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The star-powered NBA has created a paradigm that makes it difficult to become a have after spending so much time being a have not.
The Sacramento Kings, currently tied with the longest playoff drought in NBA history spanning 15 years, find themselves in the second category. It’s a small-market team that hasn’t drafted a franchise-altering star like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounpo — though they’ve had their chances, which makes for an entirely different column.
The have-not Kings find themselves in what should be called explorative purgatory entering the new season, which tips off Wednesday in Portland.
They’re certainly not good enough to be penciled in as a playoff contender (they could get there if they improve defensively, stay healthy and add to the roster midseason), but they’re not one of the worst teams in the NBA, either. At least, they shouldn’t be. Not with a possible All-Star point guard in De’Aaron Fox and up-and-comers like Tyrese Haliburton. The Kings have pieces, which hasn’t always been the case.
But which pieces are worth keeping and which are worth dealing for more assets to help down the road? Is ending the playoff dry spell more important than trying to build something sustainable for the future? Those are the questions second-year general manager Monte McNair has to find answers to over the next nine months.
Those answers should define where this team is going, regardless of whether Sacramento makes the playoffs, flames out in the play-in tournament or misses the postseason altogether.
That’s why this is the explorative purgatory season. Unless Harrison Barnes turns into prime LeBron, the Kings are not going to become a championship contender over these 82 games. They’re in purgatory because they’re caught in the middle — between contending for a title and being among the favorites to win the lottery to land a franchise-altering star in the NBA draft.
Which is what makes McNair’s job difficult. The middle is a bad place to be.
McNair, a former Rockets’ assistant G.M., has to decide if this mix of players can become good enough to contend down the line, and if not, which are worth keeping and which might be worth dealing.
He must decide if Fox can be one of the best players on a championship-level team, as his $163 million max deal kicking in this season would indicate.
McNair has to figure how Haliburton and rookie guard Davion Mitchell fit with Fox. If they don’t fit, which guard should be traded? The Kings could badly use wings on the perimeter. Their roster is heavy on guards and big men.
McNair has to figure out what to do with Marvin Bagley III, the second-overall pick in 2018 who was drafted right in front of a certain Slovenian playing somewhere in Texas and a point guard in Atlanta. Bagley is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer after injuries — and being on a team presided over by Vlade Divac and Dave Joerger — impacted his development.
McNair has to figure out if Harrison Barnes is a core piece for a playoff run this spring or if the future would be brighter if he’s dealt for draft picks and/or expiring contracts. Barnes is coming off arguably the best shooting season of his career when he posted an effective field goal percentage of .575, his highest since entering the league. There’s a similar conundrum around sharp-shooting guard Buddy Hield, who might have more value to a contending team than one trying to find its place.
And McNair has to figure out if Luke Walton is the right coach. Walton has finished with identical records in his two seasons, 31-41, a record which would be considered a failure this season if the Kings finish in the same neighborhood without a clear direction. The Kings were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season, and arguably one of the worst in history.
That’s a reflection of Walton and his staff as much as the talent on the roster. If the Kings make any significant improvement on the defensive end, they could be a difficult team to play given their upside offensively. Walton, of course, is a holdover from the Divac era.
The good news is the Kings have flexibility on their side.
They could swing for the fences with a trade for a franchise-altering star. They could push their chips in and try to end their playoff drought this spring, which would certainly make for a great atmosphere inside Golden 1 Center for at least one series. They could use Bagley’s $11 million and Tristan Thompson’s $9.7 as expiring contracts to trade for assets to use down the line.
Or they could hire a new coach, blow it all up and start from scratch. With Fox, Mitchell, Haliburton and underrated big man Richaun Holmes, the Kings have promising young players and no crippling contracts.
That’s why this explorative purgatory season centers on McNair. The team is set up to find a path toward something positive after being rudderless for so long.