Can Vivek Ranadive Competently Rebuild Sacramento Kings From Here?

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on March 1, 2017

Consider, for a moment, the following statistics for a group of players this season.

Group Purple

(Points / Assists / Rebs/ St’ocks (Steals + Blocks) / FG% / 3Pt% / FT%)

  • Player A (Center / Age 26): 27.6 / 4.8 / 10.7 / 2.7 / 45.4% / 35% / 77.3%
  • Player B (Center / Age 27): 16.7 / 0.7 / 14.1 / 2.9 / 55.4% / 0% / 57.8% (does not attempt 3’s)
  • Player C (Guard / Age 28): 29.6 / 6.2 / 2.8 / 1.0 / 46% / 38.3% / 91.3%

For discussion purposes, let us assume these three players are on a single team. Add three or four reliable role/bench players, a couple of playoff-tested veterans and a competent coach.

The question is, can they make the playoffs in an uber competitive Western Conference? Without doubt.

Can they win 55+ games and take home-court advantage into the Playoffs? Absolutely.

Can they make it to the NBA Finals? Yes, they can (barring untimely injury).

Who is Group Purple? The 2016-‘17 Sacramento Kings, had they not traded away DeMarcus Cousins (A) and Isaiah Thomas (C), and not banished Hassan Whiteside (B) to the NBA Development League, eventually cutting him off.

Do not believe me? Then let us consider another group of players from two seasons ago.

Group Yellow

  • Player A (Guard / Age 26): 23.8 / 7.7 / 4.3 / 2.2 / 48% / 44.3% / 91.4%
  • Player B (Forward / Age 24): 11.7 / 7.3 / 9.5 / 2.9 / 44.3% / 33.7% / 69.6%
  • Player C (Guard / Age 25): 21.7 / 2.9 / 3.2 / 46.3% / 43.9% / 87.9%

They had four reliable role/bench players, three playoff-tested vets and a competent coach.

Let us run those questions again:

Did they make the playoffs in an uber competitive Western Conference? Yes, they did.

Did they win 55+ games and take home-court advantage into the Playoffs? They won 67.

Did they make it to the NBA Finals? Actually, they became NBA Champions.

Who is Group Yellow? The 2014-‘15 Golden State Warriors, featuring Stephen Curry (A), Draymond Green (B) and Klay Thompson (C).

From the frying pan into the fire?

The Maloofs, the Vegas millionaires who owned the Kings before Ranadivé’s consortium, had a strange run. On one hand they oversaw some of the greatest Kings’ teams and would have ended up with a couple of championships if not for untimely injuries, or a historically great shot. On the other hand, the Kings franchise, who were beacons for “honesty and loyalty to core players and local community” (ranked third in ESPN The Mag’s Ultimate Team Rankings) dangled the team in a bidding war and initially agreed to relocate the Kings to Seattle for a deal worth nearly $625 million.

Enter Sacramento mayor and NBA Legend Kevin Johnson, and a group led by Vivek Ranadivé, formerly a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, who after much intervention from the league (NBA Board of Governors), convinced the Maloofs to keep the franchise in Sacramento and sell it for a then record price of $534 million, with the promise to the league and the city of Sacramento that they would build a spanking new stadium in a couple of years.

Ranadivé delivered on the state of the art and jaw dropping stadium.

But he did not deliver on much else.

A series of questionable decisions

Ever since taking the reins in Sacramento, the franchise has been in a free fall of sorts with instability in everything ranging from coaches to players and front office personnel. The Kings have had three coaches in the three seasons since Ranadivé took over. His first order of business as owner, in a move then widely believed to be a display of prompt action, was signing off on a trade that sent his second best player Tyreke Evans, to New Orleans in a three-team deal that netted the Kings Greivis Vasquez, a guard who is not in the NBA anymore.

Next season he traded away Isaiah Thomas, once again his second best player no less, to the Phoenix Suns to get a $7 million trade exception (basically, save some cash) and someone called Alex Oriakhi (who has never played an NBA game, and is not in the NBA anymore).

He then fired Mike Malone barely six games into the season, only to hire an aging, out-of-tough George Karl mid-season. This is still among the most inexplicable moves he has made considering that Malone was the first coach that Cousins genuinely liked and respected.

After all that damage, you would think Ranadivé was done. But as a New Yorker article said, “He [Ranadivé] was not one to accept losing easily”.

Among the most lopsided deals in NBA history

Amongst the 2017 NBA All-Star festivities, Ranadivé traded away DeMarcus Cousins, his best player, and one of the ten best players in the league to New Orleans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans (remember him from earlier?) and a 2017 second round pick. The deal has already been raised to be included among the most lopsided deals in NBA history. It is not hard to see why.

Cousins is downright unguardable. The only chink in his armour was his range, which he has extended well beyond the 3-point line this season. His ability to score at will in one-on-one situations, which at times make him look like a Hall-Of-Famer, is what makes him such a threat in the pick-and-roll as well. Teams cannot switch on him, and if they do, cannot leave the defensive task to just one player. Defensively too, he can be among the league’s elite centres when motivated, even stepping out to get quicker guards to change direction.

There is no doubt the Kings are threadbare at the time of writing this. They would need to tank, and tank soon. Cousins’s brilliance in the first half of the season had left them competing for the eighth spot in the West. With the Kings’ making it clear that they are in rebuild mode, fans of the franchise ought to expect a whole lot of losing in the last third of the season. Why? Because Sacramento has traded away its 2017 first round draft pick, protected 1-3, which means, New Orleans owns Sacramento’s pick it if falls between 4-30.

Yes, Sacramento have a decent record at the Draft. Not enviable, but decent. However, the 2017 draft is loaded, and they are not the only team competing for a bonanza, come June. Even if they begin tanking as early as next month they are way behind Brooklyn, Lakers, Philadelphia and Phoenix in the 2017 Draft race.

Assuming they get that pick, and Hield lives up to his “Steph Curry potential”, the Kings’ front office have done absolutely nothing to assure free agents that they are an organisation worth playing for. The questionable trades aside, the Kings’ biggest blot on their reputation comes in the form of false promise they made just weeks before the trade, both publicly and to Cousins personally, that trading him was out of the question. If the Kings could do this to their star player, and one of the ten best players in the league, what chance do other players stand against the whims of a front office that, at least at this moment, does not seem to know what they are doing.

The fall from grace of this once great franchise has been quite a dramatic one. Try as he can, Ranadivé cannot avoid responsibility for this drama. A drama that threatens to continue at least for a few more seasons if drastic measures are taken to correct the path. The solution had been fairly simple for Sacramento. Hold on to your star player, give him stability in the coach’s corner, and surround him with competent professional players that will show up every night. The Kings had all these lined up for them three seasons ago. They, led by Ranadive’s strange whims, whittled it all away.

It will take nothing short of a miracle to put them in that exact, or similar, enviable position again.

JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol