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Will the Kings or the Kangz Prevail?

Sacramento is, improbably, one game under .500 and on the fringes of the playoff picture at the season’s halfway point. Will the new era win out, or will the franchise’s blundering ways re-emerge? The weeks leading into the trade deadline may provide the answer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s the second week of January, and the Sacramento Kings have dropped five of their past six games, including a loss Tuesday to the Phoenix Suns. In past seasons, there would be nothing to see here—just some run-of-the-mill, middle-of-the-season, Kingsian L-taking. But for the first time in a long time, we’re dealing with the Kings, not the #Kangz. Sacramento is in the race for the Western Conference playoffs. Legitimately. The Kings are two games away from eighth place and a game and a half away from 14th place. For a franchise that has missed the playoffs for 12 straight seasons, this is a breakthrough. But with half of a season still to play, the question now becomes: Can the Kings actually pull this off?

They are reportedly looking to the trade market for answers. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that Sacramento and New York are discussing a trade of Zach Randolph for Knicks rebounding specialist Enes Kanter. There’s “nothing close yet,” per ESPN’s sources, and the Kings would like to tack on more expiring contracts in a proposed deal. Randolph hasn’t played a minute this season as coach Dave Joerger pushes the Kings toward the young and the fast, but his $11.6 million expiring contract is a solid trade piece for the Kings to use to find what they’re missing. Kanter, who is also in the last year of his contract (earning $18.6 million this season), has also seen a reduction in minutes, to 22.1 off the bench over the past six games.

Though Kanter’s defense wouldn’t help the Kings’ 23rd-ranked unit, he could help with rebounding, one of their worst faults. The Kings are fifth worst in rebounding percentage; Kanter is 12th in the NBA in rebounding percentage, at 19.2, just behind Rudy Gobert. Kanter has his flaws, but he’s a reliable double-double machine when given the opportunity.

Despite the front office’s reputation as one of least shrewd, it may have a real chance to enhance the roster at a crucial time. Though the franchise doesn’t own its 2019 first-round draft pick (the Celtics do, unless the Kings win the lottery, in which case it belongs to the Sixers), it does have another huge advantage. Currently, Sacramento is the only team with cap space, by a mile, with $11 million in room. As a result, the Kings have the ability to eat more salary in order to get back a serviceable player. Enes “Can’t Play Kanter” Kanter wouldn’t make up for Willie Cauley-Stein’s lack of rim protection, nor does he have Randolph’s experience to potentially pass on to young players. But the team could use some help on the fringes. Sacramento lost by an average margin of five points during its recent four-game losing streak, then fell to Phoenix 115-111. The Kings are unfortunately as adept at losing large leads as they are creating them in the first place.

At a game under .500 (20-21), the Kings are in a situation no one expected. It’s shocking enough that the play of De’Aaron Fox (and to some degree, Marvin Bagley III) has quieted the would-be screams of Kings fans after watching Luka Doncic for a couple of months. But it remains to be seen whether Sacramento can make the postseason as currently constructed, especially with teams like the Pelicans and Timberwolves still lurking behind them in the standings. Whether they make it could come down to the decisions they make ahead of the February 7 trade deadline. And what are the Kings known for, if not their decision-making?