A new year can justifiably be classified as any old flip of the calendar, but for the first time in years, the last twelve months have shown positive things for the Sacramento Kings organization.
To put it another way, thinking about a year ago, the Kings were 15-22. While December was better in the aftermath of Luke Walton’s firing later in November, the team seemed to be going nowhere. It was without a direction.
A less vibrant and struggling De’Aaron Fox was being thrown around in trade rumors. Richaun Holmes, who’d been a bright spot for the team the previous two seasons, was struggling with set backs that disrupted his play, including his eye injury. Guys like Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley–who was not signed to an extension prior to the season–were already lost causes.
With another season essentially being written off, all Kings fans seemed to be able to talk about was what kind of deal would go down. Where would this team go? What would be their plan?
With Tyrese Haliburton serving as the lone and overwhelmingly positive story on the season as 2021 came to an end, it was no wonder that the February trade that sent him to Indiana was not immediately popular with the fanbase.
But it was not immediately clear to everyone involved that it was the first step in a direction.
Is it ultimately the right direction?
Hard to say, but it was a direction, a plan.
As of now, looking back to a year ago, the franchise has made unbelievable progress. What’s more, there’s some wind behind it. And a lot of credit has to go the general manager’s way.
Of course, it all started with Monte McNair’s acquisition of Domantas Sabonis and the rest of that trade deadline.
Sacramento’s GM had successfully brought in a two-time all-star to pair alongside the still-promising–and now-reinvigorated–De’Aaron Fox. In doing so, he also moved Buddy Hield’s contract, parted ways with Bagley, and radically changed what was a dull roster.
Aside from Sabonis, the Bagley trade in particular played a huge role in that last thing. Sacramento landed Trey Lyles, who has done nothing but find ways to make an impact in the most professional manner possible.
And though he was essentially allowed to walk in order to bring in Malik Monk, Donte DiVincenzo was doing a lot to rev up the competitive nature of the team on defense. DiVincenzo may have missed a fair amount of three’s in his short time in Sac, but his influence on Davion Mitchell–particularly his embracement of his defensive strengths and urge to become more vocal–cannot be discounted.
Even as the play-in pipe dream faded last season–and it was unrealistic because the team was half-new and developing on the fly–it felt like there was a good chance something productive was being built.
Late in the season, Harrison Barnes had expressed an honest intent to change the culture in Sacramento as the playoff drought hit 16 years. He essentially boiled it down to stability, saying that since he came 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.”
The lack of stability had a lot to do with owner Vivek Ranadive.
An April piece in The Sacramento Bee by Jason Anderson reiterated that fact quite clearly, citing a former member of the team’s basketball operations staff who highlighted the “toxic” nature of Ranadive’s operation, saying it spoils the “pure intentions” of employees who earnestly “want to turn [the organization] around.”
Anderson’s article was more than a justified reminder of the maddening dysfunction, it also packed a white dove, if you will.
In addition to the details of the “toxic workplace,” a second source–an unidentified minority owner–noted that things were changing, that McNair is in charge.
“I’ve looked people in the eye and said, ‘We know this has been a problem. Is it a problem today?’ They’re telling me it’s not,” the unnamed minority owner explained to Anderson regarding Ranadive’s track record. “Does Vivek have the right to approve trades or give his input? Yeah, but I don’t believe Vivek is micromanaging Monte. I believe Monte is in charge and has total control.”
With that reassurance headed into the offseason, McNair was faced with three monumental tasks.
One, he had to hire a head coach. The decision came down to three candidates, but really, just two: Mike Brown and Mark Jackson. Perhaps it was intentional, but based on Marc Stein’s reporting, the belief was that Ranadive favored Jackson while McNair and the front office favored Brown.
Ultimately, as is well known, Brown was hired. Not only is that looking wise at this point on account of the fact the Kings are 19-15 headed into the new year, but it also tacitly confirmed what Anderson had heard from the unnamed minority owner.
Next, McNair had the fourth pick in the NBA Draft. Despite all the possibilities that pick offered, the GM–with input from coach Brown and others–was quick to snag Keegan Murray out of Iowa. Giving the selection a perfect grade is far too premature at this point, but the poise and impact of the rookie for a team with a winning record has been undeniably positive.
And finally, McNair had to try and add pieces alongside Sabonis and Fox, which he did more than adequately. He signed Malik Monk, who is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and acquired the team’s starting two-guard Kevin Huerter from the Hawks.
With the three tasks completed, Mike Brown had his team, and through thirty-four games this season, they have a winning record, are on pace for the playoffs, and are sitting as one of the five or six best teams in the Western Conference. Moreover, the all-in attitude of the team is undeniable and the new head coach is leading a group that is so invested in competing that it feels wholly uncharacteristic of what this franchise has been used to.
There’s no doubt that there is plenty more to be done and that, in this situation, satisfaction will only breed more hunger. Maybe next year the discourse calls into question the GM, or the head coach’s chops, or the core of the team–or maybe Ranadive gets another wild hair up his ass–but right now, things are trending upwards and have been since 2022 began essentially.
For the first time in a while, it was a good calendar year for the Kings, and Monte McNair deserves all the credit he can get (and maybe even a contract extension).