The Sacramento Kings, by all appearances, are a piteous team.
Their coach, George Karl, tried to trade his star player, and then went to war with the general manager and owner, all during the course of the ten-day NBA Las Vegas Summer League. The general manager, Vlade Divac – who has, charitably speaking, a tenuous grasp of the salary cap – traded away control of three years of first-round draft picks to the 76ers in order to clear cap space. He then, in a fierce bidding war against himself, signed Rajon Rondo, a locker-room enigma and passing savant who is also a modern basketball anathema: a point guard who cannot shoot. The experiment is going about as well as you’d expect. Divac also decided to throw an exorbitant amount of money at Kosta Koufos, a Canal Street version of Divac himself. Batshit insane, the Kings have a front office that can’t stand each other and a roster that seems better suited to the days of Chuck Taylors and peach baskets than today’s world of spacing and positionless basketball. Couched in the most scientific terms, they suck.
But the Kings are here to save basketball.
Most NBA teams have a plan. Whether it is the Doomsday draft-pick hoarders in Philadelphia or the postmodern basketball utopia in Oakland or the math-fueled, unfeeling basketball android in Houston or even the Zen-induced Triangle fetish in Manhattan, nearly every franchise has a meticulously fashioned process, an identity, a neat representation of who they are and how they think a team should be built.
These processes, though, disparate as they are, feed into a common vision of the future of the sport: An analytics-induced fever dream of corner three-point shots and free throws. Big men are dead – the Warriors ran the Cavaliers off the court in the Finals sans Andrew Bogut, their stalwart center. Real Plus-Minus and other sabermetrics are more telling than traditional counting stats – DeMarre Carroll and Khris Middleton both received more than 50 million dollars despite their underwhelming traditional numbers. Teams are all beginning to play the same way because it is universally recognized as the optimal way to play. But at the risk of sounding like Charles Barkley or Phil Jackson or any number of other crackpot hoop nostalgia mongers, basketball is losing its soul.
Tucked away in Sacramento, the Kings exist, proudly defiant of the changing world around them. They have fired their chief statistical analyst, the legendary – or at least legendary in a very particular realm – Dean Oliver. They are the sole team to recognize the beauty of the bad shot, the fleeting moment of infinite possibility as the ball arcs its way over the outstretched arm of the defender and continues its rogue parabola towards the unsuspecting net as the bodies below ready themselves before the inevitable chaos. The Kings not only march to the beat of their own drum, they are the only team to know that that drum even still exists. Built around a post-game colossus (DeMarcus Cousins) and an unrepentant midrange chucker (Rudy Gay) the Kings are a paean not to how the game should be played, but to how it is played. They don’t space the floor, because maintaining proper spacing is really hard. They occasionally just stand there, completely uninterested, hands on knees, because sometimes you just get tired and basketball games are kind of long, you guys.
But still, hidden beneath the calcified layers of awfulness, there is enough talent for a potential playoff bid if you squint hard and believe blindly. Still, that team can never come to exist, because if it did, the Kings would no longer be the Kings. The Kings, on some fundamental level, are bad at basketball – and that is what makes them so great. They are desperately raging against the light of their own futility, one failed isolation at a time.
The rest of the NBA is disappearing further into their code of shot selection and Thibodeau-ian defensive game plans. Basketball is becoming less accessible and more perfect. The glorious train wreck that is the Sacramento Kings reminds us that the game, at its very core, is still just a game. The rest of the NBA zigs; the Kings briefly consider playing four on five on defense with a cherry picker. They are the team for the everyman. They are the team for the man who loathes his boss or the kid who sits alone at lunch because his friends have become too cool for him. The Kings are terrible. The Kings are glorious.
Long live the Kings.