Last week, I presented a post titled "Judging Geoff" in which I presumed to offer an assessment of the body of work of Kings President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie. With the benefit of full "50-50" hindsight, I based my assessment on available data and on my own historical recollection. I then used that assessment to draw conclusions about how the Kings declined so rapidly from near-championship status, and to ascertain what lessons might be learned "moving forward" (to use a favorite GP aphorism). The discussion thread that followed that post provided some good perspectives, and led me to modify my conclusions somewhat. So at the risk of beating a dead horse and/or stating what is already glaringly obvious, I've decided to offer this brief(er) follow-up.
In my earlier post, I categorized all of Petrie’s managerial moves as falling into the following categories: draft picks; trades; free agent signings; contracts to returning Kings players; staff decisions; and player releases. Within each of these categories, I came to the following conclusions:
Draft Picks: Petrie’s draft record is somewhere between good and excellent. The decline of the Kings is not attributable to his performance in this area.
Trades: Petrie’s talent-based trades have generally been very good (although increasingly sparse), while his salary dump trades have been underwhelming but largely necessary.
Free Agent Signings: Most of Petrie’s successes in this category came during the glory years. Since then, his record has been uninspired, although financial constraints may have played a role in that.
Contracts for Returning Kings Players: Several recent decisions in this category have proven to be downright onerous, and have contributed significantly to the downfall of the once-mighty Kings.
Staff Decisions: Adelman was an exceptional coach for eight seasons, and he was followed by three busts. The lack of coaching stability in the last three seasons has been detrimental to players and the team culture.
Player Releases: The renunciation of any claim on Gerald Wallace was probably a major mistake. Other than that, player releases have been largely inconsequential.
While I still consider these conclusions to be valid, they overlook a key point that arose during the subsequent discussion thread. As it is, I gave Petrie good marks for drafting and trades, while I tended to point toward contracts and staff decisions as the key problem areas. While I still consider Petrie’s draft record to be almost unassailable, I left out one key point on the subject of trades---a point that has had a huge ripple effect on the other categories. That issue is timing.
Timing is Everything
In revising my assessment, I’d like to start with a quote from Bee columnist Sam Amick, who had the following to say when he issued Kings mid-season grades this past January:
From Kings co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof to basketball president Geoff Petrie on down, they created this mess. Rebuilding is one thing, but the way in which they tiptoed through the demolition process meant they didn’t get out before the debris started falling. Petrie’s recent trades have had little to no impact other than saving his bosses some money…
When the King traded Mike Bibby to Atlanta at the trade deadline in 2008, Bibby’s stock had fallen to the point where he commanded almost no return value other than expiring contracts. If, however, he had been traded two or three seasons earlier, the results would likely have been very different. We all recall how Bibby excelled within a system where he shared backcourt duties with two solid defenders possessing excellent ball-handling and distribution skills (Christie and B-Jax), and a pair of frontcourt players who ran the high-post offense to near perfection (Vlade/Webber or Vlade/Miller). Once Vlade, C-Webb, Christie, and Jackson were gone and/or fell into decline, Bibby’s shortcomings---especially his substandard defense, limited ball distribution capabilities, and leadership deficiencies---became apparent.
A similar case can be made for Peja Stojakovic. From a talent and leadership standpoint, the Kings came out ahead in the Peja for Artest trade. But everyone knew that Ron-Ron came with a bright neon "Buyer Beware" label roughly the size of the Palace of Auburn Hills. He brought diverse skills and much-needed on-court leadership (something in which Peja was utterly lacking), but Artest was never realistically a guy that the Kings could build around; he was just a tad too psychotic. If, however, the Kings had unloaded Peja the previous season (or the previous off-season), the long-term result might have been more favorable. Peja was coming off an All-Star 2003/04 campaign in which he had finished second in the league in scoring. Like Bibby, Peja excelled in the motion offense, most especially with Vlade on the court. Together they carved up opposing defenses with impeccable precision. But once Vlade was gone, Peja’s game suffered and his value slid.
A like argument can be made for Brad Miller, who was also coming off an All-Star season in 2003/04. A late season injury in 2004/05 reduced his trade value, but overall his statistics were solid and his stock remained fairly high. By the time the Kings actually traded him last season, it was pure salary dump with minimal talent in return.
The timing issue is one where we have the benefit of perfect hindsight. The 2004/05 season and subsequent off-season was the critical period during which the trade values of Bibby, Peja, and Miller were very high, but where their future value to the Kings had fallen off considerably due to the aforementioned departures of key teammates. At that time, the Kings could likely have commanded major talent and/or high draft picks in return for all three players. Instead, the Kings presumed to reload the roster around a core of Bibby, Peja, and Miller, which in retrospect seems almost ridiculous. Three aging, slow, unathletic, defensively-challenged, leadership-deficient role players do not provide a basis for championship contention, as history has unkindly shown us.
