Rebuilds in the NBA are often purported to be about building cultures, implementing systems, and refining (dare I say?) processes. They are strategic efforts to take a team unsatisfied with its near-term outlook and create a new future out of thin air. They are meticulously planned and executed.
Sometimes, those plans, those processes work. Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, chaos takes the wheel and those in power end up with something completely unexpected.
The Sacramento Kings have been rebuilding, really, since 2005, when longtime GM Geoff Petrie traded Chris Webber to the Sixers for a package of three inferior but cheaper players. (Much love to Kenny Thomas.) The stated purpose: to give the Kings some flexibility as the team retooled around a new core of Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, and Peja Stojakovic.
Except Peja was traded a year later for Ron Artest, who with Bonzi Wells created a new identity for the team. Bonzi lasted just a year, with Kevin Martin ascending to take his place in 2007. The team fell out of playoff contention, traded Bibby in early 2008, and Artest that next summer, becoming the worst team in the league. In a 2009 deadline fire sale, they shipped out Miller (the final piece of the initial post-Webber core) and John Salmons (who, against all odds, had become the team’s second best player).
The rebuild started in 2005, but it was really a long, slow unwinding that had everyone involved in denial. Tyreke Evans in 2009 became the team’s first top-10 pick since 1998.
In the decade since, the Kings have drafted in the top 10 every year they didn’t trade their pick. Evans won Rookie of the Year, and 2010’s No. 5 pick DeMarcus Cousins made multiple All-NBA teams with the Kings. But neither changed the franchise for the better: Evans because he was fool’s gold early in his career and Cousins because ... well, do you have a few hours? No? Okay, let’s move on.
The other high-end picks have ranged from total busts (Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore) to ... total busts (Georgios Papagiannis, Jimmer Fredette) to ... most likely total busts (Nik Stauskas). The Kings whiffed on four straight lottery picks between Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein in 2015 (the jury remains in the deliberation room on WCS).
But in 2017, the Kings’ front office — the Kings’ current front office, mind you — picked De’Aaron Fox at No. 5.
Fox might well be changing everything for the Kings.
He had a 31-15-10 triple-double for Sacramento on the road on Thursday in a blowout win in Atlanta. He’s no worse than the third best player from the 2017 NBA Draft right now, behind only Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. Frankly, his per-minute numbers are more impressive than those of Tatum and Mitchell this season — he’s more efficient and a much more talented passer than either, and his scoring is just a shade behind Mitchell. But those two guys played so well in the postseason and last year overall that they get the nod for now.
Fox is averaging 21-8-5 on 58 percent True Shooting through nine games. More importantly, the Kings are a stunning 6-3, including 4-2 on the road with wins at Miami and Oklahoma City. The Kings’ November schedule, which continues on Sunday in Milwaukee, is absolutely brutal, but the team has shown verve and nerve early on.
Will it last for the Kings? Probably not. The Western Conference is dark and full of terror. Bogdan Bogdanovic could be back next week, but there are a lot of kids playing lots of minutes, and that’s always suspect.
Will it last for De’Aaron Fox? That’s a more important question for the future of the Kings.
Here’s the thing: if this De’Aaron Fox is legitimate, if he is a real star point guard in a league built around the talents of point guards and wings, everything changes for the Kings. One star can change an NBA team’s fortunes. One star can erase a decade of mismanagement. One star makes such a huge difference in this league.
For all the meticulously planned processes and rebuilds, it always comes down to stars. The Sonics rebuilt and landed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before becoming the Thunder and landing James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The Sixers rebuilt and landed Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Magic rebuilt and ended up with Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, and Aaron Gordon. The Pelicans rebuilt and ended up with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. The Mavericks rebuilt and ended up with Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr.
Some rebuilds, like Sam Presti’s in Seattle and Oklahoma City and Sam Hinkie’s in Philadelphia, are designed to take as many bites at the apple as possible over a condensed period of time. Sometimes that works quickly. Sometimes, as in Phoenix with Ryan McDonough, it’s not quick enough. But if you get one of those stars — one of those singular franchise cornerstones — it can change everything.
If Fox is that kind of player — a player who can drop 31-15-10 at age 20 without an All-Star in his midst — the rebuild will have worked. That’s all it takes: a star.
Now, that’s not a guarantee of team success. Remember Cousins? Remember that the Kings are in the West? But having a legit star is the most important piece of team success. The next step is to get another star and a solid roster around the two stars. That’s where Sacramento fell short during the Cousins era. That’s where Sacramento could very well fall short in the Fox era.
That assumes the Fox era is a real thing of which we’re witnessing the origin story. If so, the Kings could very well climb out of their 14-year rebuild, their decade-long slumber.
A star can change everything. Now let’s find out if Fox is really a star.