The Washington Wizards’ Saturday night matchup against the Sacramento Kings is a tale of two similarly desperate franchises who tried the same tactic to return to relevance.
Out of the 30 teams in the NBA, the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings likely rank 29th and 30th, respectively, in front office competence over the last decade and a half. While the Kings have been marooned outside of the playoff picture since their last appearance in 2006, the Wizards have toiled in basketball’s no man’s land save for the occasional flash-in-the-pan second round appearance. Both teams habitually miss in the draft and hand out extravagant contracts to the wrong players.
Now, the Kings are the NBA’s feel-good story of the year. They’re currently in second place in the Western Conference with a 42-27 record and have secured their first above-.500 record since 2006. Both De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis were All-Stars this year, and both will likely be named to All-NBA teams at the conclusion of the season (Fox in particular has a strong case to make the first team). Building around Fox has also been the right move for Sacramento, and his routine strangling of opposing defenses during crunch time indicates he may be a legitimate franchise player.
The Kings have not drafted particularly well in recent years, but grabbing Tyrese Haliburton with the 12th pick in 2020 was a home run. Though trading Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers for Sabonis initially seemed like a catastrophic mistake, the move ended up being one of the most mutually beneficial transactions in recent memory.
The Wizards, meanwhile, tried to take a similar path and fell flat on their faces. Pairing franchise guard Bradley Beal with European center Kristaps Porzingis showed some early promise but fizzled out quickly. By this point, everyone knows that giving Beal such a massive contract was an indefensible move, as he is simply not a franchise player. He is a great player and one of the most natural scorers in the NBA, but he is far better suited for a supporting role on a contending team.
Similarly, Porzingis is a great player, but he is not meant to be the leader of a franchise. His good-but-not-great scoring ability and slightly above-average rim protection would make him a commodity as a third or fourth starter on a contending team, not the best player on a team at risk of missing the play-in again.
Additionally, Tommy Sheppard and company’s drafting has been an abject disaster over the last five seasons. With first round picks in five consecutive drafts falling between 9th and 15th overall, the Wizards ended up with Troy Brown, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Johnny Davis. Only Avdija, Kispert and Davis are even still on the Wizards, and only Avdija and Kispert are contributing NBA players. Even then, neither of them project to be any threat to make an All-Star team in their careers.
Sheppard’s main problem is risk aversion. When he drafts, he isn’t looking for “the next guy,” he’s looking for role players to put around Beal. He felt like he had his guy in Beal, so he dished out $251 million to avoid the risk of a borderline top-30 player leaving. Meanwhile, the Kings’ Haliburton-Sabonis swap was a massive risk that paid off huge and gave Sacramento an All-Star duo to build around.
Did the Kings get lucky, or did they manage their assets well? Haliburton is an amazing player who will retire with multiple All-NBA selections to his name, but trading him for a bona fide All-Star center was a great move in hindsight, so I say they expertly managed their assets. There is one important lesson the Wizards can take from this: if you want to win now, you have to commit to it all the way.
Praising Sacramento’s front office feels weird after 16 seasons of utter incompetence, but their moves over the last year have catapulted the Kings from a franchise floundering around in a double-digit seed to a near-contender. One of the most frustrated fanbases in all of professional sports got a taste of success and instantly started flooding opposing arenas with chants of “light the beam” after every road win. The vibes in Sacramento are immaculate.
Maybe this kind of success and rabid fandom is not as far away for the Wizards as previously thought. When analyzing the Kings’ abrupt rise to success, it almost becomes understandable how the Wizards’ front office consistently delude themselves into believing they are just a piece away. That being said, Beal’s contract is a severe dampener to the Wizards’ odds of a similarly rapid rise to contending. The sheer magnitude of money going to one player makes it difficult to surround Beal with viable pieces, and trading him is likely off the table since few teams would be willing to invest $50 million per year on a scorer who doesn’t playmake or defend. Additionally, asking Tommy Sheppard to nail draft picks the way the Kings nailed the Haliburton pick is a steep ask.
While the Kings surge forth into the playoffs (likely with home-court advantage in the first two rounds), the Wizards will be trying to fight off the disastrous Chicago Bulls and the rebuilding Indiana Pacers for the final Eastern Conference play-in spot. If the Wizards manage to win two tough play-in games, they set up a date with... the Milwaukee Bucks.
I never thought I would say this, but maybe struggling teams should start looking to the Sacramento Kings for guidance.