Is the 2019-20 Season Playoffs or Bust for the Sacramento Kings?
Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac has never shied away from fan and media scrutiny when it comes to his ambitious moves. His unorthodox decision-making, and stubbornness to do things his way, have resulted in past disaster and recent success. Through it all, Divac has remained consistent in his vision for the franchise: build the Sacramento Kings back into a perennial playoff team and bring home the championship that eluded Vlade as a player in 2002.
Vlade doesn’t need the Kings GM job. He never has. That’s been made very clear. Therefore, the idea of being fired and losing what will most likely be his only NBA general manager gig hasn’t frightened Divac into making “safe” moves.
Following his franchise-altering trade of then-star DeMarcus Cousins, Divac stood up in front of the media and voluntarily offered his resignation if the Kings weren’t a better team in two seasons.
“I totally understand why some fans would be upset,” Divac told the Sacramento Bee. “They supported DeMarcus, and I like DeMarcus a lot. But I believe we are going to be in a better position in two years. I want to hear again from these same people in two years. If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, I’ll step down. But if I go down, I’m going down my way.”
Luckily for him no such step-down was necessary after the Kings, led by De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield (acquired in the Cousins trade), and rookie Marvin Bagley, finished the 2018-19 season with 39 wins — Sacramento’s highest win total since 2006. Vlade signed a four-year contract extension immediately following the season’s end.
Divac went back out on a limb this offseason with his vision coming together and more believers than ever. He fired head coach Dave Joerger and brought in former Lakers head coach Luke Walton. The Walton hire signaled another promise from Divac that a step forward is imminent and playoff contention is the immediate goal.
So, is the 2019-20 season “playoffs or bust” for the Sacramento Kings?
Everyone on the Kings’ roster would certainly say so. Last year’s team believed they were playoff bound and ended the season with the bitter disappointment of a ninth place finish in the West. Fans shouldn’t expect anything different from a competitive group of players hungry to prove themselves on basketball’s biggest stage.
But beyond that, the simple answer is no.
That’s not to say that the Kings won’t make the playoffs, but to call the season a total failure should Sacramento not make the postseason is short-sighted.
Even if we take the extreme competitiveness of the Western Conference out of the conversation completely, there are still a few significant factors that point to an encouraging truth for the Kings organization: time is still on their side.
New Coach, New Adjustments
With every new head coach comes a plethora of changes. There’s a new coaching staff, different practice and workout schedules, philosophies and relationships. An adjustment period is expected even with Walton wanting to continue the uptempo style of play that defined Sacramento last season.
It’s not impossible for teams to have instant success with a new head coach. The Toronto Raptors just won the NBA Championship in head coach Nick Nurse’s first season. But those are rare cases and the Kings are not nearly as established as Toronto was when Nurse was hired.
Divac and Walton both emphasized that they were on the same page when it comes to how the Kings should play next season. Multiple players have already come out in support of Walton, expressing their excitement to take the franchise to the next level with him at the helm. But Walton did emphasize two areas of play that he is going to focus on come training camp.
The Kings have been in the top-half of the NBA in three-point shooting the last two seasons. However, that didn’t translate to a high volume of threes taken under Joerger. Walton, a student of Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, expressed a desire to increase the amount of three-point attempts next season. Divac followed suit, adding more shooting to the roster in free agency.
“We are going to shoot a lot of threes this year,” Walton said at his introductory press conference in April. “As the games go you take what the defense gives you but you have a philosophy of how you want to play. We have a group that shooting a lot of threes is best for us.”
Walton also emphasized perimeter defense as an area of focus for the team next season. The Kings have struggled defending that part of the floor for years. While the roster does have it’s fair share of capable defenders, transforming the Kings into a decent defensive team will take time and focus, which could lead to a dip in production in other parts of the game that were more prominent last season.
The Kings and Walton agreed to a four-year contract, putting him on the same timeline as Divac. Their futures with Sacramento are completely intertwined. That contractual commitment is significant, allowing Walton and Divac time to figure things out, make adjustments and accomplish their goals without the looming concerns of a contract renewal.
Control of Contracts
The Kings have full control of their core for the foreseeable future after re-signing of Harrison Barnes this summer, and Buddy Hield’s expected extension looming. There isn’t a bad contract on the roster. All of the core four young players are still on their rookie contracts, and Sacramento will have restricted rights to each should they hit free agency in the future.
The significance of retaining Barnes cannot be understated. While it is fair to question whether the Kings overpaid for the 27-year-old forward, signing him through the 2022-23 season means that much of the hard work for the front office is out of the way.
Sacramento does not have to rely on immediate success to keep their talent around. Barring an Anthony Davis-style trade demand, the Kings aren’t running the risk of losing Fox, Hield, Bagley or Giles to free agency if they fail to make the postseason.
If nothing else, Sacramento’s current contract situation provides stability and an opportunity for patience should things not immediately go as planned. Divac is not in a position of desperation. Fans should be encouraged by the fact that the organization has put themselves in an excellent position to keep their top talent around for a long time.
There are pieces in place for a dynasty to develop in Sacramento if things play out the way Divac wants.
De’Aaron Fox: 21
Buddy Hield: 26
Harry Giles: 21
Marvin Bagley: 20
No, those aren’t scoring average predictions. Those are the ages of the core four Kings players. Sacramento is still a very young team even with the veterans added in free agency.
The Kings were only going to go as far as that core took them, hence Divac’s approach to free agency this summer. Every piece Sacramento brought in, including Barnes, is meant to compliment that core and fill the gaps.
Fox and Hield both made major leaps last season, but still have plenty to learn. Bagley is expected to become a consistent starter after spending most of his rookie season in a bench role. Giles, although technically in his third year with the organization, has just one season of basketball under his belt after his significant injury issues in college kept him out of his first NBA season.
The core has not come close to reaching its full potential, which is both exciting and frustrating. As good as fans expect the team to be, there will still will be plenty of moments where the lack of experience sneaks through the cracks. Thankfully, time is on their side and, based off their developmental track record, it wont be too long before that inexperience goes away.
What Real Failure Looks Like
The Kings can’t change the conference they play in. The West is stacked with talent and Sacramento will be tested virtually every night. Coaches and players are welcoming the challenge while not worrying about what they can’t control.
Simply missing the playoffs next season isn’t failure. Regressing, after a coaching change and 2019’s significant improvement, is.
The Kings failing to build upon last season’s 39 wins, assuming they are healthy, would be a major letdown. If Bagley’s production dips and he looks overmatched as a starter, or if Fox’s climb to stardom doesn’t continue, or if Hield’s stellar shooting from last season drops off — that’s failure.
It’s not going to be an easy road to the playoffs, but this team hasn’t given anyone a reason to believe they can’t make it. Nor should anyone be calling them a bust if they’re not playing late into April next year.