Some may recall that during the summer of 2005, when the much-despised Phil Jackson was contemplating his return to the coaching ranks following a season in exile, the Maloofs tried to persuade him to come to Sacramento. At that time, they thought they had the makings of a championship squad. They were wrong. And Phil, to his credit, apparently understood that. Unfortunately, rather than showing any class, the Zen Bastard took a major cheap shot at Adelman by saying he never considered the job because the Maloofs didn’t fire Adelman first (as if that really had any bearing on the situation at all).
In any event, the overriding conclusion I make here is that Petrie (and the Maloofs) made the fundamental miscalculation of assuming that a team built around Bibby, Peja, and Miller could contend for a title. Many of us (myself included) drank from this same pitcher of Kool-Aid at the time. Even Shaquille O’Neal stated during the summer of 2005 that he thought Jackson should have taken the Sacramento job (although Shaq may just have been dissing Kobe). But Phil is nothing if not a good judge of winning talent and circumstances. He concluded that a self-centered superstar on a team in a huge media market trumps a small market team led by a handful of high-end role players. How right he was.
The Ripple Effect
In my previous post I pointed to the Webber and Bibby contracts as two major reasons for the Kings downfall. While that may be true per se, in fairness I must revise my logic by saying that neither contract really explains the Kings subsequent collapse, and, in fact, neither can justifiably be criticized much at all, given what was known at the time.
There seems to be near unanimity among StR readers that Webber’s max contract was unavoidable---the Kings pretty much had to give it to him. He was their best player and their co-leader (with Vlade), and the Kings were in the ascendancy and poised to challenge for the title. While a few warning flags did exist at the time, they were more yellow than red. And it’s not like the Webber contract singlehandedly brought down the franchise. Petrie did an admirable job of dumping Webber onto the Sixers at probably the only time that any taker was likely to appear. I maintain that the deal was a very good move, if only for that reason. It is likely (though can’t be confirmed) that Petrie subsequently tried to unload K9 (Woof!) as soon as he possibly could, but not surprisingly he never found any takers.
The Bibby contract is another one that cannot really be challenged. Bibby had proven himself as a clutch player in big games and a key part of the Kings’ success. Again, the problem with Bibby was not so much his contract as the timing of his departure. The Kings clung to the notion that a core of Bibby-Peja-Miller (later Bibby-Artest-Miller) could lead them in the direction of a title. The Shareef contract and the Wells offer were both made in this context. A true rebuild should have been undertaken beginning in 2005 or so, and built around assets obtained from the unloading of at least two of the members of the Bibby-Peja-Miller trio. More than any other, that was probably Petrie’s single biggest miscalculation as GM.
It is always dangerous to claim to have learned unambiguous lessons from the past mistakes of others, assuming you’ve even correctly identified those mistakes in the first place. Petrie’s basketball knowledge laps that of the casual fan (such as myself) by several light years. Nevertheless, at the risk of incurring the wrath of those far more knowledgeable than I, these are the lessons that I take from past Kings history and from their current plight:
1. When it comes to the draft, trust Geoff. Nobody’s perfect, but he is pretty damned good. When he retires as President of Basketball Operations, hopefully he’ll consider a lower profile position as Kings Draft Advisor-at-Large, or some similar title.
2. Championship teams generally require All-Star talent, exceptional defense, and leadership. A title contender cannot be built around a core of aging, slow, unathletic, defensively-challenged, leadership-deficient high-end role players.
3. When in rebuild mode, stay away from guys with high mileage, non-existent defensive skills, and/or a history of attitude, performance, or injury problems. Neither Shareef nor Beno ever should have been signed to large contracts, and the Wells offer should never have been made.
4. When in rebuild mode, stay away from large contracts for anyone other than young, promising talent with minimal red flags. The Kings do not need Hedo, Ariza, Odom or any other such high-priced free agent right now, as their presence would only impede player development, gobble up limited budget, and (for the older stars) fall into decline at the very time when the Kings should be returning to contention.
5. Focus on developing young talent acquired through the draft and through trades. Leave enough future budget available to pay your young talent when their paydays arrive.
6. Establish and maintain coaching stability.
7. For talented but aging roster players, exercise great caution when contemplating large, long-term contracts. Consideration of sign-and-trade options for young talent and/or high draft picks may prove to be the better long-term move.
Those are my updated conclusions. I await your feedback.