AUTHOR’S NOTE (As of 04/06/2011): For insights as to the Sacramento Kings’ potential move to Anaheim, click here.
It’s amazing about the kinds of changes a franchise can go through in one decade.
The peaks and valleys, offseason and in-season moves that range from brilliant to bonehead; the coaching changes and the player turnover; it can dramatically, and constantly, reshape a team, for better or for worse.
I see my hometown team, the Sacramento Kings, fitting this description perfectly.
With the 2010 NBA season fast approaching, it seems the Kings have come full-circle, which, unfortunately, isn’t a good thing. As a doormat of a franchise since it moved to Northern California, the Sacramento Kings compiled a staggering 386-680 record from its inception in 1985 to 1999 – a 0.362 winning percentage. In that span, the Kings managed to lose 50 games or more in nine different seasons, which included eight years straight from 1987 to 1994.
One would think they would at least get lucky with the draft or with free agency. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with Sacramento. The only No. 1 pick the Kings ever attained was in 1989 – a draft class that, from top to bottom, was unspectacular. They ended up with the infamous “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison, who was traded to the Washington Bullets after one injury-plagued season, and never amounted to anything but a serviceable journeyman. The Kings also infamously took Joe Kleine in the 1985 NBA draft, over notable players such as Chris Mullin, Charles Oakley and, most notably, Karl Malone (which the Kings had been vying for before the draft).
There were also the unfortunate circumstances of Bobby Hurley’s career-altering car crash and the tragedy of promising SF Ricky Berry, which further accentuated Sacramento’s misfortunes. The only significant player in the history of the Sacramento franchise up to that point was Mitch Richmond, who took the Kings to the playoffs in 1996 – a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the eventual Western Conference Champion Seattle Supersonics.
Everything changed in the lockout-shortened season of 1999, when all the pieces of a playoff contender began to come together. The team brought in former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Rick Adelman to turn the franchise around. Richmond, the Kings’ only franchise player at the time, was traded to the Washington Wizards for another journeyman #1 pick – PF Chris Webber. They added veteran C Vlade Divac, and drafted troubled, but talented, Florida PG Jason Williams with the 7th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. Another first round draft pick, taken in 1996 but unavailable until released from his overseas contract, was finally free to play for Sacramento – sharpshooting SF Peja Stojakovic. The likes of Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Jon Barry and Scot Pollard also helped to bring respectability to Sacramento Kings basketball. In that season, they went 27-23 – their first above-.500 season in franchise history – and came within one last-second John Stockton jumper away from getting to the second round of the 1999 NBA playoffs. In that back-and-forth series, the Jazz eventually won in 5 games, but the Kings, with a nucleus of Webber, Williams and Divac, were on their way.
From 2000 to 2004, the Kings received a major facelift under GM Geoff Petrie, getting progressively better over that timespan. Veteran mainstay Corliss Williamson was traded to the Raptors for defensive-minded sharpshooter Doug Christie before the 2001 season – a season that saw the Kings win 55 games and advance in the playoffs for the first time in Sacramento’s franchise history. A trade to the newly-relocated Memphis Grizzlies made the Kings even better, sending an erratic Jason Williams away for a steadier field general in PG Mike Bibby. In 2002, Sacramento Kings fans celebrated a 61-21 record, home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and their best shot at winning an NBA championship.
Unfortunately, they ran into the Los Angeles Lakers that year, on their way to a three-peat in 2002. Despite many cries of foul play in Game 6 that could have clinched the series for the Kings, and valiant play by Bibby throughout the series, it was ultimately a wayward shot through the heart by Robert Horry in Game 4, and missed opportunities (and free throws) in Game 7 that did the Kings in.
2003 showed promise for the Kings, adding veteran PF/C Keon Clark and earning a 59-23 record, despite losing Bibby to injury for the first 20 games of the season. With one of the deepest benches in the league, the Kings survived many significant injuries to starters. A heartbreaking injury to Webber, a perennial All-Star PF at the time, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, crushed the Kings’ hopes of a title run, however. They lost to Nick Van Exel, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in 7 games.
The Kings began to decline around 2004, after losing to a revitalized Minnesota Timberwolves squad that boasted Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell in the Western Conference Semifinals. 2005 marked the last time the Kings won 50 games in a season, a mark that lasted for five years, going 50-32 and losing in five games, in the first round to the Seattle Supersonics. Their last season in the playoffs was in 2006, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, in six games.
After the 2006 season, the Kings cut ties with Adelman, hoping a coaching change would reinvigorate a squad that traded Chris Webber in 2005, and got rid of Stojakovic for talented, yet unbalanced, forward Ron Artest. Eric Musselman was brought on as head coach for the 2007 season, as the Kings looked drastically different from the team that threatened for the NBA title just five years before. Only Mike Bibby remained from those perennial Sacramento teams. He was soon traded to the Atlanta Hawks in 2008, after the Kings’ first sub-.500 campaign since 1998 in 2007, going 33-49.
From there, it only got worse. While the franchise had marked improvement under an aging and underdeveloped roster that featured Ron Artest and Kevin Martin in ’08, going 38-44, the bottom was about to drop from under the franchise. The team was in financial and salary cap trouble, and the Kings couldn’t put a decent team on the floor night in and night out. It saw the firing of Reggie Theus, who replaced Musselman in 2007, and soon saw Kenny Natt come and go as head coach. In the end, the Kings finished a league-worst 17-65. And, what was worse, the Kings – with the highest percentage of landing the number 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft lottery – managed to be shut out of all three top picks, taking the No. 4 spot, and losing out on the Blake Griffin Sweepstakes.
It ended up being a blessing in disguise. With the 4th pick, Memphis PG/SG Tyreke Evans fell to the Kings. While seen as a perplexing pick at the time, Evans went on to win Rookie of the Year in 2010, averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. His “20-5-5” season was a historic feat by a rookie, only duplicated by three players, in their rookie season, that most might have heard of: LeBron James in 2003, Michael Jordan in 1984 and Oscar Robertson in 1960.
The Kings, though finishing at 25-57, did make marked improvements from the season before. Along with Evans, Omri Casspi from Israel has also proved a promising young player. And, while PF Jason Thompson was considered a perplexing draft pick back in 2008, he has the potential to be a very productive young star in the league.
This offseason, the Kings decided to go big, in the hopes of strengthening a perceived “soft” defense that allowed 104.4 points per game last season. They traded for Philadelphia 76ers C Samuel Dalembert, and drafted troubled, yet extremely talented, Kentucky C/PF DeMarcus Cousins with the 5th pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. With Paul Westphal at the helm, the Kings are hopeful that, with the state of their new Downtown stadium still up in the air, they can produce a team that will make Sacramento proud. With a potential Rookie of the Year in Cousins, as well as a base centered around Evans, Casspi and Thompson, the Kings could have a bright future ahead.
Perhaps another cycle of good years isn’t too far in the future.