Two nights ago, all that stood between the Sacramento Kings and a virtual spot in the playoffs was a home game against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was as much a gimme as you’ll see this side of Philadelphia. Portland was missing Damian Lillard and playing on the second night of a back-to-back; the Kings team had rested for four days. There is a glut of flawed and injured teams contending for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, and the Kings have a rare opportunity to make the playoffs and end the second-longest postseason drought in the NBA. Every game counts.
The Kings being the Kings, they breathlessly pissed the game away in a cavalcade of ill-advised Rudy Gay jumpers to a team led by C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard. God damn it. It would be lot harder to take if it weren’t so unsurprising for the team to build up expectations then trip over themselves spectacularly. At this point, I’m almost numb to it.
This is probably the best team the Kings have had since 2006, when they made the playoffs as an 8 seed and kinda-sorta pushed the 63-19 San Antonio Spurs in a feisty series. It’s also among the most frustrating. These Kings are a truly impressive constellation of fragile egos and ideologues: George Karl, Rajon Rondo, and DeMarcus Cousins are all prickly people with very specific ideas of what the Kings should be, and these visions rarely mesh. The team could orient a slow, post-centric offense around perhaps the best low-post player alive; instead, they play with the fastest pace in the NBA. It’s usually fun to see your team try and run, but not when it actively hampers their chances of winning.
This hair-on-fire style has a few shitty consequences. Boogie simply doesn’t get up the floor fast as everyone else, so he takes a bunch of trailing long jumpers. He’s a surprisingly capable shooter, but he’s a near-generational post player. Making him (or rather, letting him) shoot from the perimeter opens up some driving lanes for him, but it moves him to an area where he can’t fight for offensive rebounds, draw double teams, or dunk on power forwards foolish enough to challenge him.
Pushing the pace also (at least with the starters) cripples their defense. The Kings have a few good individual defenders, but as a unit, they can’t rotate worth a damn, which is only exacerbated by running. Take last night against the Golden State Warriors. All that kept them in the game for a half was Omri Casspi going supernova and some weird early foul trouble from Steph Curry. Once Curry got back in, the Kings inexplicably let him get all kinds of room and, duh, he torched them.
Of course, the bigger story from the game was Cousins throwing a shit fit early in the third quarter that cost the team a chance to lose a close one instead of the blowout it turned into. Cousins’s frustrations with the team are so obvious and acute (especially this season) that almost any slight can spark a tantrum. If he gets blocked too early in the game, or picks up an extra foul or two, he’s almost certainly going to let his frustrations get the better of him.
He struggled with foul trouble all game last night, then after picking up his fifth early in the third quarter, he did some screamin’, hootin’, hollerin’, and shovin’, before pouting his way into the tunnel. It was ugly, and the team quickly tailspun their way into another loss. He should be Sacramento’s leader, not an emotionally fragile button opponents can easily push. I want to give Cousins the benefit of the doubt and blame his volatility on his circumstances, but after six seasons and an All-Star appearance, his bleeding-heart temperament isn’t going away.
At this point, the team has the talent to make the playoffs, but whether or not they have the cohesion to keep from shooting their own dicks off every two weeks is an entirely different question. The GM, coach, and star have never been on the same page this year, and they have a notoriously trigger-happy owner (Vivek Ranadive) who knows nothing about basketball yet insists on meddling with the team. (Ranadive once said this about Nik Stauskas after he drafted him over the protests of his basketball people.) He wants a playoff team for when the new arena opens downtown next year, and in trying to ensure that, he’s likely screwed the team long term.
The Kings play in the least glitzy city in the NBA, they’ve traded a gunny sack full of draft picks for peanuts, and their GM is so bad at trades that Sam Hinkie—Sam fucking Hinkie!—ate his lunch this summer. The team at least signed some competent veterans this summer, but that was only after Sacramento got used for leverage by Wes Matthews, Monta Ellis, and Andrea Bargnani.
Reinforcements aren’t on their way. So if they are to deliver on Ranadive’s vision, it will have to be with this group of malcontents. They’re good enough on paper to make it—when else are you gonna have the benefit of injuries to Anthony Davis, Eric Bledsoe, and almost every member of the Jazz?—but if this group has proved anything, it’s that it’s impossible to tell what they’re going to do.
I want to believe in this team; I want to see Boogie ascend to perennial All-Star starter; I want the Kings have a season where they don’t implode; I want to have playoff basketball back in Sacramento after a decade, even if it’s only a ceremonial decapitation by the Warriors. Nothing this team has done suggests that any of this is going to happen, but the Kings are a deeply weird team, and flawed as they are, they have a few strange turns in them left.
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