As you all know, our beloved Sacramento Kings were the worst team in the NBA last season, falling to a measly 17-65 record, a franchise worst. But we still have hope that with our young talent we have hit rock bottom, and there is nowhere to go but up.
So where do the Trail Blazers come into this? Well I've heard a lot of comparisons with Sacramento and Portland, mostly just because they're a couple of the teams in the league that have tried rebuilding with young talent through the draft and getting rid of bad personalities and contracts. For the Trail Blazers, this was a successful strategy, and they finished 4th in the West last season with a fantastic young nucleus that is still developing. The Kings obviously hope to emulate this success, so lets see what it took to get the Blazers from NBA worst, to one of the better teams in the league. And are the Kings all that similar?
For much of the 80s and 90s, Portland was considered a good to great team. The Blazers were perennial players in the NBA Playoffs, and had a run of 21 straight seasons until the 2003-04 season. Then came a few years of middling to below average effort by the team, as its stars were getting older, and its off-court issues dominated the locker room and media, earning the team the moniker "Jail Blazers".
The 2005-06 Blazers were the league's worst team, ending with a record of 21-61, having struggled as they dealt with the loss of many of their star veterans like Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells and Arvydas Sabonis. They were still a relatively young team, compared to most teams, but had a few veterans, such as Voshon Lenard, Theo Ratliff, and Ruben Patterson. Obviously management realized that whatever happened, wasn't good enough and it was time to start over. None of those three players were on the team next year.
So the summer began and Portland, with the worst record, ended up with the #4 pick in the draft. But they also had Boston's #7 pick from a previous trade. Two lottery picks were nothing to sneeze at. With the #4 and 7 selections, in a draft the experts called weak, Portland chose Tyrus Thomas and Randy Foye. Then began the start of the Kevin Pritchard draft day dealings. Portland trade the rights to Thomas and Viktor Khryapa for the rights to the #2 pick, LaMarcus Aldridge, and a future 2nd round pick. Then in a seperate trade, Portland traded the rights to Foye to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the rights to the #6 pick, Brandon Roy. Along with these trades, Portland also acquired Spanish Point Guard Sergio Rodriguez from Phoenix for cash, and drafted Australian Joel Freeland with the 30th pick in the draft (who has yet to come over).
Next year, with Portland's new look team, they posted a record of 32-50. The team was improving, and it helped that the Blazers had gotten such strong lottery selections, as both Aldridge and Roy looked to be future stars, with Roy winning the Rookie of the Year award. But there were still some problems with the team, especially with their leading scorer, Zach Randolph, whose big contract and nutty brain were bringing down the team. He needed to be moved. Again this would come on draft day, and big draft day moves would become synonymous with Pritchards name.
In the Draft Lottery, unlike the last year where the Blazers got "screwed" by the lottery in getting the 4th pick, this time Portland crushed the odds and got the #1 pick in the draft with only a 5% chance. Selecting Greg Oden of Ohio, the Blazers again were not content to simply wait. The Blazers unloaded the last of their headcases, Zach Randolph, to the New York Knicks in a move that did not seem good for them talent wise. In return for Randolph, Fred Jones, Dan Dickau and Demetris Nichols, the Knicks only gave up Channing Frye, Steve Francis way past his prime and a 2008 second round pick. But the move did help the Blazers, as Frye was a promising young talent they could evaluate, and they got rid of Randolphs massive contract in return for Francis's expiring deal.
Unfortunately for Portland, Oden injured himself before the start of the NBA season and ended up missing the entire season. Still, behind All-Star Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers were steadily improving, and finished the season at 41-41, failing to reach the playoffs but showing tremendous potential, especially for such a young team. Of the veterans on this team, only Przybilla had an impact on the floor, while Pritchard let Center Raef Lafrentz and his expiring contract simply expire and pocket the money instead of using the contract as trade bait.
In 08-09 the Blazers acquired even more young talent. On Draft Day they traded with the Indiana Pacers to acquire Guard Jerryd Bayless, and they drafted Forward Nicolas Batum. Also, Rudy Fernandez, a player they had acquired in a draft day deal two years earlier for cash, had come to join the team from overseas, and Greg Oden came back from his injury. Together with the now veteran young players, Portland went on to win 54 games and become the 4th seed in the Western Conference. But youth could not trump experience and the Blazers lost to the Rockets in the first round.
So the Blazers went from the worst in the NBA to 4th in the West in 3 complete seasons. Can the Kings do the same? Perhaps but its important to look at how the Blazers were able to do it:
1. A focus on ridding the team of bad contracts, aging players, and nutcases.
2. Bringing in as much talent as possible, through trades and picks in the draft.
3. Capitalizing on teams that are looking to save money by acquiring picks with cash.
4. Avoiding spending any money on the free agent market.
5. Building around a solid core of young stars and creating an identity.
The Kings have started to do a few of those things. Number 1 on that list has definitely been a priority. #2 has never been Geoff's style, but he did acquire some talent in the draft this year through a trade, trading the 31st pick to Portland for Sergio Rodriguez and Jon Brockman. Petrie also is very good at selecting talent and used the Ron Artest deal to acquire the #23 pick (Casspi). Number 3 won't work for Sacramento, at least not now, because we need all the money we can get. Number 4, Petrie seems to be getting. The franchise already regrets its MLE offer to Beno Udrih, and will probably look to try to move him and Andres Nocioni to be rid of their contracts, although a trade might be hard to come by. And the Kings are definitely building around a core of young players. Which exact young players though, its not quite clear yet. Martin is the current star of the team, but he's not the kind of guy you build around. Thompson and Hawes don't really have franchise labels, although they're good players. The Kings are hoping Evans will be that player, but we'll have to wait and see.
This team probably won't succeed as fast as Portland did. The circumstances are different. These players have played for almost as many coaches as the years they've been in the league. McMillan was with his guys from the beginning. So we'll see what Westphal can do. But I think its clear that we are building through young talent, just as Portland did. Portland got darn lucky in the draft lottery, and they have an owner who was willing to shell out money so his aggressive GM could go out and buy.
Portland went from worst to 4th in 3 seasons. I don't see us going that far that fast. Depending on how our picks turn out, and how Westphal implements his system and such, I definitely think we could make the playoffs in 2 or 3 seasons. But we're likely in for one, if not two more lottery years. And thats ok. As long as the team keeps improving. It worked for Portland, and it can work for us. And who knows? Petrie's different than Pritchard. He's used Free Agency and trades to make his team a lot better (see summer of 98). We could be back a lot sooner than we think.