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Best Case, Worst Case: Sacramento Kings

The no. 29 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has to hope one of its young players emerges as a star, because it won’t have its own draft pick to fall back on

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 29

Last Season: 27-55 (12th in Western Conference)

Notable Additions: Marvin Bagley III (draft), Harry Giles (finally healthy), Iman Shumpert (acquired last year, but he didn’t play), Ben McLemore (trade), Nemanja Bjelica (free agency), Deyonta Davis (trade)

Notable Subtractions: Vince Carter (free agency), JaKarr Sampson (free agency), Bruno Caboclo (free agency), Garrett Temple (trade), Jack Cooley (nooooooo)

Team MVP: Harry Giles

Vegas Over/Under: 25.5

Best-Case Scenario: Sacramento’s young players take a leap, and the Kings come out of 2018-19 with a core that looks primed for long-term success.

Of course, Sacramento fans have been looking to their young players to turn into future superstars for more than a decade now. Remember the “Here We Rise” team of 2010-11? This is an actual, unironic video on the Kings’ official YouTube account:

Kings fans are still waiting for the team to rise, and this season holds considerable promise. In De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, and Marvin Bagley III, the team has more young talent on the roster than any time since the franchise relocated to Sacramento in 1985. Even many of the squad’s role players haven’t yet hit their full potential, including Willie Cauley-Stein, Justin Jackson, Frank Mason III, and Skal Labissiere.

Fox still seems like the centerpiece, even after an up-and-down rookie year. The Kings just need to figure out how to use him. Fox is one of the quickest players in the NBA with the ball in his hands, yet Sacramento ran the league’s slowest offense last year, methodically dumping the ball off in the half court to bigs like 36-year-old Zach Randolph, who played nearly 26 minutes per game last season. Upping the pace and emphasizing scoring in transition could unlock Fox’s potential as a slashing playmaker. If he can add a jumper—we’re going to be asking whether Fox can add a jumper until he does or until the heat death of the universe, whichever comes first—he could become a nightmare for defenses.

But forcing the team to play faster will be difficult when half of the active roster consists of big men. The Kings have themselves a logjam at center that runs the entire spectrum of age and ability: They have high-upside rookies in Giles and Bagley, past-their-prime vets in Kosta Koufos and Randolph, and a trio of middle-of-the-road players with uncertain futures in Cauley-Stein, Labissiere, and recently acquired Deyonta Davis. On paper, it looks like a mess.

In the ideal scenario, Giles and Bagley will both rise above the rest of Sacramento’s center crop and finally establish a legitimate post-Boogie front line. It’s easy to forget that, in Giles and Bagley, the Kings now have ESPN Recruiting’s no. 1 recruits of both 2016 and 2017. The two Duke big men are top-tier athletes with complementary skill sets: Bagley looks like a double-double machine with questionable defensive potential, while Giles is a smart, versatile rim protector who showed off his new 3-point range during summer league, but who isn’t as natural an interior scorer. If the two can coexist on the court, they could cover for each other’s weaknesses and present headaches for teams that prefer small-ball personnel.

Building around a nonshooting point guard and two bigs requires as much floor spacing as a team can muster. Luckily, one of the few bright spots from last season was the sharpshooting of wings Bogdanovic and Hield. Hield connected on an incredible 43.1 percent of 3s on more than five attempts per game, and Bogdanovic hit on 39.2 percent on just over four per game. But that isn’t enough for a winning formula. The Kings took the third-fewest 3-point attempts last season. Bogdanovic and Hield will be the catalysts to getting that number at least slightly closer to the league’s average.

The team still has a gaping hole at the small forward position (barring an unexpected jump from Jackson), and little defensive potential outside of Giles. But this season is less about how all the individual pieces fit together and more about determining whether any of these young players have All-Star potential. The Kings are going to lose a lot of games in 2018-19 under any scenario—but if a star emerges, the franchise might finally make good on the “team on the rise” talk.

Worst-Case Scenario: None of Sacramento’s young players break out, and the team reaches another dead end, since its 2019 first-round draft pick belongs to either the Celtics or the Sixers.

The Kings do not control their 2019 first-round pick, a result of the team’s ill-advised 2015 trade that returned little more than the cap space to sign Koufos, Rajon Rondo, and Marco Belinelli. I’m using “ill-advised” incredibly generously here; that trade is easily the lowest point of Vlade Divac’s tenure with the team so far.

The 2019 pick will most likely transfer to the Celtics, but could go to the Sixers if it lands in the no. 1 overall spot. There’s a very real chance it will do just that, even as the lottery odds flatten this year. For most seasons since 1993, the bottom-three teams’ odds of landing the no. 1 pick descended from 25 percent to the team with the worst record, and so on. This year those three will share a 14 percent chance. The Kings currently have the second-lowest win total projection in Vegas, indicating oddsmakers believe the Kings will be one of those bottom three.

Whether the Sixers hit the jackpot or the Celtics get yet another high pick, both scenarios are nightmares for me, personally. Have you seen how many Philly and Boston fans we employ here at The Ringer? They’re equally insufferable. Next year’s draft will be my personal hell.

For Kings fans who don’t work in an office filled with the two most annoying categories of East Coast transplants (or three—The Ringer also employs more than its fair share of NYC pizza snobs), all that can be done is to try to forget about the missing pick. It makes no difference for the Kings whether it goes to the Sixers or the Celtics, and it makes no difference whether they’re handing over pick no. 1 or pick no. 30.

This season is about those young players that are already on the roster. In the darkest timeline, Fox will be hampered by his lack of shooting and defensive shortcomings, Hield will remain a sixth man, Bogdanovic will look like a role player, Giles will fall to an injury, and Bagley will look like an out-of-place tweener. Some version of this bleak situation feels hopelessly likely. While the Kings clearly have plenty of players to roll the dice on, none of them look like surefire future superstars à la last year’s Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, or Donovan Mitchell.

Divac took some heat this offseason when he said the Kings are “a superteam, just young.” It’s easy to see where he’s coming from, with so many high picks on the roster. But a superteam needs superstars, and there’s a scenario in which this squad will develop its young core into nothing more than a group of solid contributors. If that happens, the Kings will be back to rebuilding without a first-rounder to kick-start the process.

TL;DR: The Kings will be one of the worst teams in the league and will hand a top pick to one of the NBA’s most talent-rich franchises, but if a star emerges Sacramento will have reason to celebrate.