In 2009 Malcolm Gladwell told the story of Vivek Ranadivé, a tech titan who also coached his daughter's basketball team. Supposedly, Ranadivé had many disadvantages on his team. The girls were all daughters of Silicon Valley "nerds", few of them were good at basketball, and most weren't fantastic athletes. To try and teach his team to play basketball "the right way" was futile. But this gave Ranadivé one of his greatest advantages: the ability to use unorthodox strategies. This worked well with his other advantage: as an immigrant to the US with little exposure to basketball, Ranadivé had an outsider's perspective on the sport. The result was a team that focused on running the full court press every play. Instead of worrying about scoring, his team worried about turnovers and rebounds. His team didn't look at all like a traditional basketball team, but they managed to make it to the state championship.
A New David or Old Yay Points?
When I realized the Vivek Ranadivé that became part owner of the Sacramento Kings was the same as the one in Gladwell's story, I was excited! A smart tech person with unorthodox views was coming to fix a train wreck NBA team? Yes! However, following the Kings' recent moves, this isn't what I'm seeing. There are two major things that have me scratching my head. The first is giving DeMarcus Cousins a max contract. Cousins was a draft prospect that many -- including us -- thought highly of. However, his terrible shooting has kept him from being anything but a mediocre talent. Now, you still might think he has an upside, but paying $60 million for the possibility that a player might become productive in the future is not my idea of a good move.
Trading Wins for Conventional Wisdom
A more confusing move came recently when the Kings traded Luc Mbah a Moute for Derrick Williams. Luc has had a pretty good career; it looks like he had some injury trouble at the end of his time in Milwaukee, but he was one of a few good players on the Kings this season. Additionally, Mbah a Moute is 27 years old -- right around the prime of the average NBA player -- and on a super cheap contract. All of these qualities make for the type of player a team should want. On the other hand, Derrick Williams is on a slightly more expensive contract and has been unproductive during his time in the NBA. His shooting percentage is pretty close to Cousins', which should give the Kings cause for concern. But there is one area where Williams defeats Mbah a Moute: he scores more points. Yes, the ever famous Yay! Points! syndrome that plagues many front offices seems alive and well in Sacramento.
A big lesson in David and Goliath was that being free from the shackles of conventional wisdom and being forced to adopt an unconventional strategy could lead to major success. The Kings looked poised to be this team. With Ranadivé in charge, they had someone who had seen that success could come from ignoring the Yay Points! thesis. Yet the Kings still seem to be falling down the rabbitt hole of paying for scorers. If they keep this up, then Kings' fans can expect the last five years to repeat themselves. The thing is, I've read that story many times before and it's boring. But the story in David and Goliath was fascinating. I hope we can see more of that in Sacramento.