Sunday Musings: Sacramento Kings limp to finish
It seems like an eternity since the Sacramento Kings were involved in a playoff race. After an incredible eight-year run of winning from 1999-2006, the Kings have strung together a matching eight-year run of futility. Eight years of subpar basketball, lottery picks and instability.
Like many of the seven seasons before, the 2013-14 season essentially ended long ago, long before mathematical elimination or the trade deadline. The tagline “there’s always next season” has become more of a mantra.
What’s slightly different about this season is that there is finally stability within the Kings organization. We aren’t hearing rumors of relocation, budget moves or coaching changes. For the first time in a long time, this season is just about a losing team and the possibilities that come with the start of an offseason.
Amid a season of widespread tanking, the Kings aren’t intentionally trying to lose games. The players would never go for that. Pride wouldn’t allow that and neither would coach Michael Malone nor general manager Pete D’Alessandro. But that doesn’t mean that they have the tools to win, either.
Isaiah Thomas has missed the team’s last three games with a bruised quad. DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay have also missed time in the second half of the season for one reason or another, while four in-season transactions have robbed Malone of invaluable depth on his bench.
With Thomas out, Malone has handed his team over to rookie Ray McCallum, a second-round pick who spent most of the season either inactive or in Reno. McCallum has done his best under the circumstances, but quantity is expected over quality with regard to his minutes. In other words, he’s expected to play as many minutes as possible, while his level of production is secondary considering there is no backup to play minutes behind him. To put his inexperience in perspective, McCallum has played nearly 26 percent of his career minutes over the last three games.
Flanking McCallum is rookie Ben McLemore. The 21-year-old shooting guard has struggled through his rookie season. His improvement is noticeable of late, but not yet NBA-starter level. Backing up McLemore is Travis Outlaw, a 29-year-old forward who has rarely played shooting guard in his 11-year NBA career.
The Kings have no true backup at the point guard or shooting guard position and two young rookies are running the show.
Could D’Alessandro go out and sign a player to a 10-day contract to help fill in? Sure, but a D-League player isn’t going to change the course of this season. We are well past adding depth that can actually help a team.
The Kings are testing player types. They are turning over every stone in a rebuilding season. They are accepting the fact that this season will be a blight on everyone’s record, and they are doing their best to make this season mean more than the losing record.
Malone hasn’t completely thrown in the towel. Veteran Reggie Evans is still playing minutes at the power forward position despite the presence of younger options. He is giving Jason Thompson a look as a bench post scorer as well, and we already spoke of Outlaw and his new infusion of minutes.
But with nine games remaining, the Kings aren’t sprinting to the finish line. They are crawling. They are gasping for air and praying for the finish line to magically appear.
Malone and his staff are piecing things together and hoping for the best. The Kings know that they have players in Cousins, Gay and Thomas, but they need to develop more pieces.
McCallum and McLemore will continue to get major minutes and so will 22-year-old Derrick Williams. They are now getting a chance to prove that they deserve to be part of the rotation for next year.
This isn’t summer league or training camp; this is real NBA basketball. If experience is what these young players need, then there is no time like the present to give them a look.
It’s not always pretty, but there is a purpose this time around. Malone and his staff are accessing and developing talent for the future, because that is what a team that’s out of the playoff race should be doing with fewer than 10 games remaining in the season.
As we watched losses to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Dallas, keep a bigger picture in mind. This isn’t just about landing another high lottery pick. It’s about piecing together a team that can compete in the coming years. It’s about building long-term stability and taking one for the team.
Malone is playing with the players that have been provided for him by D’Alessandro, who, in turn, brought in the players that he was able to scoop up during a whirlwind first season. There is a lot of work to do going forward, but groundwork is being laid for the long run.
So sit back and understand that what you are watching is not NBA 3.0. It is imperfect basketball, being played by an imperfect roster. And take solace in the fact that there is always next year.