Number one option. Go-to guy. Lead scorer. Whatever you call it, it’s what the Kings don’t have. But also, it’s what the Kings don’t need just yet.
It’s easy for NBA fans to get fixated with the best of the best. It’s a league ruled by stars, both on the court and off. Players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James hold a superhuman, godlike status in our society. They can transcend the sport entirely to become brands and personal heroes. And it often seems like the only way for a team to compete in the league is to have a world famous player with dozens of endorsements and a signature sneaker.
Tuning in to the NBA finals this week would only appear to confirm that logic. We have the greatest player in the world on one side, and a team full of stars on the other - perhaps the most star-heavy team in modern history.
So with the offseason fast approaching, Sacramento is buzzing about finding one for themselves. How do we get our superstar? Who can we sign? Do we offer maximum contracts? Do we ship away two or three quality guys for one great player? What stars are even available?
Woah, woah, woah. Let’s all slow down for a second. Take a breath. In... And out... Good. I want you to come on a journey with me. Let’s rewind the clock exactly six years.
June 6th, 2012
The Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics were matched up the Eastern Conference finals. It was the quintessential battle of the super-teams. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. These titans of talent were going punch for punch, and it was absolutely amazing to watch.
So there you have it. It’s a star’s league. Always has been and always will be, right?
Wrong. On the other side of the country, far removed from the action, a team in Northern California that was about to rewrite the script for success in the NBA, proving that you don’t need to attract big names to be a contender.
The Golden State Warriors had just gone 23-43 in a lockout shortened season. Present-day superstar Steph Curry was no more than a mere mortal. He averaged only 14.7 points per game in his third season, and had just undergone a second surgery on his right ankle. Klay Thompson had just wrapped up an underwhelming rookie campaign, averaging 12.5 points off the bench and finishing outside of the top-5 in Rookie of the Year voting. There was excitement in Oakland about their young players, and they had optimism about the 7th pick in the upcoming draft, but there was no certainty about their future.
They would end up selecting Harrison Barnes in the first round a few weeks later, and adding Draymond Green in the second. The two rookies, combined with improvement from their backcourt of previous lottery picks, would allow the team to turn the corner the following season and end their 5-year playoff drought. They would finish 47-25 and made it to the sound round of the postseason. And they did so without a true star.
Trying to make the case that the Warriors were not always a star studded team is a difficult task when we’ve watched them reach the NBA Finals in each of the last four years. But the only player on that 2012-13 team to make the All-Star game was an aging David Lee who just barely got the call, receiving only the 18th most votes in the Western Conference.
It took both Curry and Klay until their 4th season to break the 20 points per game mark. Curry wasn’t an all-star until year 5, while Klay and Draymond didn’t get the honor until their 4th season. Perhaps the surest sign that Curry was not yet perceived as a lock to be a star was the 4-year extension he signed that November for a modest $44 million.
Back to the Future
The similarities between the 2018 Kings and the 2012 Warriors are significant. The Kings also have a backcourt duo of skilled lottery picks. De’Aaron Fox (20) and Buddy Hield (24) are actually younger now than Curry (24) and Klay (22) were then, and they were drafted higher (5th and 6th compared to 7th and 11th). Now the Kings will be adding a second overall pick and a potential late draft steal in Harry Giles to their rotation. Isn’t it possible that they could affect the Kings similarly to how Barnes and Draymond affected Golden State?
You may have to squint at this roster to see it, but the blueprint is there. All this isn’t to say that Sacramento will have four superstars and own the NBA in a few years, but what it does suggest is that there is real value in building from the inside before looking for some final pieces in free agency or through costly trades.
It comes back to the general principle that putting too much power in the hands of one individual can be a serious mistake. With the possible exception of a LeBron James type talent, no one player can do it all by himself. And even James has resorted to teaming up with other stars to improve his chances at winning. If he falls to the Warriors again in these finals, he may very well leave to do it again.
When the star power of a team is well balanced and divided throughout the roster, it leads to cohesion and trust. It emphasizes the need for – and value of – teamwork. On the flipside, if all of a franchise’s eggs are in one basket the opposite can happen. Even when things are starting to go right, they can easily and rapidly go wrong.
There is a long history of star players demanding trades. And it’s not just when their teams are performing poorly. Chris Paul left a 46-win Hornets team that won only 21 games without him in the following season. Dwight Howard forced his way out of Orlando after they had made six consecutive playoff appearances. The Magic finished 20-62 in the next year. And although the effect on the Nuggets was not as dramatic when Carmelo Anthony demanded to be traded, it goes to show that even teams that wins 50 games, year after year, are not immune to the downsides of star power.
Additionally, it’s been shown that a quick solution does not always come with a big acquisition. The Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies handed out contracts worth $90 million or more in the last few years and have not found improvement. Injury has been a big factor in both situations, but that is exactly the type of risk a team exposes itself to when it gives over 25% of its salary to just one player. And even when the players stay healthy, there are no guarantees.
The aforementioned Harrison Barnes was poached away from the Warriors in 2016 on a contract of the same magnitude. He hasn’t missed more than 5 games in either season since joining the Dallas Mavericks, yet their win total has dropped by 9 each year (from 42, to 33, to 24). In the same offseason Barnes was signed, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah received 4-year deals for $72 million apiece. This year they were paid a combined $35 million in salary to play a total of 53 minutes.
There is No One Right Way to Build a Playoff Team
Almost half of the teams that reached the postseason this year did so with the help of major acquisitions. The Cavaliers, Thunder, Rockets, Pelicans, Timberwolves, and Heat all have All-Stars that joined their rosters through free agency or trade.
Most of the other half got there almost exclusively on in-house talent. The Raptors and Warriors won 59 and 58 games on homegrown talent. The Bucks, Sixers, Wizards, Blazers, and Jazz have cores that have grown toward greatness together as a unit.
The few remaining teams can be categorized somewhere in between. Boston pushed LeBron to the breaking point without their two biggest imports, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. And the Spurs, who have been the shining example of internal development in the NBA for decades, uncharacteristically pursued LaMarcus Aldridge a few years ago. The Pacers got a surprise All-Star in a trade last offseason, but only because their previous superstar had made it known that he would not resign with the team.
What is clear, above all else, is that both approaches can work. The issue becomes deciding which path will be the way forward for Sacramento. There is a lot to consider, and different fans can understandably have different opinions.
Some feel that we need that number one option as soon as possible, and are willing to give up whatever it takes. Others think that patience is the wise choice, and wouldn’t sacrifice any of the young Kings core for a big name or risk a maximum contract on the wrong guy. Personally, I am amongst the latter. I believe the Kings will find the right pieces at the right time, and to force it would be a mistake. But even more than that, I believe that the Kings have the luxury of choice right now, and that we should all be grateful for it.