A season ago, the Kings shocked the NBA when they finished the year 39-43. Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted the team would win 25.5 games. Many around the league thought the win total might be lower than that.
With an increase in wins, expectations are on the rise in Sacramento. The Kings have focused heavily on player development and their young core, but it’s about to get very complex.
“You are grooming young men, young kids actually, into young men, to be better players and better people off the court,” assistant general manager Peja Stojakovic said on the latest edition of the Purple Talk podcast. “At the same time, you are investing a lot of money in them. So there’s a plan for everything in place.”
The team already locked up Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield on two of the richest contracts in team history, but they can’t stop there.
Bogdan Bogdanovic will be a restricted free agent over the summer and De’Aaron Fox is eligible for an extension as well. They can extend Marvin Bagley in the summer of 2021, which would keep the core five together for the long haul.
None of this sounds unreasonable. It’s the dynamics of contracts, player growth and economics in the NBA.
But what if this group for one reason or another isn’t good enough? What if general manager Vlade Divac and his front office team spend the required $120-130 million to see this through and the team plateaus earlier than expected?
The Kings want to keep the young core together, but in order to do so, they are going to have to extend themselves financially into a very uncomfortable place, and ask themselves a very difficult question -- how much can you pay without knowing if you have a playoff-caliber team?
It’s complicated, but the Kings have game planned for multiple scenarios that could play out.
“I think you always prepare for both options - you always have a Plan A or Plan B,” Stojakovic said. “Obviously, every move so far has been strategically made, with the thinking to have flexibility moving forward and also understanding that our young guys, our young core, is going through the period of developing an understanding of what it takes to win, but never putting, economically, this organization in jeopardy.”
In a perfect world, the Kings either would make the playoffs or at least get close this season. There was hope that the franchise would have a measuring stick to predict what might be next.
An 0-5 start complicated this issue, but the Kings have a handful of new players and they are learning an entirely new offense from an entirely new coaching staff.
“We kind of understood going into this season that there was going to be a transition period of having a new coaching staff, having our young guys in different roles, where you are going to expect more from De’Aaron Fox, from Bagley, and it will take some time,” Stojakovic said. “It’s getting slowly there.”
Fox’s role as the team’s starting point guard was beginning to expand. The talented 21-year-old had a breakout second season and looked strong before an ankle injury Monday likely wiped out a huge chunk of the first half of the season.
Bagley didn’t even have a chance to enjoy his time as the Kings' starting power forward. He broke his thumb in the opener and still is a week or two away from a return.
“Unfortunately, injuries are part of our game, but we believe in our group, we believe in what we are doing and good things are going to happen,” Stojakovic added.
Injuries happen. Both players are hard workers and the injuries they sustained are just bad luck. Fox is just 21 years old and Bagley is 20. They both are years away from their prime and have plenty of time to recover from their current bumps and bruises and continue their development.
Is it possible the Kings tread water until Fox and Bagley return? Sure, the Kings aren’t 100 percent reliant on any one player yet and the front office added depth to the roster that wasn’t there in past seasons.
“It’s not a one or two or three guys basketball team, it’s 15 guys on a roster and it’s next man up and it’s next opportunity for someone else to showcase their talent,” Stojakovic said.
This isn’t a short play for the Kings. They are in it for the long haul with what they believe is an intriguing group of young players and they have done their best to put the right support staff around them.
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None of this changes the fact that the Kings will have to continue to make major decisions with regard to this roster long before they are positive they have a winner.
The Kings aren't the first team to face this dilemma and they won’t be the last. They have no choice but to take a leap of faith with this group and stay the course.