Sunday Musings: Are the Sacramento Kings tanking?

Chris Jent and Michael Malone on the Kings' bench against the Pelicans. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Tanking is an ugly word.  It’s also the buzzword of the NBA vernacular during the 2013-14 NBA season.  With a draft class stocked with blue-chip athletes, this is the year you want to finish at the bottom of the league in wins.  Not only prevalent, tanking can be obvious and for many teams, a flat-out necessity.

Call it grooming young players or clearing salary space for the future, but teams around the league are lining up to lose with the idea that they may better their chances of landing Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker.

Some teams can’t hide their intentions.  The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz and even the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers are the poster children for an epidemic that is boiling under the surface around the league.

Some of these teams have jettisoned nearly every player on their roster worth their salt and in the case of the 76ers, they have even taken on the contract of a player like Danny Granger, just to get to the salary floor.

Winning is losing and losing is winning, and that’s not how the game is supposed to be played.

The Sacramento Kings have been immune to the talk of tanking for most of the season.  After all, this was a 28-win team a year ago, and that was before a franchise facelift.  The changes made coming into the season looked like upgrades, if not a major overhaul.  And then Pete D’Alessandro started dealing.

There are too many new faces to count.  Only four players remain from last season’s roster and the total number of changes over the last 10 months is shocking.  Change is a built-in excuse.

But the Kings have added talent, not subtracted like their tanking contemporaries.  Rudy Gay is the crown jewel of the Kings’ additions, but Derrick Williams and Reggie Evans are no slouches either.

“Tanking is never going to be a part of our culture, of our DNA,” Malone told reporters during his pre-game interview on Monday.  “Because once you allow that in, then losing is almost acceptable and we don’t want to be about that.”

I believe Malone.  Tanking is against everything that he holds dear.  While his team has not always brought consistent effort, this team averages 101.5 points per game and gives up an average of 103.8.  On most nights, they are considerably better than their 22-40 record would have you believe.  Their -2.3 point differential shows that they’re a lot closer to relevance than the other teams in the bottom half of the NBA’s standings.

This is a team that now is a rough sketch of a playoff contender.  Pieces are still missing, and the foundation of this team is a house of cards, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that this team is closer to competing on a nightly basis than it has been in years.

With Gay and point guard Isaiah Thomas question marks to return next season, a hard reset may still be in the near future, but that is the reality of the NBA.  Both success and failure have a shelf life.  Nothing is ever guaranteed.

When the Kings gave away Marcus Thornton for Evans and a 36-year-old Jason Terry, the murmur of tanking began to build.  When they bought out Jimmer Fredette, it got louder.  But the fact is, this is how a team not making the playoffs has to operate.

In a losing season, the trade deadline marks the moment where you have to consider the future.  Either you are in the hunt or you turn to the youth of your team and build for the next season.

Surprisingly, the Kings are 4-4 since the alleged fix began.  Rookies Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum have been given a bigger role on the team, and the Kings even dabbling with two other experiments in Orlando Johnson and Royce White.

McLemore is struggling to find his way in his first season in the league, while McCallum is looking more and more like a diamond-in-the-rough find for D’Alessandro and assistant general manager Mike Bratz, who pushed hard for the Detroit Mercy product.

It has taken only a handful of games for McCallum to prove that he can play at the NBA level.  He is already being considered for a major role with the Kings next season as a third guard, something that was a complete unknown just two weeks ago.

McLemore, on the other hand, has all the talent in the world and just needs more time on the floor to develop.  His minutes are now completely uninhibited with the trade of Thornton.  His audition for next season is down to 20 games.  Is he ready to be a player next year or do the Kings need to chase a veteran in free agency to bridge the development gap?

This is what the final quarter of a season is supposed to be about for a losing team.  Wins and losses are secondary.  Sifting through talent is paramount.

Adding to this mix, is Evans, who has been a dream.  His hustle and veteran leadership are setting a new standard in Sacramento.  This is the style of player DeMarcus Cousins had been begging for – a blue collared player that does the dirty work.

While not considered a major part of the Thornton deal, Evans is a budget pick-up for this season and next.  He is the right guy for this particular team.  An accidental find that adds more than just raw numbers, Evans is the quintessential role player – something of which the Kings are almost completely devoid.

The goal isn’t to find 13 strong for next season; it’s to mix and match talent and see what might work and what definitely won’t going forward.  The early results on McCallum and Evans are great.  They will be a major part of the 2014-15 Kings roster.

McLemore has a lot more to prove, but there is talent and guarded optimism.

While the tank is in across the NBA, I don’t see it in Sacramento.  Dysfunction?  Yes.  Losing and another trip to the lottery?  Yes.  But the Kings began building for the 2014-15 season the moment the ownership change happened.  This isn’t a lost season; it is a season of rebirth.

The roster is still in flux, but what D’Alessandro and his group have accomplished in changing the direction of this franchise is nothing short of miraculous.  This first go-around may collapse in a heap this summer if things go the wrong direction with Gay and Thomas, but it’s also possible that a top-five pick and a budget role player or two could be added, with this team jumping into the Western Conference playoff race next season.


James Ham

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