SACRAMENTO -- A lone microphone sat perched on a table when media members assembled for a post-NBA trade deadline press briefing Thursday afternoon at Golden 1 Center. All 7 feet of Kings' general manager Vlade Divac lumbered up onto the stage, sat down and, in classic fashion, made jokes.
“Two days ago, I had a better deal, but it didn’t go through,” Divac said with a smile after further transforming the Kings' roster at the NBA trade deadline.
Of course, Divac was taking a self-deprecating jab at himself. Those are the words he spoke following the deadline trade of DeMarcus Cousins two years ago, and they went viral and made him a target around the league.
Divac has come a long way since that moment, and he continues to grow into his role. The fact that he was sitting alone on the stage speaks volumes about how far he has come.
Like raising a child, running an NBA franchise takes an army. But someone has to lead the way.
Standing along the side wall during the press conference was Ken Catanella, one of Divac’s three assistant GMs. Known for his work with the salary cap, Catanella had plenty to do with the Kings’ position coming into the trade deadline.
“I’m so thankful for the people that work with me,” Divac said. “I think we did a great job preparing ourselves for this time. We did a great job as a team.”
A series of conservative short-term deals allowed Sacramento to leverage expiring contracts and its existing $11 million in cap space as assets to acquire Harrison Barnes from the Dallas Mavericks.
Iman Shumpert’s expiring contract yielded Alec Burks and a second-round draft pick in a three-team trade with the Houston Rockets and the Cleveland Cavaliers. None of these deals would have worked without budget-conscious Catanella.
Brandon Williams and Peja Stojakovic stayed behind the scenes, but both were instrumental in supporting Divac as he navigated the treacherous trade deadline waters.
“It’s very easy to execute when you have a group of people that know each other very well,” Divac added while jokingly pointing out that Catanella was getting a raise for being the only one who showed up at the press conference to support him.
Divac and his team had a clear set of objectives coming into the season as to how they would approach their assets. Initially, they were looking to leverage their expiring contracts and massive cap space to perhaps gain back a 2019 draft pick.
With the team winning, goals shifted, but the Kings’ front office never lost sight of the basic principles that have allowed the franchise to take giant leaps forward in their rebuild.
“Our focus going into this process was to improve our team and not jeopardize our future,” Divac said. “I think we achieved exactly what we tried. We brought talent that is going to help us be a better team, not just for now, but moving forward.”
Sacramento came into the deadline with a glaring hole at small forward, as well as a need for more talent. Shumpert was undersized for the position, and second-year forward Justin Jackson, who went to Dallas in the Barnes trade, wasn’t ready to take on the role full time.
After making it through the first half of the season with eight players on rookie scale contracts, Divac looked for and found a seasoned veteran who matched the team’s age arc.
At 26 years old, Barnes checked a lot of boxes for the Kings. He has the size and physical tools to step in and help right away. Also, his $24.1 million salary for this season with a player option next season at $25.1 million is manageable considering the team's overall cap structure.
“I see him as a player who’s going to help us go to the next level,” Divac said of Barnes. “Everything else about his playing position or whatever, that’s for Dave [Joerger] to decide how he’s going to make happen.”
It’s a hallmark of Divac’s managerial style. He’s learned what he knows and what he doesn’t. While he’s had to play peacekeeper on occasion, he lets the people around him do what they do best.
Barnes will have a chance to see if Sacramento is a good fit. The Kings took a gamble that he will decide to stay with the team beyond this season.
“We want to focus on the rest of the season, and we’re going to talk about it after, but definitely, we have interest to have him here for a long time,” Divac said.
Burks and Shumpert were a virtual wash financially, and the Kings picked up an additional second-round pick in the process. While it’s not an earth-shattering addition, it’s another transaction in a series of savvy moves that the team has pulled off.
Divac has made plenty of mistakes since taking over the Kings following the 2014-15 season, but he’s learned on the fly and made adjustments. He’s helped rebuild the franchise that he led as a player, and he’s positioned the team well for the future.
While it started off rocky, Divac has stabilized the Kings, who as of now sit only one game out of the Western Conference's No. 8 playoff spot.