I’m going to start here by apologizing to Sacramento Kings fans. It gives me no joy to throw you under this bus.
Seriously, it doesn’t. The last time the Kings were relevant in the championship picture, the Rockets were not. Of course, that points to how long the Kings have been irrelevant.
Since I have no formal training in grief counseling or therapy of any kind, I won’t waste any more words consoling you. Please take these iconic words from the late, great Robin Williams to heart:
The Kings haven’t just been bad - they’ve been historically bad. In fact, their active 16-year playoff drought is the longest in NBA history.
By now, the Kings have become a bogeyman for fans of rebuilding teams. It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot: “That’s how you become the Kings”.
Tank for too many seasons in a row? That’s how you become the Kings. Sign veterans to make a play-in run before your young team is ready? That’s how you become the Kings! Draft for fit? That, too, is how you become the Kings. In all reality, here’s how you become the Kings:
The Kings are an outlier case. When we talk about rebuilding NBA teams, the Warriors come up a lot on the opposite end of the spectrum. Without fail, someone will (correctly) point out that we really can’t turn to the Warriors for an instructive example. They’ve made all the right decisions, and everything has gone right for them.
Fair. We can’t point to the Kings either. Becoming them requires consistent incompetency that’s so impressive that it feels deliberate. The recent history of the Kings is a comedy of errors.
A brief history of failure
For the purposes of this piece, we’re looking at the post-DeMarcus Cousins Kings. It’s something of a miracle that the Kings managed to avoid the playoffs during the Cousins era. They picked him fifth overall in 2010, one year removed from taking Tyreke Evans with the fourth overall pick.
Those were both good decisions. Through a combination of injuries and personal issues, they just didn’t work out for the Kings. The organization was a victim of bad luck through that era, but since trading Cousins, they’ve been the victims of nothing but their own ineptitude.
In the 2015 draft, the Kings selected Willie Cauley-Stein with the sixth overall pick. Myles Turner, Devin Booker, and Terry Rozier were all on the table. In the following draft, they chose Marquese Chriss with the eighth overall pick, passing on Jakob Poeltl, Domantas Sabonis, Malik Beasley, Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam, and Dejounte Murray.
(Edit: it’s been pointed out to me that the Kings traded Chriss on draft night - for Georgios Papagiannis. I’d forgotten this detail, but if you’re familiar with Papagiannis’s career, it only strengthens my argument)
Granted, either of those choices was defensible at the time. Many of the best players listed here were late-round steals, so the Kings were far from the only team to pass on them. Moreover, Sacramento made a fine choice in De’Aaron Fox in 2017. They could have had Donovan Mitchell or Bam Adebayo, but at least they didn’t pick a lemon.
On the other hand, in 2018...
A franchise-altering decision gone wrong
Want to know how you become the Kings? You take Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic.
Building through the draft is all about the value returned in relation to the investment made. An average franchise gets an average return on their investment - their second overall pick plays like a second overall pick. Well-ran franchises get a strong return on their investment - their 17th overall pick plays like a 5th overall pick (yes, this is Tari Eason propaganda).
Furthermore, this same draft offers some reassurance. It proves that you don’t have to be perfect. The Phoenix Suns erred in selecting Deandre Ayton over Doncic too, yet their rebuild has gone fairly well. You can afford to make missteps, you just can’t afford to make colossal errors.
The Kings made one by taking Marvin Bagley III with the second overall pick. They didn’t simply pass on Doncic, either. Avert your eyes if you’re squeamish, but the Kings could have had Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaren Jackson Jr., or Mikal Bridges. Heck, 41st overall pick Jarred Vanderbilt has been more productive than Bagley.
Yes, hindsight is 20/20. Plenty of mock drafts had Bagley III over Doncic at that time. Regardless, the point stands: the Kings repeatedly made wrong choices in the lottery. Fool me once, shame on you, draft community: fool me three times, and maybe I need a new scouting department.
The Rockets are on pace to do better
Frankly, it’s too early into Rafael Stone’s tenure to make declarative statements about his abilities as a general manager. As of now, I think the range of possibilities runs from “roughly average” to “utter genius”.
That’s a wide berth, but here’s the good news: “incompetent buffoon” is off the table. That’s what you’ve got to be to “become the Kings”.
Whether you’re sold on Alperen Sengun as a cornerstone or not, there’s no denying that his talent level exceeds that of a typical 16th overall pick. For that matter, the same can be said about Josh Christopher at 24th. It’s too early to declare Stone a draft genius, but we can at least conclude that he doesn’t draft poorly.
Meanwhile, Stone didn’t draft Kenyon Martin Jr., but he traded for him before he played an NBA game. He’s been an absolute steal at 52nd, which is where he was drafted in 2020...
By the Sacramento Kings.
That, after all, is how you become the Kings.