Heading into this season, the Sacramento Kings were being talked about as the team who would be helping assist the Boston Celtics nabbing Anthony Davis with their presumed top-five pick. With De’Aaron Fox struggling mightily — while Marvin Bagley III underperformed in Las Vegas Summer League and questions still remained on Buddy Hield — nobody even expected Sacramento to reach the 30-win threshold at least for another year.
Well, the Kings have 30 wins right now with 24 games remaining. Instead of being the usual cellar-dwelling team from Sacramento, this resilient group has definitely exceeded expectations while making a serious run for the playoffs before anyone ever expected it.
Meanwhile over in Phoenix, very unrealistic team expectations were being set. Former general manager Ryan McDonough said the Suns had the ingredients to be one of the league’s most improved teams in 2018-19 before his oddly timed firing a few weeks later. And then after McDonough was fired, Suns owner Robert Sarver said the time was now to “flip the switch” to playing competitive basketball.
Well, we all know how that’s gone.
The differences between Sacramento and Phoenix have become stark within a year. The Kings are 16-22 against Western Conference squads while the Suns check in at 7-31. And then when you flip it to the Eastern Conference, the difference is even wider: Sacramento = 14-6; Phoenix = 4-18.
Again, there really isn’t much of a talent gap here so this speaks plenty to what directions both franchises are heading towards. This deficit shouldn’t be so wide when comparing Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton head-to-head with Fox and Hield.
Following the Warriors’ latest win over the Kings by 2 points, Draymond Green threw major praise Sacramento’s way when it comes to the future they have. Golden State just finished off their season sweep, but it was only by a combined 12 points (2-4-5-1, an NBA record).
Draymond Green said it’s too early to say Warriors-Kings are a rivalry since Kings haven’t won’t yet. But Draymond has a lot of respect for them pic.twitter.com/NIGWwxEchJ— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) February 22, 2019
Meanwhile, every chance Phoenix has had to go up against the defending champions, it’s usually never been competitive outside of three of the last four quarters. The Warriors have defeated the Suns this season by totals of 10, 23 and 20.
Again, another big difference that shouldn’t be happening when going down both rosters in terms of talent.
With the Kings two games over .500 while the Suns are 38 below, how did both end up in the position they are now? Surprisingly enough, when going back through each team’s recent transaction histories, the Suns legitimately gift wrapped two vital core pieces to Northern California.
First, we can start at the 2016 draft. Phoenix completely bought into the idea that Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender would be their frontcourt of the future with Booker and T.J. Warren occupying the wing positions. After taking Bender No. 4 overall over Jamal Murray, who former Suns assistant Jay Triano heavily vouched for to no avail, the Suns moved back up aggressively to secure the rights to Chriss. That cost was the No. 13 and No. 28 picks (and a 2020 second-round pick via Detroit) plus the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Phoenix had grown frustrated with Bogdanovic not coming over during the first three years after he was drafted. That led to using him as the main sweetener to move up five spots for Chriss, which hasn’t panned out one bit. Chriss is on his third team in less than a year while Bogdanovic has settled in as the fourth or fifth critical piece to the newest contender out in Sacramento.
Then, at the 2017 draft, Phoenix chose Josh Jackson over Fox. Jackson was lauded as the perfect fit next to Booker due to his defense and overall versatility on both ends. At the time, no qualms were made over the selection because Jackson was a near-consensus top three selection and the Suns had a huge need at forward. Also, Fox reportedly refused to work out with Phoenix during the pre-draft process because of Eric Bledsoe being aboard.
Fast forward a year and a half later, Fox is a top contender for Most Improved Player and Jackson is still trying to find his way while facing bouts of inconsistency. Fox is averaging 17.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals in 31.2 minutes. Meanwhile, the Suns have trotted out Mike James, Tyler Ulis, Josh Gray, Isaiah Canaan, Elfrid Payton, Shaquille Harrison, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton and even Booker at the point guard position over that same span after Bledsoe forced his way out four months after the draft.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a top-flight option at point guard? Alas.
When going down the path of revisionist history, it’s easy to tell how Phoenix and Sacramento have gone in opposite directions. And it’s not something the Suns’ organization should be proud of at all, especially during their longest losing streak in franchise history.
If we also wanted to compare both teams’ rookie bigs, they are posting nearly identical numbers since the calendar flipped to 2019. In one of the most loaded rookie classes in recent memory, Ayton and Bagley III are a tier below Luka Doncic and even what Trae Young is doing lately for Atlanta. Odds are Doncic runs away with Rookie of the Year, but the Ayton versus Bagley debate will likely rage on between each of these fanbases for years to come.
Bagley III since 1/1: 14.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 26.3 minutes; 20.4 points (16.3 FGA), 11.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes; 53.9 true shooting percentage
Ayton since 1/1: 15.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 30.2 minutes; 18.2 points (14.5 FGA), 11.2 rebounds, 1 block per 36 minutes; 61.1 true shooting percentage
The Suns’ first ever No. 1 pick in Ayton is far more efficient than Bagley, but the offensive production and rebound productivity aren’t too far apart from one another. Over the next two or three years, it will be interesting to follow how both of these players develop within their systems aided by high usage guards alongside them.
