We tackled the Denver Nuggets here yesterday, a team far along and still trudging on its journey to a title few other teams in the league are willing to take – one (unless some unlikely individual development) without any superstars based on depth, versatility, and long and short term financial flexibility. That’s a risk in today’s NBA wrought with SuperTeams, obviously, but Denver and GM Masai Ujiri have the smarts and have assembled the pieces to at least give it a try for a couple seasons as they watch Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Javale McGee, and others grow under the watchful tutelage of George Karl. And that was true even before they flipped Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington for the team’s lone All-Star, Andre Iguodala, a player that fits perfectly within Denver’s up-and-down, frenetic system on both ends.
So the Nuggets are all in on this for better or worse, but given their success in 2012 – pushing the old Lakers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs – it’s reasonable to assume the former, at least in terms of the regular season and a postseason series or two. Some other teams are following Denver’s model whether they know it or not, containing young rosters replete with young talent but without a discernible franchise player. The Sacramento Kings are chief among them, stockpiling translucent players with raw skill but unlike the Nuggets worrying little of roster fit or fiscal concerns. And their confounding off-season did little to answer those prevalent questions their aggressive attitude with regard to player acquisition posed even before last season ended.
Quickly, a rundown of the Kings’ significant offseason moves:
- Drafted power forward Thomas Robinson fifth overall
- Signed combo guard Aaron Brooks to two-year deal
- Traded second-round pick to Toronto for combo forward James Johnson
- Re-signed power forward Jason Thompson to multi-year, six million dollar per-season deal
Most of this screams of typical Sacramento player redundancy and financial irresponsibility, and none of us should be surprised. It’s all exemplified best with the acquisitions of Brooks and Johnson, two players with a history of poor attitudes/work ethic that will do little more to the Kings’ on the floor this season than complicate development for more important pieces.
Brooks was once a very nice player, leading that undermanned 2010 Rockets team to an inspiring playoff run against the eventual-champion Lakers and winning the Most Improved Player award that season, too. But he was dreadful the next season in Houston and then Phoenix, shooting under 40% from the field and 30% from beyond the arc. He spent last season playing in China and reports say he did relatively well there, but that really shouldn’t matter to Sacramento for two simple, glaring reasons: Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette. Sacramento’s 2011 draft picks had glaringly different rookie seasons and the opposite of what their draft positions – 60th for Thomas and 11th for Fredette – suggested. Thomas was awesome for the Kings and is clearly a keeper in some role or another, and has the type of personality and team-first style this organization desperately needs. Fredette, though, was dreadful, compounding on all the questions his college game posed before the draft: can he play without the ball? can he and will he see the floor? is a point guard? can he defend his shadow? The unequivocal answer to those queries was no, and he showed little to suggest he’ll ever come close to justifying his draft position let alone sticking in the league. But you don’t give up on an investment like that, and with Thomas already supplanting Fredette in the rotation the addition of Brooks just doesn’t make sense. Both of these sophomores need playing time and a defined role to hone their games, and Brooks is an older, more injury prone version of what these guys do best – score with the ball, kind of like most every other player on Sacramento’s roster (Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, Donte Greene, and Demarcus Cousins say hi).
Trading for Johnson and re-signing Thompson aren’t moves as questionable as that one, at least until you factor in Sacramento’s selection of Robinson. Johnson has masqueraded as a small forward much of his time in the league but he’s clearly best as a small-ball 4, and the same is true of Thompson – that the Kings were comfortable playing him on the wing at all the last two years is ridiculous. So they added one power forward, re-signed another for multiple years at a pretty steep price against the cap, then drafted one in Robinson (who, it should be noted, has a bright future). But the Kings still have Greene and Travis Outlaw on the roster, too, a tandem of ‘tweeners still best suited to spreading the floor as undersized bigs.
Just what is Sacramento doing? Do they think Cousins is a potential superstar? His combination of size and skill is very, very rare, but mitigating circumstances (all that crazy) indicate that’s unlikely? Evans proved he isn’t last season and seems lost in his development. Robinson? Perhaps an All-Star game or two in a watered down year if things break right, but hardly a franchise player. Thomas? Fredette? Thompson? Please.
The Kings, like Denver, have all these assets, all of these young players who on the surface have value but can’t offer it to Sacramento because of how they fit on the roster with regard to both playing time and style (shoot, shoot, shoot). Then there’s the whole issue of salary cap implications, something it seems they pretty much avoided altogether in compiling this zany group. It’s not necessarily an awful thing for the Kings to be mostly capped out the next couple offseasons (there’s nothing worse than spending just to spend), but it would be a coup for Sacramento if they had more leeway to make moves with all these pieces at the trade deadline. As it is, their collective hands are wound pretty tight in that regard.
So the Kings are the anti-Nuggets with regard to team-building even while seeming to employ the same strategy – a team rife with solid and versatile talent than can overwhelm the opposition with depth. The only problem is that they’re making moves with just the first part of that in mind. Assembling puzzle pieces by itself and throwing them together just isn’t enough to build a winner, a fact best exemplified by all the wheeling and dealing Denver does to make sure players and salaries fir their short and long term goals. Sacramento doesn’t understand that, and in typical Kings fashion will undoubtedly realize it before it’s too late and have to start all over again.