The Sacramento Kings have tried everything to build a winner. Perennial lottery selections have yielded little. Sure, DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star, but that is the lone feather in the cap of a franchise that has drafted in the top eight for the last six seasons and the top 12 for the last eight years.
There is still time for Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas to ascend to something greater, and Jason Thompson has been a solid pro for seven years. But that is not the overall talent you should expect out of a 236-464 record. The franchise needs more. The fans deserve better.
Sacramento’s front office has made mistakes over the Kings’ eight straight lottery seasons. Just to name a few – Tyreke Evans over Stephen Curry, Jimmer Fredette over Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, and perhaps the one that stings the most, Thomas Robinson over Damian Lillard.
This tells you everything you need to know: Outside of Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, is the best player the Kings have produced in the last decade.
As a franchise, there has been a basic inability to develop players. Regardless of how high or low a player has been taken in the draft, Sacramento has failed at translating players from collegiate-level stars to elite professionals or even moderate pros in many instances.
The great teams build players. Regardless of draft position or if they are pulling in a player who has failed somewhere else, franchises that succeed rarely do it without the development of young players.
Would the Splash Brothers be the Splash Brothers in Sacramento? Would Draymond Green be the player he is today if he had been chosen by the Philadelphia 76ers or the Minnesota Timberwolves? The answer is “no, probably not.”
The San Antonio Spurs have built a dynasty out of one lottery pick. Tim Duncan is an all-time great, but Tony Parker was the 28th selection in the 2002 NBA Draft and Manu Ginobili wasn’t taken until the 57th selection in the 1999 Draft. Both Parker and Ginobili will join Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich in the Hall of Fame.
And those three players are just the stars. Popovich has made a career out of taking misfit toys and turning them into integral pieces of a machine. Danny Green was waived by Cleveland and spent time in the D-League. Last year, he started for a championship team.
Bruce Bowen bounced around the league for five years before settling in for an eight-year run with the Spurs at age 30. Bowen retired with three rings and began the trend of the 3-and-D player in the NBA. These are just two examples of so many players who have developed in San Antonio and played critical roles in the team’s historic success.
“I think role players are huge on any team,” Popovich said. “In championship situations, you never know who’s going to step up. I know that it’s somebody different every year. It’s not always the starters who are great in those situations. Someone will come off the bench and win an important playoff game for you in a seven-game series. So having role players that have confidence and have gotten minutes during the year really pays off at the end of the year.”
The Kings haven’t been able to build a Danny Green or a Bruce Bowen, let alone a Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. But George Karl has a history of finding diamonds in the rough and polishing them into something so much more, just like his close friend with the Spurs has.
“I think we both enjoy watching somebody develop, you know, it didn’t work out someplace else, but it’s fun to try and find that piece that you think you can figure out how to work him into the group that you have,” Popovich said during his trip to Sacramento last month. “It’s fun to watch when that time in his career comes. Sometimes, it’s somebody who just didn’t get it until their third year, their fifth year, whatever it might be.”
Karl developed players like Ty Lawson (18th overall) and Kenneth Faried (22nd overall) in Denver. He also brought along players who hadn’t found their way with other franchises like Arron Afflalo (27th overall by Detroit), Kostas Koufos (23rd overall by Utah) and J.R. Smith (19th overall by New Orleans). All were first-round picks, but that doesn’t change the fact that they flourished under his tutelage, where plenty of others have failed under different coaches.
During his nine years in Denver, the Nuggets never drafted in the lottery. The year before he came aboard, Denver selected Carmelo Anthony with the No. 3 pick in the 2003 draft and plenty of his development came under Karl. In nine years, the Nuggets never drafted above No. 20 and still managed a 423-257 record with Karl at the helm.
“I’m not a big believer in anything except going in the gym and working on your game,” Karl said. “Working on your weaknesses, practicing the game and trying to learn the offensive and defensive concepts that fit your personality and make sure you understand them.”
Karl has a few pieces to work with in Sacramento. McLemore has excelled in his second season, and Stauskas has shown signs of improvement of late.
“At this time in my career, he’s definitely the right coach,” McLemore said. “He’s a guy that has a lot of history in the league that knows the game and understands the game, that’s had good players and great players that he’s coached.”
There is no secret formula for creating a player. Maybe there is a formula for putting a player in a position to succeed, but the want to improve has to come from within.
“I try to give them a program that they get better,” Karl said. “Not only does it make me look good, it’s their job.”
The rebuild of the Sacramento isn’t an easy proposition. The Kings will chase free agents and attempt to make trades, but in the end, the real change in direction might have to come from the improvement of young players who are either on the roster today or will be in the near future.