Another way of showing how different the strategies were this past offseason between Sacramento and Phoenix comes from overall roster construction. Adding in the recent trades for Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks and signing of Corey Brewer as they make their surprising playoff push, the Kings have seven players on their roster at least 25 years old. Four to five of those players are receiving consistent minutes within the rotation, which makes a difference with young teams trying to take the leap.
McDonough and Co. went out and signed Trevor Ariza on the first day of free agency and then acquired Ryan Anderson in August. Both of those veterans flamed out in historic fashion — Ariza was more known for not trying in the Valley than actually doing so — arguably two of the worst outside moves Phoenix has made in franchise history.
If those end up working, maybe this season is different, but I honestly doubt it. Taking out those two disappointing veterans, only four players remain who are at least 25 years old. The main headliner here is Warren, who arguably is their best trade chip to improve the roster this summer, but the other three really don’t qualify (Troy Daniels never plays; Tyler Johnson was just traded for; Jamal Crawford turns 39 next month).
Turns out, Nemanja Bjelica and Yogi Ferrell were way better moves than Ariza and Anderson. Kudos to Sacramento, because they actually played their cards correctly going into the 2018-19 season when it comes to building a competent team with winning aspirations.
Almost all teams wanting to compete need veterans who aren’t over the hill in performance to help steer the ship initially. Unless you luck into historic draft hauls like Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden), Golden State (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) and Philadelphia (Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons), it doesn’t work to have solely young guys leading locker rooms.
Sacramento did it the right way. Meanwhile, Phoenix did it completely wrong with players who didn’t buy in after they donned Suns apparel for the first time.
Looking ahead, the Kings can easily create a max slot if they so desire this summer by renouncing Willie Cauley-Stein, even if Barnes remains. That’s the model the Suns tried to follow for 2019, but another disastrous campaign has led to them realizing no star-quality piece would want to join this franchise at its current state.
Phoenix had to punt the cap space avenue down the road after the Johnson trade two weeks ago, because they are stagnating rather than actually improving. So, how should they go about changing that?
Honestly, try to do what Sacramento did with bargain bin free agency signings preserving long-term flexibility. Maybe doing this with the point guard (Cory Joseph, T.J. McConnell, Tyus Jones) and power forward (Paul Millsap, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Taj Gibson) spots like the Kings did could pay dividends with accelerating this rebuild.
Who knew the Kings would turn into what the Suns should’ve been. Early inklings started to surface in November, but now in February it’s definitely confirmed that the Kings did it correctly while the Suns totally failed.
During his first four seasons, DeMarcus Cousins had three head coaches, two general managers, two different owners and 102 total wins. Cousins was an elite talent, but the dysfunction surrounding him overshadowed his eventual rise.
Two and a half years later, following seasons with 29 and 33 victories, Sacramento decided to say thanks but no thanks on paying Cousins. Instead, they traded him to New Orleans at the deadline for Hield.
Five years after Cousins entered the league, Booker arrived on the scene and showed immediately why he was going to be an eventual star. Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Booker are the only other guards most recently to have career averages of at least 20 points and 4 assists in their first four seasons.
However, Booker is encountering the same issues that held Cousins back. Even worse than Cousins, the other former Kentucky Wildcat will go through his first four years without really coming close to 100 total wins.
Right now, Phoenix has 79 so that means even if they win all their remaining games, Booker would still have fewer wins than Cousins did after four seasons. Yikes.
We haven’t even reached the coaches and front office changes as well. Including the 79-game interim run from Jay Triano, Booker has had four different coaches in four years. And with the preseason firing of McDonough, two general managers (it might even be three if Sarver replaces Jones, which seems very unlikely) have now tried to build correctly around Booker’s abilities.
With Booker’s $158 million max extension kicking in five months from now, the time is now for the Suns’ front office to somehow get this roster from the bottom of the standings to respectable.
The Cousins-Kings era is a good example of what happens when you waste away an All-Star talent with no functional winning parts surrounding him. Following the 2010 draft, here’s the next four first-round picks Sacramento did trying to build around Cousins: Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas.
Wow, that’s a historically awful haul but the Suns have so far seen very little out of their draft picks either.
Yet, Cousins never had teammates like Ayton or possibly Mikal Bridges, both brought here from the Suns’ most recent draft class. We’ll see how this group ends up gelling together over the next two to three years.
Booker has two talented rookies with immense potential but as Sacramento proved this season, young players can’t be the only way to add talent.
Phoenix’s blueprint hasn’t worked, so now it’s time to change plans on the fly. This offseason will be put up or shut up time from that standpoint, because the Suns truly can’t afford to go into next season without significant overhaul.