Our Bumbling Country Cousins

This piece is being written on Wednesday night, and won’t be published until Friday morning, so it’s possible that in the interim Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive will pass by a few dozen more times as he rides his George-Karl-go-round. The team has announced, through backdoor channels and more, that coach Karl will both be fired soon and retained for the duration, all within the last few days. We, and the team, are–to put it charitably–a long way from certainty.

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Witnessing this farce must surely be painful for Sacramento’s long-time devotees. Once upon a time the Kings were good–damn near Finals good–and Sacramento’s basketball fans supported the team with vigor and enthusiasm. These days, capital basketball fans must look at their team and assume that the pain is never going to end. Without a doubt, the Sacramento Kings are hopeless.

Except they’re not. And the proof of that fact lies just a couple of hours down Interstate 80.

The DFR logo with Basketball First things first: despite the carnival currently playing around the team, it should be noted that the Kings record (as of this writing, 22-31 with a .415 winning percentage) is the best record they’ve had by percentage since the 2007-08 season. Those numbers stand even after going 2-8 in their last ten, meaning the Kings were at one point 20-23 and playing pretty respectable ball for the first half of the season.

So the Kings have not entirely been a dumpster fire; it’s only lately that things started to spiral downward.

 “The only question is, is Vivek Ranadive the guy who can make it happen in Sacramento? Right now, it looks like the answer is no.”

So what happened? Well, George Karl, who somehow was always a good coach in every other place he landed, apparently forgot how to coach basketball. Or something.

And two-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins is still good, but apparently not good enough to lift this team by himself. By himself, in most people’s eyes, even though he plays with other former All-Stars like Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo, and solid if not spectacular veterans like Omri Casspi and Marco Belinelli.

And they’re playing in a weakened Pacific Division, within a suddenly weakening Western Conference, which has the Kings, even now, sitting within hailing distance of a playoff spot. If everyone gets it together, starts playing better, and moves forward as a team, this season can still have a relatively happy ending.

In other words, it’s not hopeless. That’s perception way more than it is reality. The Kings can turn it around and become a serious NBA franchise, if not contender, in relatively short order–if everything breaks according to plan.

The first step with that, of course, is: have a plan. Again, for proof, the country mice need only look down the road to what their city cousins have built, in barely a mouse’s lifespan.

It is almost impossible to remember, at this point in the tidal wave of success that has rushed through and out of Oracle Arena lately, that the Golden State Warriors were a losing team as recently as 2012. Let that sink it for a moment: 2012. We’re barely into 2016, hardly four years removed from the last time the Warriors finished with a losing record, after the 2011-12 season. Since that time, Golden State’s success chart has looked like an exponential graph, with a line that has skyrocketed up and off the page.

Again, what happened? Stephen Curry happened, in a big way. Thompson, Iguodala, and Green happened. Bogut and Barnes and Kerr happened. A bit of Jerry West happened. Sure, all of that happened. But those weren’t the only ones who happened.

Joe Lacob and Peter Guber walked through that door, too.

At the beginning, when they purchased the club in 2010, until these last couple of years, the Lacob-Guber ownership seemed almost as scattered and clueless as Ranadive seems in Sacramento. It’s getting harder and harder to remember the infamous scene at Chris Mullin’s jersey retirement ceremony, when Lacob was vigorously booed for the trade that sent Monta Ellis away for the then-injured Andrew Bogut. Few now remember the doubt and skepticism that accompanied the team signing Stephen Curry to a long-term deal when he was constantly injuring his ankles. And hardly anyone recalls that, when the seemingly successful tenure of Mark Jackson came to an end, again it was Lacob who bore the brunt of criticism for what appeared to be a very dubious decision.

And yet, ever since…fireworks. A championship. And a record-setting team that is now a global fan phenomenon. The seeds of that success were sown once Lacob and Guber took over the team, but they only coalesced into something recognizable–indeed, something awe-inspiring–in just the last couple of years.

Those shaky days are hard to remember now. Even harder to remember is the fact that, before Lacob and Guber took over, the Warriors were as much a laughingstock as the Kings currently are.

Prior to 2013, the Warriors’ playoffs drought saw only one squad make the postseason in 18 years. Compared to that, Sacramento’s current nine-season downturn looks like a mere speed bump.

And remember, as you contemplate the current buzz about Kevin Durant joining the Warriors as a free agent this summer, it used to be gospel that no free agent would ever want to join the Dubs. Oakland was, for a very long time, a wasteland to be desperately avoided. Then Andre Iguodala–about as sharp a guy on an NBA court as you’re likely to find–saw something in the team that kicked his Nuggets out of the playoffs back in 2013 and decided to come aboard. His decision helped change the perception around the Association of the Warriors franchise–and the rest is history and record-breaking.

So the Warriors were hopeless, and then they were not. And the formula for the change was rather simple: get better ownership, leaders who will hire the right people, who will in turn do their jobs right and get things cleaned up. Follow that path and success will come in a hurry.

So, if you’re a fan of the Cleveland Browns, or the Toronto Maple Leafs, or any other sad-sack franchise–yes, even the Sacramento Kings–you don’t have to feel hopeless. You know, because you’ve seen it before, that the turnaround can happen, and it can happen fast.

The only question is, is Vivek Ranadive the guy who can make it happen in Sacramento? Right now, it looks like the answer is no. Ranadive appears bumbling and clueless, and the back and forth uncertainty regarding Karl is not a good sign. However, hiring Karl in the first place was not a bad move; as noted above, Karl has been successful all over the place. (Before last season, his last sub-.500 record came all the way back in the 1987-88 season, with the…wait for it…Golden State Warriors.) The idea that Karl has suddenly lost the ability to whip a basketball team into winners is ludicrous.

The problem, as likely as not, simply lies with DeMarcus Cousins. As talented as he may be, for the long haul it appears that Cousins comes with too much baggage for him to be a part of a really successful NBA team. If the Kings are to transform themselves into a winning club–and that should be the immediate goal: a winning record and playoff appearances; whatever happens, no tanking–it will most likely come without him on the team.

Trading Cousins will be short-run unpopular, much as the Ellis trade was lambasted in Oakland a few years ago. But the parallels may not end there, especially if Boogie’s departure frees up the rest of the team to get with the program and play winning ball. Addition by subtraction can work; just look down the coast at what the Clippers are doing without Blake Griffin’s services. The Clips, apparently, are better without their erstwhile All-Star, and you never would have guessed that outcome before recent events.

All that’s the good news. The bad news is, none of that has happened so far. Karl remains hung out on the line. Cousins is still on the team. And the jury remains out on Vlade Divac as a general manager.

And, maybe most problematic of all, Ranadive still owns the team. Since he’s literally the only game in town, there will be little pressure on him to sell the team to anyone else. So Kings fans have to hope that he’s the guy who can duplicate what Lacob and Guber have achieved. Because, even though we know a turnaround can come quickly, if the right decisions are never made by the man at the top, Sacramento will see its team remain a royal mess for the immediate future.


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