Kings

Kings Have Keys, But No One to Drive Car

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After the Sacramento Kings’ horrid loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last Sunday, a lot was said.

Alvin Gentry’s commentary, lambasting the player’s performance, gathered perhaps the most attention, but there was another brief moment that offered a candid glimpse into what this locker room looks like, how it feels, and surprisingly — importantly — how it sounds. Terence Davis was asked what he first thought was a trick question.

‘Does This Team Lack Leadership?’

After a little bit of finding his footing after being taken so off guard, he gave us a window into his perspective, a keyhole to look through, to see the silhouette — the shadow — of what we on the outside could never know on a tangible and visceral level; what it really feels like to be a player in the 2021-22 Sacramento Kings locker room.

Further, TD’s got fresh eyes on the situation. He’s new to the room, but not so new that he hasn’t seen how things operate since the trade that brought him to Sacramento last year, so his opinion has an interesting wrinkle there.

We’re going to read into his comments a little bit, hear Alvin’s reply, and from there we’re going to dig into the psyche of the floundering Kings.

Leadership vs A Leader’s Voice

First let’s look into what TD actually said. Here’s the clip:

‘I don’t think we lack leadership, I just think we lack, uhh, a leader’s voice.’

That single sentence is our tell– a subtle distinction from which we will draw our psychological conclusions about the intricate dynamics between the players, coaches and team management.

Obviously, each part of the machine that is an NBA team is deeply entangled in the other, and the unavoidable truth is that you don’t come to a losing streak the magnitude of which the Kings have held for the last decade and a half without each part being deeply marred with dysfunction.

This player, as a young and upcoming member of the professional-basketball community, knew off the bat that the question he was just asked landed him directly in murky waters, with a tactful response as his only lifeboat to the clear, clean waters of a crisp individual reputation among the league.

Trick Question

He said immediately ‘Is this a trick question?’ because he knew that if he was not careful about his language, then he could, with a single slip of the tongue, cast a shadow of doubt to every GM that ever considers writing Terence Davis a contract or picking up the phone on a trade.

‘Locker-room cancer’ is a label with devastating consequences for players trying to capitalize on the small window of opportunity to establish a long-term career in the NBA, as such, he was careful with navigating his response. What we eventually land on is him making this distinction:

Do we have ‘leadership’? Yes.

Do we have ‘a leader’s voice’? No.

This subtlety opens a can of worms. And a truth behind why Sacramento is barely able to stay ahead of the league’s bottom-dwellers, who have forgone competitiveness this year in favor of vying for position to cash in on ping-pong balls and stock up on young talent.

Moreover, it leaves a question to which we have no answer at this point. What is the difference between leadership, which TD says the team has, and a leader’s voice, which TD says the team does not have?

And its natural follow-up, is it possible, without this leader’s voice, that the Kings will ever right the ship?

Gentry’s Reply

Alvin Gentry holds a positional power of leadership, although with an ‘interim’ addition of title imposing its limitation thereof.

Naturally, he was asked twice about what Davis said. His initial reaction was that of surprise and disagreement. In both of his replies, he reiterated that this team has leaders, but is just a quiet team. He said that while coaching the young Pelicans with Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, they communicated in the same fashion.

Alvin’s other young team’s lack of success, however, does not relieve much by this answer. Furthermore, this current iteration of the Kings is only one year removed from posting the second-worst defensive rating of all time. Gentry was part of that coaching staff, and has not been particularly known as an elite defensive strategist.

This year, just as last, there is a constant stream, nay flood, of miscommunication and miscues from the players on the less-glamorous side of the floor. This off-season’s apparent focus on defensive improvement has, with the notable exception of Davion Mitchell, apparently fallen flat.

With the Kings being a quiet group definitely factors in this lack of success. Missed rotations, guards getting blindsided by screens, and 22 seconds of solid defensive effort followed by a single momentary lapse of communication that results in an easy bucket for the opponent are all recurring problems.

Communication Breakdown

The solution is one and the same with Terance’s wants: more communication. In Gentry’s second reply, he event went further to poke fun at the idea of this group being more vocal. Saying that because it was a quiet team, ‘you wouldn’t have a bunch of rah-rah guys’. The concept of leadership arising in many different ways has plenty of solid footing.

But it is clear as day that from an organizational standpoint, the Kings are in dire need of someone to take the reins as the unbridled chaos of the perennial rebuild continues the rotating door of coaches, general managers and players that has been spinning for the past 15 years.

This disagreement, this not seeing eye to eye between a player — in a candid moment, saying something that was different from the spoon-fed media responses that are regurgitated after losses such as ‘We just have to stick together’ or ‘We just got to focus on the next game’ — and the interim coach, another in a long line of interim coaches picking up a season in Sacramento part way through because of the dystopian foundation of the organization, is a microcosm of the Fibonacci Sequence of failures that has been haunting all who participate in Sacramento Kings basketball, as a player, coach, organizational employee, or, highest on the hierarchy of masochism, as a fan.

The Brightest Star in the Sky

The most obvious answer to the leadership question has to be De’Aaron Fox. He’s the highest paid. Highest scoring. He’s been the poster child for the future of the team since he’s gotten to Sac.

He is a walking bucket. The eye test — as well as his personal history of success throughout the entirety of his life — suggest with the right pieces around him he could possibly lead a team to the promised land; perhaps the lowly Kings, who have been wandering in the desert for years now.

But there is one thing that has become increasingly clear during his tenure– he does not have the ‘leader’s voice’ this team is missing. He’s a quiet, reserved guy who likes to let his actions speak louder than his words. Certainly this has been a leadership style that can potentially have great impact on a team. People that work hard all the time can rub off on their peers, leading all to greater success.

