Being within reach of the 8th and final playoff spot is risky for the Kings. Here's why.
Each day since December 24th, the Sacramento Kings have held a share, if not full possession, of the 8th playoff spot in the Western Conference. Their record has propelled them into the 8th spot, just ahead of both the Nuggets and Trailblazers. I use the term “propelled” loosely.
The Kings were 9-15 on December 12th when Rudy Gay injured his hip in a game against the Lakers. They went 4-2 over their next six games in his absence, and added a victory for good measure when he returned against the 76ers the day after Christmas. Sitting at 14-17, Sacramento had sole possession of the 8th and final playoff spot. Though rare, it is not unheard of for an NBA team to qualify for the postseason with a losing record. The Nets did it in ’13-’14. The Hawks the season prior. In fact, teams from the Eastern Conference routinely obtain 7th and 8th seeds despite their losing records.
The Western Conference is a different story. The West has been so consistently solid in recent memory that the last team to get the 8th seed with a losing record was the Clippers in ’96-’97. Despite the Jazz coming close last year (with a record of 41-41), it is historically unlikely that the final playoff spot will go to a losing franchise.
This brings us back to the Kings. The Kings do not have a winning roster.
With the current assembly of past-their-prime role players + Gay + Cousins, they are a .500 team at very best. A 36-46 team right now, if you ask me. It has been proven repeatedly this season that this roster is not one to contend for the playoffs. It is unlikely that Portland continues to play as poorly as they have, and are only a half-game behind Sacramento. The Nuggets are hot on the tail, and the Pelicans, who are only 18 months removed from their last playoff appearance, sit a game and a half back. It is reasonable to doubt the Kings and their chances to hold on to that final playoff spot, given recent history and the competition.
Being in mid-season position to make the playoffs will make GM Vlade Divac’s job that much harder when he eventually (hopefully) pulls the trigger and enters full rebuild mode.
Every day that passes is another day the Kings have wasted in a rebuild. The upcoming 2017 Draft is said to be rich with talent. Sacramento’s draft woes have been well documented, and they have a chance to correct that once again this year. But every game they win, and every day that passes without a blockbuster trade, is a step in the wrong direction. Not only do the Kings have a sought after trade chip in DeMarcus Cousins, they have a top-10 protected pick to look after.
Because of another well documented mistake by the Kings front office, Sacramento owes the Bulls their first round draft pick this season, as long as it does not fall within the top 10. (Seriously, check out the story on this trade and this pick that's been rolling over for 6 years. It's ridiculous.) Needing all the assets they can get, especially in a loaded draft, the Kings would be foolish to continue to chase a playoff spot that they presumably will not end up with.
There seems to be a simple solution to the problem: A Process.
It doesn’t have to be a Philadelphia-like process that takes eight years. We don’t even have to call it a process. Let's call it an operation. A procedure. A PROGRESS. It all starts with a plan, and the Kings have been rather plan-less for the better part of a decade. I love DeMarcus Cousins as much as the next Kings fan, but I know an asset, and a potentially prosperous situation, when I see one. It's time for him to go. Obtain current veteran talent as well as high draft picks (see: Boston) while you can. His value diminishes with each technical foul and off-the-court issue. The Kings roster after any Cousins trade will be considerably less talented, which actually works into the Kings hands if they want to keep that protected pick. It's all about the future.
Maybe there is a plan. Vlade is the GM, not me. Maybe he secretly knows that Cousins will re-sign with Sacramento after next season and is still willing to build around him.
But that doesn’t explain why he hasn’t traded Rudy Gay yet.