Theses On Geoff Petrie And The Plight Of The Sacramento Kings

I'd meant to write my grand assessment of Geoff Petrie sometime toward the end of this season, but Henry Abbott's critique of the way that the Sacramento Kings have been run in recent years has captured enough attention to warrant an accelerated effort. Before we dig in, I feel obliged to note that while there's no blogger whose work I respect more, I have disagreed with Henry plenty of times, often in writing. Don't think that any agreements or disagreements in this piece are colored by any of that. I'm doing my best here to assess Petrie, the arguments sympathetic to Petrie and the arguments critical of Petrie on their merits and "truthiness" alone.

So Henry's piece isn't exactly about the Kings or Petrie. It's about a lot of things: the so-called moral hazard of the NBA draft (something Malcolm Gladwell introduced widely to the intellectualista set a few years back), the incentive to bottom out and the difficulty in separating the wheat from the cigarette butts among the GM ranks. Petrie figures in all three headings, but is the marquee star of the last one. There are two GMs that Henry calls out for poor performance by name in the 4,000-word piece: Rod Thorn (now of the Sixers) and Petrie.

Let's look at the specific critiques of Petrie.

Passages from Abbott will be in blockquotes. My notes follow.

They recently fired castoff coach Paul Westphal, whom they hired after he had made the Pepperdine team worse every year he was there.

There are two key additions needed in any assessment of the Westphal era: he fit the Maloofs' conservative budget ($2.5 million guaranteed over two years) and he had legit NBA head coaching experience. On the latter point, the team had been burned by an inexperienced Reggie Theus (another mistake to add to the list) and even considered Eric Musselman too unfamiliar with how to deal with NBA players after his stint, even though he had two seasons of NBA head coaching experience coming in. (The funny thing: in the end, Westphal was less suited to deal with the modern NBA player than either of his less experienced predecessors. Old and out-of-touch is as bad as young and clueless, as it turns out.)

On the budget part: there were reports that the Kings were bristling at Kurt Rambis' whopping asking price in 2009. Rambis ended up signing with Minnesota for $8 million over four years. In other words, there have been suggestions the Maloofs in 2009 couldn't afford $2 million a year for a stinkin' head coach. That cannot be ignored in judging the team's hire of Westphal. There was a real budget involved. That said, Tom Thibodeau interviewed for the job that year (and in 2007, when Theus landed it) and was passed up twice. He currently has the No. 1 winning percentage among all coaches with 82 or more games coached. Thibodeau wasn't pricey in 2009. The same applies to Brian Shaw, another '09 finalist.

They moved one of the league's great value plays -- a rotation player on a rookie deal -- in Omri Casspi for J.J. Hickson, whom they have since waived. The Kings were the team to throw an extra first-round pick into that deal -- and their only hope of keeping that (conditional) first-round pick is to stay bad for six full seasons.

Y'all know I'm sour as a La Folie on the Hickson deal. It was a disaster. But here, Henry ignores that Hickson too was a rotation player on a rookie deal (like Casspi), fit a positional need and was, by all accounts, better than Casspi when the deal was made. (It's been a wash this season, though astute readers will note that at least Casspi remains on Cleveland's roster.) As I've argued, the Hickson deal was a classic bad-team risk, the sort you need to swing at for a chance to hit a home run. Petrie swung the hell out on this one. No two ways about it. But it certainly wasn't a deal that looked like liquefied doom from go. Hickson's poor fit with Keith Smart and short tenure in Sacramento have turned it into that. Again, Petrie deserves the heat from that poor result, just as he would have deserved credit if Hickson excelled. But the move's ultimate failure isn't some grand crime. I mean, we don't hear too much about Daryl Morey (who I imagine Henry puts on the plus side of the GM matrix) giving up the Rockets' 2012 first for Terrence Williams, who was waived about a week ago ... do we?

After the Nets used the amnesty clause on the vastly overpaid Travis Outlaw, the Kings saved the Nets $12 million by signing him for that amount off waivers -- and now he has one of the lowest PERs at his position and averages only about 10 minutes a game.

Travis Outlaw's presence is doubly sickening. It helped turn the Kings' small forward position into a money pit with now $31 million of future guaranteed salary -- beyond this season -- tied up in the position between John Salmons, Francisco Garcia and Outlaw. It's the Kings' costliest position ... and it's still the worst. That's some kind of amazing. The other reason thinking about the Outlaw claim makes me ill is a new addition to the Petrie canon. It comes from Ailene Voisin's weekend column on Jimmer Fredette. Here's the relevant snip:

Geoff Petrie and his staff approached the draft intending to move Evans to small forward, and in a draft-night trade involving three teams, they acquired Fredette and John Salmons from Milwaukee and sent point guard Beno Udrih to the Bucks.

So the Kings apparently knew they'd be moving Tyreke Evans to small forward going into the draft, but then a) traded for expensive, bad small forward Salmons and b) claimed Outlaw in December after retaining Marcus Thornton, keeping no-longer-a-PG Evans out of the backcourt once a PG developed enough to start. The team tried to solve a hole it had already "solved" by throwing money and Travis Outlaw at it. This is amazing and bad and amazingly bad.

Back to Henry's critique.

Factor in production, potential, contract and everything else, and many would value Bismack Biyombo, Beno Udrih, Jimmer Fredette and John Salmons in that order.

No, no one is taking Beno Udrih over Jimmer Fredette if all of that is factored in. Beno over Salmons? In a heartbeat. Beno and Biyombo over Jimmer and Salmons? Absolutely. But Beno is not more valued or valuable than Jimmer, especially when you consider the Kings' position. It's not difficult to imagine Jimmer replicating Beno's production within a couple of years. Let's not forget that while Fredette is a big minus on defense, Udrih's actual legal middle name is "Big Minus On Defense." (It's a Udrih family thing.)

That said, the Salmons draft deal was completely abominable. It wasn't so hot for Milwaukee, either. But the Bucks have already gotten out of it by jetting away Stephen Jackson. Johnny Salmons ain't going anywhere.

All at once, the Kings got less productive, more expensive, older, positioned worse in the draft, and more crowded at the shooting guard position.

This ignores (perhaps consciously, perhaps not) that Jimmer was brought in as a point guard, and that the Kings are grasping that argument like a half-buried zombie on a cheerleader's leg in a bad horror flick. Petrie, Smart and the Kings are deadly serious about making Jimmer into an NBA point guard. That matters in this argument. If you want to argue that their position on Jimmer is terrible, you've gotta argue that, too. The Kings think they have their point guard of the future in Jimmer.

This last offseason the team made a big splash in signing noted post defender Chuck Hayes to a bigger deal than the Rockets were willing to match.

The critique of the Hayes deal ignores four things:

1. The Kings were desperate leadership in the frontcourt to help mold DeMarcus Cousins, particularly a player who wouldn't need the ball given the high-usage escapades of a number of the other players (Cousins included).

2. The Timberwolves offered Hayes similar if not identical money as the Kings had.

3. The Rockets had both a high-priced power forward (Luis Scola) and designs on a high-priced center (2011 free agents Nene and Marc Gasol). The Kings had none of those; chasing those free agents wasn't remotely practical. As it turns out, it wasn't practical for the Rockets either.

4. Post defense was the Kings' second biggest need going into the 2011 offseason, behind shooting. Sam Dalembert's return was a complete question mark, and Hayes is considered the better man defender.

The Hayes deal made complete sense, and still does. (John Hollinger was a fan, by the way. Henry cites Hollinger's critiques elsewhere in this piece, so noting that the analyst liked the original Hayes deal seems worth noting.) Hayes is only 28. He suffered a totally unfortunate shoulder injury early in the season, which gave him even less time to adjust to Smart's system and hurt his conditioning. His first season in Sacramento has been a disappointment, but the majority of folks watching the team regularly understand the point of Chuckwagon as a King. It's not a mystery.

A few years ago the Nets voided Shareef Abdur-Rahim's contract because of medical concerns about his knee. The Kings then gave Abdur-Rahim a five-year deal worth more than $30 million.

And he played up to his contract for a year, which came with a playoff berth, before deteriorating. We'll revisit this item soon. It ended up being a bad deal, but a deal that made sense when executed.

The Kings waived Mikki Moore with a year left on three-year, $18 million deal.

This is totally misleading framing. The third year of Moore's deal was only guaranteed up to $2 million, and the common perception when the deal was signed was that the third year would never pay out the $6 million plus on paper. In the old collective bargaining agreement, you had to have a third year on a mid-level exception contract. The small guarantee on a third year was the easiest way to give Moore a de facto two-year mid-level exception. Petrie still overpaid badly for a limited, lobster-handed player. But he did it in a way that limited long-term salary exposure. It was a smart stupid deal, if that makes sense. (I accept that it likely does not.)

Petrie publicly offered Bonzi Wells a multi-year deal worth more than $30 million in the summer of 2006.

Again, the Bonzi offer is stunning in retrospect -- Wells fell out of the league within two years -- but in the context of 2006, it was far from outrageous. I called it cheap back then. (Yes, we've been around a long time. StR existed before Bonzi's first game as a King, if you newcomers can believe that.) Bonzi had other suitors at that price, but his agent badly misjudged the market, Wells waited too long to sort it out and the rest is history. The Kings didn't leave that offer on the table long, either: the Kings signed John Salmons a couple of weeks later. He ended up as a bargain on that first long-term deal. (His salary becomes stupid recently after Milwaukee re-signed him on the first day of free agency in 2010.)

As a recent All-Star and first-team all-NBA defender, Gerald Wallace has earned greater honors than any current Kings. And he would be a current King, if Petrie hadn't left him unprotected in the 2004 expansion draft.

The Gerald Wallace expansion draft saga is well-worn territory in these parts, and I believe it's pookeyguru's official beat, so I'll be brief. Here are the players the Kings protected in the expansion draft: Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, Brad Miller and Doug Christie. The Kings were competing for championships. Wallace had played about 1,500 minutes over three seasons in Sacramento. Who exactly should the Kings have left unprotected to keep Crash? Hindsight is 50/50, but teams playing for a banner don't sacrifice a starter or sixth man to keep a lightly used prospect. Again, we'll briefly revisit this soon.

A team that has struggled to find a coach is also a team that fired both (now Timberwolves head coach) Rick Adelman and (now Thunder head coach, a former Kings assistant) Scott Brooks.

The Kings fired neither. Petrie certainly had nothing to do with Adelman's exit. That was 100 percent an issue between the Maloofs and Adelman. Brooks was Musselman's top assistant, and interviewed for (and nearly won) the head coach job in 2007. He, Theus and Shaw were the finalists. The Maloofs ended up pushing for Theus. Brooks joined Seattle, and cleaned up P.J. Carlesimo's mess in 2008.

The Sixers are very pleased with young big man Spencer Hawes, whom they got in a trade that got the Kings nothing that has proved to matter.

Later in the piece, Henry argues that Rod Thorn, who runs the Sixers, is also a bad GM. Also, Philadelphia was so very pleased with Spencer Hawes that it ... let him take the qualifying offer last offseason so that he can become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Let's not get too carried away about the greatness of Spencer Hawes.

***

I feel like that was a whole lot of defense of the Sacramento Kings under Geoff Petrie I did there. So let's balance that out with some obvious criticisms that Henry left on the cutting room floor.

1. Petrie thought that a post-Webber nucleus of Bibby, Peja and Brad Miller would remain in contention. In retrospect, is that not the funniest thing that you've ever read? Holy smokes.

2. A brief list of players that Petrie, who cannot commit to a coach from more than two seasons if that, has brought in with designs (usually public) on turning into point guards: Francisco Garcia (yes seriously), John Salmons (he was a PG in Philly!), Quincy Douby, Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette. The point guard position is the most difficult to play on the floor. Forcing non-natural PGs into that role is a real trial. Forcing non-natural PGs into that role without any consistency in coaching is borderline criminal. How was Quincy Douby supposed to succeed, really? How? The story has been little different to date with Tyreke and Jimmer. That's on Petrie's head.

3. To knowingly let a coach poison the franchise's relationship with a player like DeMarcus Cousins for as long as Petrie did was incredibly dangerous. Imagine what it would have been like had Westphal not released that absurd statement on Cousins on January 1. Imagine how much worse it could have gotten before Petrie broke out the ax. That whole episode showed a remarkable lack of institutional control by the president of basketball operations -- the big cheese -- in very important matters. It was a total embarrassment, an awful situation and a disastrous precendent. It alone constitutes a fireable offense, in my opinion, and represents the poor climate of the franchise's operations far, far more than overpaying Mikki Moore or letting Scott Brooks slip away. Petrie let Paul Westphal, a bad, bargain coach with little patience for the team's best player, run the team for a period of time. That's damn near abdication. (There's a flip side to this, discussed in Point No. 4 in the pro-Petrie arguments below. But Petrie let this get remarkably out of hand ... then pinned it back on Westphal completely, as if the president of basketball operations had no possible role in it.)

4. Henry has a passage on at least four GMs who team sources say don't work very much. The only identifying info that Henry gives is that none of the four are likely to make the playoffs. He doesn't mention Petrie in this context. But I can tell you that this is absolutely something that's said about Petrie. He has a loyal team in the building at Sacramento, but it's quite common to hear that Petrie spends nearly no time interacting with players and keeps his workload light. Whether it's true or not? I don't know. But it's a common complaint from folks who would know, and it fits Henry's reportage.

5. Beyond this narrow argument about work ethic and the incentive to put in time, there is no getting around the fact that the Kings under Petrie are vastly behind most other franchises in sophistication of analysis and in organizational culture. On the latter point, Petrie has done nothing to disprove the notion that the team is run like a semi-pro club. I've been told that unlike other GMs in the league, Petrie never communicates with the management of players under contract. Important players, like Boogie or Tyreke. Petrie's silence to the press is actually silence to everyone. (And you wonder why Petrie is said to have poor relationships with so many agents?) On the former point, Sacramento remains at the back of the pack in terms of analytics and advanced scouting techniques. The hilarious thing is that because of the financial impediments placed on the franchise by the Maloofs, the Kings are the perfect candidate for a robust analytic culture.

6. "The Maloofs are cheap" only works as an excuse to a point. Why? Because the Maloofs reached their cheapest point in early 2009 -- keeping Kenny Thomas home for road trips, cutting staff, hiring Paul Westphal -- and Petrie took a pay cut to sign an extension at the end of 2009. He signed up for the lean days knowing what he'd have to work with. He can in no way claim surprise.

7. There is no room for diversity in Petrie's front office. The Kings have hired one front office employee (Jason Levien) who would challenge the club's thinking on transactions, player development and basic team culture stuff. And he got fired less than two years in. What's public about that break-up is remarkably tame compared to what folks say off-the-record about the disintegration of that relationship.

***

And now, the other side: unmentioned notes sympathetic to Petrie as a GM.

1. The Kings' poor draft performance is touched on a bit, but two things are missing. Henry cites Tom Haberstroh's excellent draft performance assessment in noting that current bad teams typically mess up in June. But Haberstroh's piece found that the Kings were in the top 10 -- No. 8 -- in relative draft value. (The piece was published in October 2011, before DeMarcus Cousins' breakout and Isaiah Thomas' debut.) So the Kings haven't been drafting poorly. Petrie has been doing that right. (The disconnect may be that because the Kings -- with an exception or two -- don't have any recent picks that leap out as stars. But of course the Kings have had just two top-5 picks in the last decade. Quality falls off remarkably quickly in the lottery. You wouldn't expect Sacramento or any team to reliably get plus players at No. 10, No. 12 and No. 19. That's where the Kings picked in 2007, 2008 and 2006, in that order.)

2. Along those lines, it's hard to make an airtight case that Petrie is a total detriment without at least addressing the fact that he just drafted perhaps the second best rookie in the entire NBA with the No. 60 pick. It has to be acknowledged at this point. I'm not sure what lies in Isaiah Thomas' future, but the fact that he has one -- that counts for something. You can be assured that had the Thunder taken Zeke at No. 55 or 57 or 60, anyone making the case that Sam Presti is a genius would be including it in their argument. My position is that even when you fairly criticize Petrie, you also need to acknowledge such an incredible victory.

3. Petrie and the Kings in the 2005-2008 period did exactly what Henry argues that teams need to be doing in a properly incentivized NBA: they tried to win without regard to draft position. Petrie could have traded Peja for an expiring contract player or let him walk as a free agent in 2006. Instead, he traded him for Ron Artest (a canny move). That extended the team's playoff run by one year, and kept them above 35 wins for two additional seasons (thanks to the retention of Miller and Bibby and the excellent Kevin Martin pick). That desire to rebuild on the fly (which every team in Henry's utopian NBA would be forced to do) led to those deals for Shareef and Mikki Moore, that offer to Bonzi and the lack of protection on Gerald Wallace. If Petrie had wanted to bottom out and let the ping pong balls save him, he would have stripped the team 3-4 years before he did. As fans just beginning to see the fruits of the rebuild, I think many of us wish he did begin the detonation sooner. Petrie himself might feel the same way. But he's now done it both ways. You can't withhold credit on both attempts, can you? In a fully macro sense, he either did it the "right way" from 2005-2008 or from 2009-2012. He used opposite approaches. One had to be the right one.

4. Petrie has shown a commendable philosophy of trusting his coaches. It worked with Adelman (in Portland and Sacramento). It failed miserably with Theus (who clearly had no idea how to use Martin, what to do at point guard any given week, and was a major contributing factor in the disintegration of Quincy Douby's NBA career). It failed on an incredibly massive scale with Westphal. It seems to be working with Keith Smart. The philosophy works a lot like livestock: what you put in is what you get out of it. If you feed your cattle well, you'll have excellent results. If you feed your cattle Paul Westphal, you'll get the Antoine Wright Experience, or the Desmond Mason Experience, or the Ime Udoka Experience, or The Spencer Hawes Suspension Experience, or The DeMarcus Cousins Suspension Experience, or ... you get the point. The philosophy -- trust your coaches -- is a good one, I think. But the inputs have largely been disastrous.

5. Something I'm guilty of when writing about Petrie is that I discount (almost to null) his previous success. Two Exec of the Year trophies don't lie. My struggle covering the Kings locally is that there's a definite set of fans that I feel overrate Petrie's decade-old triumphs. Nationally, there's little of that happening. So on the spectrum of respect for triumphs past, a big (but shrinking) group of Kings fans are on the far right (remaining loyal to Petrie), the national media is to the far left (thinking Petrie is an absolute joke who has lost his marbles), and I'm in the middle (acknowledging the successes, concerned about the prolonged slump, absolutely ready to move on with new blood). If I have the pulse right, I think most of y'all are in the same zone as I with differing opinions on whether he should actually still have his job or not. Regardless, just as is the case with Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, there's no denying that at one point Petrie was considered very good at what he does. Whether he retains any of that genius is the basis for the rest of this discussion.

***

I have made no secret of the fact that I think Petrie needs to be replaced. The record (literally) speaks for itself. In addition to the club's on-court failure, the handling of DeMarcus Cousins up until Keith Smart was promoted, the fall-out with Jason Levien, the awful trades of the past couple of years (Martin-for-Landry, the Salmons deal, the Hickson deal) and the inability to create anything like a positive team culture in spite of the losing -- all of that serves as the basis of why I think the Kings would be better off without Petrie, regardless of whether the Maloofs can pony up in July.

But I accept alternate viewpoints, and also enjoy reading dissenting opinions on the issue. I look forward to seeing how y'all feel about Henry's piece (in addition to the comments from Tuesday's FanShot) and the future of Petrie and the Kings.

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