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The Sacramento Kings Are Done Waiting

Photo: LM Otero (AP)

The Mavericks traded Harrison Barnes last night, in a transaction that chiefly made news because it happened in the middle of a game and later drew the ire of a man who has casually shipped out entire rosters of his teammates ahead of trade deadlines past. How could an NBA team, LeBron James asked, be so cruel as to pull a player off the court and trade him? What did Harrison Barnes do to deserve this?

Barnes didn’t just leave the Mavs in dramatic fashion, though. He was traded to somewhere (duh), and the aspect of this trade that deserves closer examination is not the mechanics of how Barnes was traded but rather where he’s going. For better or worse, the Sacramento Kings have decided that now is the time to end their unenviable playoff drought, and that Barnes is the man to help them do so. They are close enough to this goal, now, that “what did Harrison Barnes do to deserve this” doesn’t work in this paragraph as well as it did in the previous one, which in itself is great progress.

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The last time the Kings made the playoffs, De’Aaron Fox was eight years old, the global economy had not yet cratered, and LeBron James was just making his playoff debut. Bonzi Wells and Kenny Thomas both played important roles for that team. Twelve years is a long time in the NBA, and none of the players on that ’05-06 team, which lost to San Antonio in the first round in a fairly spirited fashion, have even been in the league for three seasons now. You probably do not need me to tell you that the intervening years have been an utter wasteland.

This year was projected by everyone to be more of the same (ha ha ha) but also somehow worse, given that a moronic trade years ago to clear cap space cost the team an unprotected pick; the players the Kings intended to pay used them for leverage and signed elsewhere, although Kosta Koufos is still in the fold. Unless all the team’s young players came together fast, 2018-19 would have been another season spent splashing around in the toilet, only without the promise of a shot at Zion Williamson at the end of it. It would be, as some bozos smirked, a most Sacramento Kings-ass year.

But, somehow, everything clicked. De’Aaron Fox improved dramatically in his second season, learning to use his NBA-best speed not just to get past his man, but run a cohesive offense based around the spaces he creates. Buddy Hield started putting up Klay Thompson numbers, Marvin Bagley jumped all over everyone, Bogdan Bogdanovic did this, Willie Cauley-Stein decided to try hard during his contract year. The rest of the team fell in place from there.

Every season, there is a team that surprises and charms the league. Young players evolve, everyone stays healthy, and things just work, if only for that one year. The Kings have spent a rebuild that has spanned three presidential terms not ever being that sort of team. Nothing ever worked. Even the DeMarcus Cousins era never featured much in terms of the actual winning of basketball games.

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Sacramento’s rotten history made the nice little start of this season all the more surprising. Weirder still, the Kings have managed to stay in the playoff picture two-thirds of the way into the season. The West was supposed to be a complete bloodbath, and for a while, it was. Then New Orleans and Memphis melted down, Dallas folded it up for the year, LeBron got hurt, and, finally, the Clippers punted on the year in favor of keeping their lottery-protected pick and waiting for the chance to pay Kawhi Leonard. One week ahead of the All-Star break, Sacramento is second in a three-team race for the eighth seed. This is assuming that the Wolves stay in the dumpster and none of the Jazz, Blazers, or Spurs melt down.

It still feels like the other shoe is hovering up there somewhere waiting to drop, but as it stands, the Kings seem prepared to scrap with the Lakers for the right to get shredded by the Warriors in the playoffs. It would have been inconceivable before the season—Sacramento has one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, and it’s only gotten younger since Zach Randolph and Iman Shumpert were traded away—and yet the only thing standing between LeBron James and the final playoff spot is, uhhhhhh, these guys?

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All of which is to say that it is time for the Kings to do what they can to make the playoffs this season. Thirteen years is long enough. It is, if we’re being honest, hilariously too long. Kings fans have not seen meaningful basketball played by the home team this late in the season in a decade, and their schedule finally eases up over the back third of the season.

The two trades made yesterday were both intended to shore up the team through the stretch run. Alec Burks can shoot a bit, and while he’s not nearly the defender Iman Shumpert is, Shumpert also shot 28 percent from the field in January.

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Harrison Barnes is the big piece, and thankfully, the Kings didn’t give up anything of value to get him. Justin Jackson is not very good, and Zach Randolph is 75 years old and hasn’t played all season. The only potential downside to the move is that the Kings would like to re-sign Barnes to a long-term deal, and Barnes is not nearly good enough for the Kings to give him $200 million or anything even near that. With Fox, Hield, and Bagley looking like a formidable core, would Harrison Barnes really be worth committing to for half a decade?

But also: handwringing over possible future cap space is third-order GM cosplay bullshit, and significantly less important than seizing a real chance to end a playoff drought in the NBA. Barnes might not fit the mold of second-best superstar on a championship team, but he doesn’t have to be that. He just has to be better than Justin Jackson and maybe clean up his shot selection a bit. Barnes became something of a punchline in Dallas, where he tried to lead a team as its best player and mostly put forth mediocre results. He won’t be asked to do that in Sacramento.

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The Kings will, lord willing, not slow things down or take the ball out of Fox’s hands so that Barnes can do some cheesy iso nonsense. His role will probably be something closer to the one he had with the Warriors: hit threes, play tough defense, keep the ball moving. The last is the only truly tough ask, since Barnes has never posted a double-digit assist percentage.

Will it work? Who knows! Barnes isn’t a star, and Sacramento has been overachieving all season. The loss of Shumpert might irreparably maim the team’s chemistry, and the mix of young players and overachieving players and overachieving young players could all go to shit very quickly. Young teams are like that, and Going To Shit is kind of an organizational touchstone, here. The brains at FiveThirtyEight only give the team a seven percent chance of making the playoffs, although they do not seem to have factored in the Clippers trade. In my heart, I don’t think the Sacramento Kings have the horses to make the playoffs over a team led by LeBron James, no matter how demoralized that team (and LeBron) might be. But also I have underestimated about the Kings all year. It’s never been more fun to be wrong.

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