(Blogger’s note: my apologies for my absence since Thursday, but I was felled by a combination of busyness, tiredness and temperature — Stockton just got hit with its first heat wave of the year. That’s why I’m finishing this around 10:45 p.m. What follows is what would’ve been Friday’s column; my planned entry for Saturday will go up Monday, and since I didn’t have a plan for after that, I’ll just get back to winging it. Enjoy!)
To be a sports fan is to be a second-guesser.
Rocky Bridges, a longtime minor-league baseball manager, once said that “there are three things the average man thinks he can do better than anybody else — build a fire, run a hotel, and manage a baseball team.” He’s more or less right. When a team loses (or sometimes even when they win), there is no shortage of people who can explain in (excruciating) detail what the manager/coach should have done differently. Every time a trade is made or a free agent signed or an amateur player drafted, those same backbenchers are there to question the particular team executive’s judgment, horse sense, math skills and/or eyesight. It’s the nature of the game, as much as hand-eye coordination or overpriced beer.
So it’s no surprise that, in the days after Thursday’s National Basketball Association draft, folks hereabouts are commenting, not always positively, about the Sacramento Kings’ selections of center/forward DeMarcus Cousins and center Hassan Whiteside. As have I. The only difference with me is that I’m pretty sure it is I, not Kings general manager Geoff Petrie, who’s in the wrong.
Personally, I was totally pumped about the Kings drafting Cousins, a hefty 6’11” kid from the University of Kentucky. For one, the Kings’ front line has been shaky since Chris Webber and Vlade Divac left town, and Cousins was considered the best center in the 2010 draft. For another, most of the big-time basketball statheads (notably ESPN.com’s John Hollinger) had Cousins rated as not just the best center based on his college stats, but the best player — even better than his Kentucky teammate (and #1 overall pick) John Wall. Whiteside, a skinny 7’0″ center from Marshall University, is a good defensive player who was expected by many to be taken in round 1, so Sacramento getting him with a second-round pick is pretty cool.
My bone to pick is not with the aspects of the two players that most people have criticized. Cousins has been questioned about his tendency to blow up, both in regard to his temper (he’s been in some minor on-court incidents and a few screaming matches with his coach at Kentucky, John Calipari) and his waistline (he weighed 292 pounds at the NBA draft combine, 15-20 over his ideal playing weight). The knock on him has been that he’s immature. To which I say, “duh! He’s 19 years old — of COURSE he’s immature!” Pro sports is the only field I know of where teenagers are expected to act like full-grown adults with years of real-world experience — and then are pilloried in the public press when they don’t. I know I wasn’t fully mature at 19 (or at 29, come to think), and it seems silly of me to require it of anyone else. Cousins hasn’t been arrested for anything, lost his cool anywhere but in the heat of athletic competition, or even said something particularly stupid to a media member. He’s a big kid under a big spotlight — let’s give him a chance to get used to it. (Whiteside, meanwhile, is considered a raw prospect with little offensive game. But he’s a second-rounder, so no one expects him to be much more than a role player anyway. If he develops further, fine; if not, no big deal.)
My questioning of Petrie isn’t that he picked Cousins or Whiteside, It’s that he picked both of them.
The Kings finished 25-57 last year, third-worst in the NBA, so the team had a lot of holes to fill. (Really, every spot except point guard, where Tyreke Evans was just fine, had to be considered open.) Furthermore, the week before the draft they traded center Spencer Hawes and small forward Andres Nocioni to Philadelphia for their starting center, Samuel Dalembert, who has two years (for about $25 million) left on his contract. Clearly, he’s going to be the starter. Just as clearly, they have no starting shooting guard after trading Kevin Martin earlier this year, and the trading of Nocioni leaves the small forward position in the hands of Omri Casspi and Donte Greene, two 22-year-olds who aren’t making anyone forget Julius Erving. And free agents are not exactly lining up to play in Sacramento. So with all that in mind, why pick up two more centers (both of whom will presumably be backups for a while) and no wingmen?
But you know what? I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude about this. Because I’ve questioned Petrie’s moves before. And I’ve almost always been wrong.
You have to remember how hopeless the Kings were before Petrie became president of basketball operations in 1994. “Laughingstock” was if anything too kind — especially on draft day. This was the team that used the sixth pick in the 1985 draft on Big White Stiff (TM) Joe Kleine, passing up Chris Mullin, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley (the next three picks) and Karl Malone. This was the team that got the first choice in 1989 and used it on undersized center Pervis “Out of Service” Ellison when they could’ve had Glen Rice or Sean Elliott. They had FOUR first-rounders in 1990 and drafted four washouts. Even when they traded their picks away, they usually did it for generic players like Terry Tyler. No wonder Kansas City let the team go.
Petrie came in and things changed. In his first season with the club, they finished 39-43, their best record since arriving in Northern California. The next year, they made the playoffs. By 2000, they’d started a seven-year streak of winning records, culminating in the oh-so-close 2002 Western Conference Finals where they lost in seven to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers (and perhaps the refs). Over that time, Petrie made smart move after smart move — trading for Webber, Mike Bibby and Doug Christie, signing Divac and Bobby Jackson as free agents, drafting Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu when most people couldn’t even pronounce their names. Their fortunes declined as the ’02 squad aged, but Petrie has kept at it, not afraid to keep trying different things until something clicks.
And you can’t argue with the results — though everyone has. Webber was known around the league as lazy, a clubhouse cancer, a coach-killer. Petrie picked him up for two aging players and he became a borderline Hall of Famer. Christie was considered one-dimensional; in Sacramento, he thrived. I remember almost giving up on the Kings when Petrie traded our beloved Peja for (gulp) Ron Artest, but Artest played better for Sacramento than he has before or since. In 2008, he used a first-rounder on Jason Thompson, whom everyone thought was a marginal player at best; Thompson led the team in rebounds and blocks last year. I openly questioned him passing up Ricky Rubio, a guy who was being compared to Pete Maravich and Jason Kidd, to take non-traditional point guard Tyreke Evans in last year’s draft. All Evans did was lead the team in points (20.1 per game), assists (5.8), steals (1.5), pull down 5.3 rebounds per game (VERY high for a PG), become the Kings’ best player and win NBA Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Rubio averaged less than seven points per game … in the Spanish ACB league.
There comes a point when a person’s body of work speaks for itself, a point where they do something that seems a little off and you say, “you know what, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned my trust.” That’s where I am with Geoff Petrie. His moves may not always make perfect sense to me in the moment, but they almost always work out. So if he wants to acquire three centers in the space of eight days, okay. I’ll take his word for it that it’s the right move. Because he’s done this before.
And now, maybe I’ll mouse over to the Kings Pro Shop. I wonder what a 2XL DeMarcus Cousins jersey will run me …