Kings of dysfunction
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
At this point in the season all teams, good and bad, should have a plan.
The good teams are either Finals or bust, gunning for a Conference Finals appearance, want to make the playoffs healthy or just want to make the tournament. The teams that know this season is a wash should have an eye on the future, looking to the draft, free agency or their young talent to metamorphoses into studs next season.
It's not good when you're a bad team and you don't have a plan, and that's where we find the Sacramento Kings.
Sacramento just hired George Karl and his 1,131 career wins to be their third head coach this season, which gives the facade that the front office knows what they're doing, but do they really?
Bringing Karl aboard gives the impression that the Kings want to start playing winning basketball as soon as the All-Star break ends. The 2013 Coach of the Year has done this midseason-turnaround thing before, when, in the '04-'05 season, the 17-25 Denver Nuggets hired Karl after going through two different head coaches and they ripped off 32 wins in their final 40 games to make the playoffs.
Sitting 11 wins behind the current eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns with 30 games left to go, the playoffs are practically an impossibility for the Kings. Team owner Vivek Ranadive may be the world's biggest optimist and believes that his team can still make the big dance, but I hope someone told him that if the Kings' draft pick falls outside the top 10 they lose it to the Chicago Bulls.
A scenario in which the Kings just miss out on the playoffs and aren't one of the 10 worst teams in the league could very well play out and it would be an absolute nightmare for those poor, long-suffering fans. The 18-34 Kings have the sixth-worst record so far and have control of their pick, but Utah, Denver, Indiana, Boston, Detroit and Brooklyn all hold very slight leads in the win column. If the Kings get hot, they better get Irina-Shayk-on-the-cover-of-the-Sports-Illustrated-2011-Swimsuit-Edition hot.
And if they're in win-now mode, why now? They had a promising head coach at the start of the season with Mike Malone, who lead the team to a 9-6 start before DeMarcus Cousins fell ill and had to miss the next 10 games with viral meningitis. Malone was let go after the team fell to 11-15 which, again, had more to do with Cousins being out than what Malone could or couldn't do.
The Malone firing came as a surprise not only to the fans and the media but to the players themselves. What's even more shocking is that the Kings thought Tyrone Corbin was a suitable replacement. Corbin, who owned a 43-percent winning percentage as a head coach in 258 games with the Utah Jazz, went just 7-21 with the Kings and couldn't refocus a team that seemed scatterbrained after losing their guy.
Maybe that's the key word: focus. Maybe Karl was brought in to get this squad to play as a unit and to get something going these last 30 games. After all, momentum can carry onto the next season. Maybe this hiring was a sort of apology from the front office to the players, atoning for firing Malone by bringing in a future Hall of Fame head coach.
Either way, it's a weird journey this organization has taken from potentially being a surprise playoff team to one seemingly trying to get into the lottery to now a team that apparently wants to win again. It's that kind of modus operandi that makes the Kings the most dysfunctional team in the league this season (though I'm sure people in New York and Denver will disagree).
For Karl's best interests, the team better respond and the turnaround better be quick because the 63-year-old head coach probably doesn't have the patience for a rebuilding project. In fact, it almost made more sense to stick with Corbin and vie for the top pick in the draft. After all, Cousins and Rudy Gay are locked up for multiple seasons, the Kings have time to fill in the gaps.
Against Karl's odds for an instant 180 is the fact that this Kings team is the least talented bunch he's had in a long, long time. That's not to say there isn't any talent. Gay is still a 20-a-night scorer while Cousins is an immensely talented center and the best scorer at his position in the NBA. In the Western Conference though, a team centered around those two isn't making the playoffs this season or ever, unless they get sufficient help.
Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas should improve as their young careers progress, but unless one of them suddenly turns into a superstar next season that won't be enough to vault the Kings to the top eight. For that to happen, Sacramento will either have to make a blockbuster trade or nab a couple big free agents.
As the trade deadline for this season looms, it doesn't look like any star players are trying to force their way out of their team via transaction and it's tough to predict what trades could be available for the Kings months from now after the season ends. Karl could try to trade for Wilson Chandler, a player he coached for three seasons in Denver.
If the Kings are expecting to get better through free agency, they picked a terrible year to go with that plan. Sacramento isn't exactly a top free-agent destination, there are three other teams in the state of California for whom players would rather sign. Plus, with huge market teams like the Knicks and Lakers ready and willing to throw heaps of cash at this year's crop of free agents, a team like the Kings will have to sort among the leftovers.
The cream of the crop in this year's free-agent class are Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. All are pretty surefire bets to re-sign with their current teams. Even if one or two started fielding calls from other teams, the Kings wouldn't stand a chance in a bidding war against the Purple and Gold or the team that plays in Madison Square Garden.
The best the Kings could hope for is to get a couple second-tier free agents. A Greg Monroe-Cousins frontcourt would be deadly, but the Detroit Pistons seem committed to Monroe after releasing Josh Smith. Rajon Rondo, a player the Kings were interested in trading for earlier this season, is an unrestricted free agent. There are also a number of players with player options, chief of whom is Goran Dragic.
Unless the Kings make a splash in free agency and land one of the few players capable of turning around the franchise's misfortunes, they're in an uncomfortable position in which they aren't good enough to make the playoffs but don't lose enough to get a lottery pick.
Mediocre is the worst thing to be in the NBA, even worse than being terrible. The Kings are mediocre, and the situation is made even more confusing with the hiring of Karl, who's the second-oldest head coach in the league. Karl is the kind of coach a team hires when they have immediate playoff aspirations, but it's really unclear what Sacramento's plan is to make those dreams come true.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo