The long road back to the playoffs

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Kings haven't sniffed the playoffs in years, and if they're going to do so anytime soon, it will take a lot of improvement to break through a Western Conference that isn't getting any easier.

Yesterday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves officially eliminated the Kings in the playoffs for what will be the 8th straight season.  Nobody but the most optimistic of fans was really expecting the Kings to be a playoff team this year, but for a franchise that's lost as much as this one has, it still stings a little bit to yet again be left out of the postseason.

But what worries me the most as a fan is just how tough making the playoffs in this Western Conference is, especially when the West doesn't show any signs of slowing down.  It's been almost two decades now that the West has been demonstrably better than the East; Just look at the fact that the 23-44 Kings have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before the 13-54 Milwaukee Bucks.  At one point pretty far into this season, the Heat and Pacers were the only two Eastern Conference teams above .500.

Right now the West is seemingly more loaded than ever.  Even the bad teams have solid foundations for the future.  The Nuggets have been without Danilo Gallinari all year.  The Lakers have been without Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash for most of the year, but will have a high lottery pick because of it this year along with plenty of cap space to sign another star.  The Pelicans have Anthony Davis blossoming into a superstar in his own right, and they have also dealt with injury issues of their own with key players Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday out.  Utah has young pieces in Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, another top pick this summer and lots of cap space starting this summer.

So where's that leave the Kings?  DeMarcus Cousins is a great asset to have, one of the best young big men in the NBA after taking a big leap this year.  Trading for Rudy Gay gave the Kings a star wing player.  Isaiah Thomas is a dynamic scorer and playmaker.  But of those three guys, only DeMarcus has been locked into a long term deal.  Gay has a player option next year for $19.3 million and Thomas will be a restricted Free Agent.  Both guys are having career years.  The Kings would probably like to keep both guys if it's possible, but cost will be a big issue.  If Gay opts out, the Kings have no control over where he signs, and in order to keep him, might have to offer more than other teams.  If he doesn't opt out, then that has a big effect on re-signing Isaiah since the Kings will be close to the luxury tax before signing Thomas.  Thomas' restricted status both helps and hurts the Kings, as the Kings can match any offer, but teams that would want to pry him away could frontload the contract offer so as to discourage a match.

Beyond those guys there are some more question marks.  Ben McLemore has a lot of potential, but early returns haven't been great.  Ray McCallum seems like a quick study who has played well as he's gotten more time late in the season.  Derrick Williams is an incredible athlete with a growing feel for the game, but is very inconsistent in his play.  The Kings will have another lottery pick this summer but we don't know yet where that will fall and who will be available.

I wouldn't be surprised if it takes a couple more years for the Kings to finally break through.  Rebuilding a team that had as much baggage as the Kings is no easy task, and it doesn't help that the Kings have whiffed on several lottery picks (the Kings could have had a Curry-Klay-Cousins trio, or a Lillard-Cousins duo).  So far I think the new management has done a pretty good job of working with what they have and not hurting themselves (although I think the Carl Landry signing was unnecessary) with poor moves.  This summer will be very interesting to watch now that they have a year under their belt, are familiar with the team, and there's no weird ownership/management transition occurring.

For once though, it finally feels like a plan is in place (expanded thoughts on what that plan is in the comments below) rather than the aimlessness of the last four years.  Our ownership and management is invested in a future here, and they don't strike me as the type of people that will tolerate being a cellar dweller for years.  Even so, it will take a lot of work, smart planning and some luck to break through in the West.  I hope Pete D'Alessandro and co. are up for it.

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