But as talented as Swipa is now, he’s not at the level of a Steph Curry who, we all can agree, would pretty much elevate any team into title contenders immediately. That being said, Fox needs an infrastructure around him that can provide success at this highest level.

He can work by example and have personal success. His year-by-year numbers show marked improvement, with this season being his only dip in production, ever. But as the losing record during each of his professional seasons suggest, his brand of leadership — quiet and reserved — is not coupled with the absolute top-tier elite skill level to unsink The Titanic of Sacramento Basketball Hell on his own.

If Not Fox, Who?

If De’Aaron Fox isn’t the voice, the next obvious answer would be Harrison Barnes. Since it’s not the young star, perhaps it’s the rugged vet. His constant professionalism, championship pedigree, his night-in-and-night-out consistency of behavior and message are all indicators of the leadership the team is starving for.

But he, like De’Aaron, also opts for the reserved, lead-by-example approach. Which, as we can see, doesn’t have enough gumption for the the monumental challenge of returning successful basketball to Sacramento without more talent on the roster.

In contrast, Tristan Thompson, the other grizzled vet with a ring, is not shy about making his voice heard. This was clear from the moment he first introduced himself to Sacramento. On media day he hilariously answered an awkward question for Buddy Hield about him almost being traded.

Doing so, he masterfully turned around the energy in that moment, protecting and defending his new teammate with a wily savvy that he has accrued through the years. He is an interesting spice to the soup that may eventually turn things around here. Unfortunately, he’s not a big-enough difference maker on the floor for his impact to be felt the way a star or even a starter would.

Yelling from the bench can only give you so much.

Leader Through Hard Times

Thompson’s celebrations after buckets helps to foster good vibes in the short term. What the team really needs, however, is leadership when the going gets tough. When the third-quarter destruction is just starting to begin. We as Kings fans feel like Bill Murray turning off his alarm to find it is once again Groundhog Day.

That is the very moment when we need a vocal leader.

Willing to step up to the adversity defiant, he will unify the players on the court with his rallying cry. He will galvanize this group of talented players that has been underachieving compared to what they could do in theory. Would he, could he, will he lead the team to break the playoff drought? We will answer such that desperate existential question, but first one such leader must materialize.

In-House Promotion?

Tyrese Haliburton averaged 20.6 points and 10.3 assists per game with ridiculous shooting efficiency in the previous eight games from when this article was written. De’Aaron was out for the first four of those games, and Haliburton has maintained production with only a slight dip since Fox’s return. During this run, Haliburton was able to record the highest assist count in the league, showing an affinity for setting up his teammates for success.

Certainly things to be optimistic about, but the team’s consistency isn’t following this bright spot.

These numbers suggest that if given the keys, Haliburton might be able to drive the car. Also upon Fox’s return, he said something along the lines of ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ to Ty, signaling an acceptance in the shift of the hierarchical leadership of the team– as the team is using Haliburton more and more as a primary ball handler and distributor so De’Aaron can focus on getting his own.

Is this the first sign that Tyrese could be that vocal leader? Time will tell.

Hire From Outside?

If none of the current Kings are able to put all these myriad of elements together in some combination of individual skill and group communication, then there needs to be a personnel change. The concept of this leadership at the helm, with this core of players centered around Fox as the star has failed to produce reliable consistent results on both ends of the floor.

To remedy this, Monte McNair opted to fire Luke Walton. His offseason plan was mostly to stay the course with the core. These choices both suggest his belief is that the talent is there, just not utilized in the proper fashion. The homer in me loves the way Doug Christie handled his time at the end of the bench. Off his feet, much more vocally involved than the average modern NBA coach.

Considering how far away from the norm that approach is, perhaps no coach could be the vocal component Terence Davis was wishing for.

For the future coach, it will be no small task to put the all X’s and O’s together in a way to break this voodoo curse of underachievement. All eyes on the inside continue to put forth their ideas that they just need to figure out how to put all the pieces together, but insist they like what they have.

They are building. Or so they say. To feel the pulse of their movement one has to look no further than the last three games. Two wins. One capped off with a beautiful buzzer beater. A glimmer of hope that good vibes could be on the horizon followed by the repeating nightmare. A complete and utter third-quarter meltdown to a Mavericks team held together by sticks and glue after being ravaged by COVID.

What’s Monte Going To Do?

Given his relatively conservative approach to the start of his time as GM, Monte may still even opt to put in a new long-term coach before making any major changes to the core. Monte sees the raw talent in the roster. He said as much both at the beginning of the year and after the Walton firing. Some speculate the fact that Monte has not made any trades suggests he is not able to get an adequate return for who he is shopping, even with the rumors that Fox may not be entirely off the table.

Either way, whether it’s through belief in the core or a lack of viable partners, a trade has yet to happen. One has to question how long Monte will continue the approach to run out the same group of players, to losing records, night after night.

Eventually something has to change. The Walton firing is proof that jobs are on the line. The same is certainly true for the players.

Final Thoughts

In the end, we on the outside have more questions than answers about what it’s going to take for the inner workings of the Kings’ organization to produce winning basketball. Those on the inside have even more questions than us observers. They must be thoughtful in their execution to resolve this long-term failure. The empty seats at The Golden One Center are indicative of the fatigue on the fan base.

They are unwilling to continue to support bad basketball after losing for so long.

Which direction they will go depends on each other entirely, and they will only go as far as the orchestrated union of all their efforts will allow. Players must play. Coaches must coach. Management must manage.

Until this symbiosis occurs, the dysfunctional dynamic will persist. Somewhere along the way, a leader must emerge, and help the team bring the fans a viable on court product on a consistent basis. Lest we dwell in the cellars endlessly and continue the 15-year tradition of losing in Sacramento.

About Brad Bates

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