Jon Hamm: Team building in a small market is a different animal. The Sacramento Kings spent sixteen seasons trying to build a winner in all the wrong ways. How the Kings started to turn their franchise around by acting its market size, and a lot more like the Thunder.
In a league that sends over half its teams into the postseason, the Sacramento Kings missed the playoffs for sixteen consecutive seasons.
The Kings’ playoff drought was old enough to drive.
Finally, the streak was snapped last season in feel-good fashion. All it took was getting the franchise to behave its market size.
The Thunder play the Kings tonight in Sacramento in the second game of the In-Season Tournament. When the Thunder land in Sacramento, they will find themselves in a city similar in size to Oklahoma City.
But the way the two teams are run could not be more polar opposites.
California’s capital city is actually smaller than the capital city of Oklahoma in terms of population. Unlike the other three California major sports markets, Sacramento is landlocked. Like Oklahoma City, Sacramento’s professional basketball team is unlikely to attract a star free agent. And like many small markets, it can be a challenge to keep star players as well. Or even convince them to report when required.
Chris Webber, arguably the greatest player in Sacramento team history, came to the team under strenuous objection. “They wanted to banish me,” Webber told The Athletic about the 1998 trade that sent him from the Wizards to the Kings. Webber had hoped the Kings would flip him to the Lakers, the team that interests roughly 98% of all players.
But the dream trade to the Lakers never happened. Webber remained in Sactown and became the focal point of the greatest stretch of success in the history of the franchise. With the likes of Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, and future New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornet Peja Stojakovic, the Kings had a fabulous run at the turn of the century.
And once that era came to its natural conclusion, sixteen years of sub-.500 basketball ensued.
(As an aside, the Kings are also a big part of Oklahoma City professional basketball history. They were the opponent in the Hornets’ first ever regular season NBA game in Oklahoma City on November 1, 2005. The two teams also played a weird regular season game at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman in January 2006 — a previous plan to play some Hornets home games in Baton Rouge was scrapped after one game, and the Hornets couldn’t play a scheduled game against the Kings in Ford Center because Bon Jovi had booked a concert that night.)
There are many reasons why the drought lasted as long as it did. Ownership turmoil that ended with an ownership change in 2013. Multiple blown lottery picks. Bad trades. But more than anything, the Kings’ franchise had no sense of direction. There was no long-term plan, just an annual attempt to “get better” every offseason that left the franchise spinning tires into the mud.
Each season, the Kings expected to land in the playoffs but ended the season mired in mediocrity. Because Sacramento tried to be overachievers, they often ended up with a pick outside the top 5. But even when they did land a high pick, it was squandered.
In 2009 the team selected Tyreke Evans fourth overall instead of Steph Curry. With the fifth pick in 2012, the Kings drafted Thomas Robinson one spot ahead of Damian Lillard. With the second overall pick in 2018, the Kings pounced at the chance to draft Marvin Bagley II one spot ahead of Luka Doncic. Fix any of those picks and the Kings have a vastly different story to tell.
Sacramento didn’t whiff on all of its picks, though. Center DeMarcus Cousins was the fifth pick in the 2010 draft and became a two-time All-NBA player during his Kings tenure. But Cousins also gave everyone headaches. Opponents. Coaches. The front office. Without a strong culture or structure in place, Cousins racked up multiple suspensions and fines due to his antics.
In 2017, the Kings decided to trade Cousins rather than sign him to a massive long-term extension. He was sent to the Pelicans in exchange for a package of players and picks that included former University of Oklahoma star Buddy Hield. It was reported that Kings owner Vivek Ranidvive was “fixated” on Hield and believed he had Curry-like potential.
Even diehard Sooners fans couldn’t go that far with their beloved Bahamas native.
On a few occasions, the Kings sought to fix the team via free agency. In 2015 the team salary-dumped several players along with draft compensation to the Philadelphia 76ers, an organization still beholden to its yearslong Process. The trade included a pick swap in 2017, which resulted in the Kings giving up the third overall pick and sliding down to fifth. At least Sacramento came away with future All-Star De’Aaron Fox.
The goal was to make a big splash in 2015 free agency, but instead the team had to overpay to sign Rajon Rondo, Marco Bellinelli and Kosta Koufos. Only Koufos hung around for more than one season.
Other signings in future seasons worked out similarly. Arron Afflalo. Anthony Tolliver. Garrett Temple. George Hill. Vince Carter. Zach Randolph. All were happy to take the Kings’ money and figure out their own futures later.
Finally, after the Disney Bubble in 2020 the Kings decided to shake up the front office. Vlade Divac, the executive who had overseen several of the team’s disastrous transactions since 2015, was fired. The Kings filled his role with Monte McNair, who worked for the Houston Rockets under Daryl Morey.
The win-loss record didn’t immediately improve, but McNair at least put his hands on the steering wheel. Tyrese Haliburton was a steal at the twelfth pick in the 2020 draft. Pet projects like Bagley were eventually shipped out. Haliburton was later traded to the Pacers in a controversial deal to acquire Domantas Sabonis. Cap flexibility was used smartly to acquire wing Kevin Huerter from the Hawks.
The patience and vision paid off when the Kings won a surprising 48 games last season. The Warriors ended their season in the playoffs, as the Warriors are wont to do, but the front office fixes have set the team up on a better path. Better choices have been made in the draft. No more overpaying for aging veteran free agents. Smarter trades were made. Giving coach Mike Brown another chance has paid off mightily, as well.
One of the biggest reasons for the Kings’ playoff drought is that they refused to act their market size. Teams in Sacramento, or Salt Lake City, or Memphis, or Oklahoma City have to operate differently. That starts with setting standards and putting the right culture in place, then moves down to making good draft picks and emphasizing player development. Behaving like Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas after finding a suitcase with millions of dollars can set back a franchise for a long while.
Something to keep in mind as you watch the Thunder, a team well aware of its team building limitations, later tonight.