Need a road map? The Sacramento Kings should look no further than the Denver Nuggets.
After running a 46-36 record last year and missing the playoffs on the final day of the season, Denver turned disappointment into fuel.
“To come so close the last two years and miss the playoffs by one game and to challenge every player on that roster to come back an improved player and the buy in, the commitment all season long, all summer long … ,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after his team's first-round series win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night.
That fuel pushed the Nuggets to a 54-28 record this season and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. While it took seven games to knock off a veteran Spurs team in Round 1, the Nuggets still are alive, with the Portland Trail Blazers up next.
The Nuggets’ front office could have cut ties with Malone, the former Kings coach, after last season. They’d given him three seasons to turn things around, and while he had showed improvement each year, they still hadn’t reached the ultimate goal of making the postseason.
Instead of starting over with another coach, they chose the path of continuity. It’s too late for the Kings to follow in this regard. Having already jettisoned Dave Joerger, it appears the Kings will start over with Luke Walton at the helm, although allegations of sexual assault against the former Lakers coach leaves the door open for another change.
While it’s too late to reverse course on the coach, another aspect of the Nuggets team is their decision to keep the young core intact. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Gary Harris, Juan Hernangomez and Will Barton all have been together for at least three seasons. Denver let its young core simmer in a pot and let the group play as a cohesive unit.
In addition to the youth of the team, the Nuggets’ front office made strategic veteran additions in Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. While Plumlee came via trade, Millsap joined the squad on a massive free-agent contract.
Sacramento added Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline in February, and he’s already stepped into a big role with the Kings, similar to what Plumlee has done for the Nuggets. The Kings would love to lock up Barnes long term, like Denver did with Plumlee.
With Barnes already in place, the key to this offseason for the Kings might be to find a player like Millsap.
With roughly $38 million in salary-cap space, the Kings can chase an All-Star level player to add to the mix. Names such as Nikola Vucevic and DeAndre Jordan already have been mentioned around the team.
At 28 years old, Vucevic is coming off his first All-Star game appearance and will require a major investment. The 7-footer posted 20.8 points, 12 rebounds and 3.8 assists for the Orlando Magic this season, and likely is looking for a four-year, big-money deal.
Jordan, 30, isn’t the offensive player that Vucevic is, but he is one of the better rebounders in the game and might be available on a shorter-term deal at a more reasonable price.
Both players present an upgrade at center for Sacramento. Vucevic can stretch the floor and act as a central hub for the offense at times. Jordan is a defender and lob target in the post.
More than a positional upgrade, the Kings need to find veteran complimentary players who can step in and instantly improve the talent of the team while accentuating the talent of the young core.
There is no promise that the Kings will snap their 13-year playoff drought by following these steps, but to date, they’ve done a nice job of building a young core while retaining cap flexibility. They are in a position to make improvements and take this team to the next level.
The Kings are a year or two behind the Nuggets in the process, but if they continue to follow the path, there is hope for another monumental jump for this Sacramento team.