises in this situation.
Even at his best, Hayes is an undersized power forward with a very limited offensive game. While Divac was able to galvanize the roster, he did it from the floor as an unselfish cog in one of the most incredible offenses the game has ever seen.
Being a leader at the NBA level means contributing to the product on the floor. The sidelines are for coaches, not the heart and soul of a team.
Missing from the players’ only camp this summer was a set of veterans, most noticeably Hayes and John Salmons. If the Kings have any hope of getting their money’s worth out of Hayes, they need to see it on day one of training camp. They need to see a leaned down version that is healthy and ready to compete.
If Hayes can’t fight his way onto the court, he has no hopes of being the leader the Kings paid good money for last December. He has no chance of being the next Vlade Divac, something this young team desperately needs.