Record Playoff Drought: 16 Years of Elusive Culture and Identity

As is all too well known by this point, it is official. The Sacramento Kings have extended their playoff drought to sixteen straight seasons, setting a new record for the longest skidding slide in NBA history.

This came as no shock to Kings fans, who had known for weeks that their team was all but mathematically eliminated. Coming into Sunday, the Kings would have had to win every game to finish the season in addition to both the Lakers and Spurs losing all their remaining games for Sacramento to have made the cut for the play-in tournament. 

No miracle of that kind happened to occur. As such, the new record is set in stone

The question is always: How did this happen? 

The answer to that can be any number of things, most of which probably aren’t wrong. But for the sake of clarity, it’s very likely the answer has something to do with the choppy and transitory nature of the franchise over the last decade-plus.

See, it was interesting that Sunday’s loss and elimination from contention came against the Golden State Warriors, a team that over the last decade has made a grand ascent to being one of the most admired franchises in sports, a team the Kings have tried and failed to emulate under Ranadive, and, most of all, a team with an enviable winning culture, one that emerged well before Kevin Durant ever suited up for them and even before Steve Kerr became head coach.

Their winning culture starts with stars at its foundation, guys like Curry, Thompson, and Green that were drafted by the team, that learned to commit to the defensive end under Mark Jackson, that played along with and learned from an all-star like David Lee, and that know what it takes to be successful in this league because they arguably set the standard. 

A lot of that can be attributed to extremely good fortune, but a significant portion of it was a result of how the franchise operates.

At the top of the Warriors is a blank check-styled ownership that features Joe Lacob, a guy who openly bashed Mark Jackson after letting him go because he felt Jackson was not assembling the very best coaching staff. In Lacob’s own words, the ownership’s philosophy for building a good coaching staff is: “Take my wallet. Do whatever it is to get the best assistants there are in the world. Period. End of story.” 

As obnoxious as it maybe is to hear that from the ever excitable Joe Lacob in regard to the 51-win Mark Jackson, he was just noting his role as an owner. That role is to stay out of the way for the most part, let the professionals do their jobs, and simply provide the financial muscle when required. 

No matter how strong his obsession is over the Warriors, this has not been the case for Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, who’s hands seemingly have to be tied down in order to prevent him from steering the team into the center divide. Remember, under his ownership, the playoff drought has been extended from seven years to sixteen.

In that time, Ranadive has exhibited a two-pronged knack for thinking he knows what the right move is while also having the arrogance to backtrack on that decision time and time again. He’s a guy who quickly fires head coaches, like Michael Malone, that he hand picked himself. He’s a guy that okays the trade of an all-star a year after he’d thrown a fit when one of his coaches, George Karl, merely mentioned the idea. He’s the guy who puts loyalty above experience and expertise, even if it lands him Marvin Bagley instead of Luka Doncic. 

As Kings fans know, one can easily keep going on and on about Ranadive’s faults. In his time as owner, the reality is that the chasm between the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley in terms of basketball success has only grown wider. 

The main reason for that is that Ranadive has acted in an erratic manner diametrically opposed to the methods that once delivered success to Sacramento in the past.

Since the Kings moved to Sacramento in 1985, there have only been eight winning seasons. All eight of them came in succession, under the same head coach and general manager, and featured decent roster carryover from one year to the next.

In eight years under Rick Adelman, the Kings were a consistent playoff team. Offensively, they were always in the top half of the league with only three seasons where they were out of the top ten in offensive rating. Even more of a trip for the modern Kings fan, Adelman’s staff had Sacramento playing with a commitment on the other end of the floor that put the team in the top half of the league defensively in all but two years.

By contrast, over these last sixteen seasons since Adelman’s departure, the Kings have never had a winning season, and following the one year where they came relatively close in 2019, the coach was fired, which is pretty indicative of this prolonged period of losing. 

That is to say, there’s been little to no continuity: eleven different head coaches, five different general managers, and the ownership change that has yielded nine years of mostly the same old thing.

That was what Harrison Barnes said he noticed about the Kings’ new NBA record: lack of “stability.”

“I think it’s just me and Fox ⁠— those are the only two people in the entire organization that are still here,” Barnes articulated of his last four years in Sacramento after Sunday’s loss to Golden State. 

“Since I’ve been here it’s been a lot of up and down, it’s been a lot of tough times, it’s been a lot of changing parts roster wise, coaching wise, front office wise. So I think, moving forward, in order to establish a culture where people do feel equity and do feel the need to want to change that narrative ⁠— as opposed to Sacramento simply just as a stop on the way to another team or out the league ⁠— we just have to embody that, and these are conversations that we’ve had as a group.”

What Barnes seems to be saying is that in order to create that culture and establish that identity, it takes full commitment⁠— commitment to the hard work that it takes to get better. It’s easy to get away from that when the task is being undertaken on a team that has lost for so long because it seems more and more impossible. That’s why it is necessary to bring in a group of guys willing to do that, willing to get dirty enough to stop a record drought⁠— something that has not been adequately achieved.

But what’s been so elusive for so long now seems like it may be coming into reach.

Up until the trades in February, commitment seemed like it was nowhere to be found in Sacramento as the season progressed. After the changes, however, the outlook was better, mainly because there was a clear formula being generated, one this roster is cognizant of and willing to commit to.

A direction was charted when the Kings traded one of their three talented young point guards to get an all-star big man that can facilitate, rebound, score, and help lead. Paired with Fox, a dynamic foundation has been laid, and formula established.

In addition to that, a defensive identity is forming on the backs of newcomer Donte DiVincenzo and rookie Davion Mitchell, whose expanded role has generated his most discernible progression as a pro. The presence of veterans like Trey Lyles in addition to Barnes is creating an environment of patience needed to counter the pressures that accompany a record playoff drought. And the team has each other’s back⁠—they have the confidence to manifest good habits.

In this way, there is hope, and not only because the team⁠—comprised of many guys that will and should be back next season⁠—is gaining momentum in refining chemistry and establishing an identity, but also because the fact that those moves were made and a direction was settled on means the necessity of continuity and stability is now understood.

A record sixteen straight seasons is a tough pill to swallow, but if those sixteen years can provide any insight, it’s that this post-deadline Kings team, as it stands now, and as it heads into next season, feels like an outlier in Sacramento’s recent history. 

Without getting ahead of themselves, Kings fans do have reason to think that the conclusion of this season is indeed rock bottom, that this is a turning point. For all the things that have gone wrong for the Kings over the years, things look like they could go right for a change.

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