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Dangerous games: What’s next for Mike Brown, Vivek Ranadivé and the Sacramento Kings

NEW ORLEANS — Fresh off a redemptive demolition of the favored Golden State Warriors in a win-or-go-home game — stomping out a rival’s season as bluntly as had been done to them in the same building a year prior — the Sacramento Kings skipped into New Orleans last week with a level of growing confidence.

There was organizational belief they could and should beat the Pelicans, who were playing without the injured Zion Williamson. And, if initial mission was accomplished, they had enough talent to at least threaten the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA playoffs. They had built a winning foundation (94-70) in coach Mike Brown’s two years, snapping in the process an embarrassing 16-year playoff drought that was the longest in North American professional sports at the time.

But those good vibes were extinguished quickly in New Orleans in another loser-go-home game. Kings controlling owner Vivek Ranadivé watched stoically from a courtside seat near the team’s bench as the season faded away. When it was over, he immediately walked into the tunnel and directly out of the arena through the loading dock, trudging into an offseason full of delicate decisions.

An hour later, as players and coaches came to grips with failing to reach the playoffs, one veteran was asked: Despite the tangible step back, is there at least a level of stability developing?

“Yeah,” the veteran said. “Because we’re not gonna let go of our front office and we’re not going to fire our coaching staff. In Sacramento, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Brown signed a four-year contract in the summer of 2022. But the fourth season, according to league sources, is a mutual option. So for practical purposes, next season is the final guaranteed year on his current deal.

That’s typically extension time in the coaching world. Brown desires a longer-term commitment at his market rate, per league sources, and brings a substantial body of work to the table. The Kings have grown in legitimacy since his arrival, both as a basketball and business entity. But a nuanced negotiation awaits.

Success has a price tag. Steve Kerr ($17.5 million annually), Gregg Popovich ($16 million) and Monty Williams ($13 million) have reset the coaching market since Brown signed his deal. He wouldn’t command Kerr or Popovich money, but it’s fair to assume, considering reputation and résumé, the offer would need to reach double-digit million annually.

Will Ranadivé reward Brown for the progress that has been made, focusing on the bigger picture in play here and the need for the kind of coaching stability that evaded the Kings for so long? Or might he hesitate to pay the increased market value, with their playoff absence this season giving him reason to pause?

Team sources say there’s been a wait-and-see approach from the ownership side to this point, with a feeling from those around the franchise that singular results — the huge win over the Warriors, the gut-punch loss to the Pelicans — could weigh heavily in future decision-making.

That’s a dangerous game to play. Ranadivé has not yet approached Brown with an extension offer. Both sides have known for months now that this discussion was nearing, but the outcome of it will set the tone for the next Kings season to come. Without a resolution, it has a chance to become a distraction.

The Kings went 15-8 against six of this season’s eight Western Conference playoff teams. They swept the Lakers in four meetings, finished 3-1 against the Denver Nuggets, 2-1 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and 2-2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, LA Clippers and Phoenix Suns. They have reason to believe they can compete with the top of the conference.

“I feel like we got better,” Domantas Sabonis said. “We just couldn’t finish some games. We dropped a couple, the West is tougher. We kind of put ourselves in a bad situation.”

Two problems surfaced: They couldn’t solve the Pelicans’ length and shooting. New Orleans went 6-0 against them, a tricky matchup that continually killed them at the wrong time. Then there’s the more debilitating issue. The Kings too often no-showed at the wrong time. Here’s a list of non-playoff teams that beat them: Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards. The Rockets doing so thrice. The Kings won only two fewer games than the season before (48 to 46), but still dropped from third to ninth in the crowded Western Conference standings, ultimately failing to check that playoff box.

“It’s easy to focus on the last two weeks,” Harrison Barnes said, alluding to a stretch in which the Kings went 3-6. “People say: ‘Oh, look at the Dallas games, the back-to-back against the Pelicans and Suns.’”

Those losses came after key players Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter suffered season-ending injuries, bumping the Kings from the fifth or sixth seed (where they sat most of the season) to the ninth seed.

“But I think there’s a lot of games early in the season (to blame),” Barnes said. “We had games we didn’t show up, games where we didn’t have the right approach. Stack those up and you look at where things finish, if we would have had three or four more wins, five more wins, where would we be?”

Four more wins would’ve meant the fifth seed and Game 1 of a playoff series after a week of rest.

“To me, I think that’s where a step has to be taken,” Barnes said. “Look at the six teams that were in the playoffs (prior to the Play-In Tournament). Those teams did a good job of taking care of business against the teams that were below .500. That was the step that we did not take this year.”

No one should be surprised a step backward was not well received by Ranadivé — or any of the Kings, for that matter. He bought the team in 2013 and shuffled through six coaches before Brown, displaying an impulsive streak that was scrutinized all along the way. But the tide had turned some, his once-tattered reputation repaired in NBA circles. Last season’s playoff return was a blissful moment for him and his organization. To get here, he made a series of pivotal hires paramount to the recent success.

Monte McNair, the longtime Houston Rockets executive, was given his first general manager job in September 2020, replacing Vlade Divac after his tumultuous exit. McNair built a respectable front office and sparked the Kings’ resurgence. He drafted Tyrese Haliburton and Keegan Murray, flipped Haliburton for Sabonis and built around the De’Aaron Fox, Sabonis, Murray trio.

Brown was hired in May 2022, plucked from a Warriors organization Ranadivé knows so well, having spent time there as a minority owner. Brown was the first unanimous NBA Coach of the Year in his first season with the franchise. When judged against the backdrop of the Kings’ woeful history, this front office-coach pairing has been an indisputable hit.

Yet, while team sources say Brown will definitely return for next season, the conversation about his value beyond the 2024-25 campaign runs the risk of being complicated and, potentially, uncomfortable if Ranadivé is unwilling to reinvest in this partnership.

It’s about both basketball and business. Not only has Brown led a winning program in his time in Sacramento, but also the team’s ability to remain relevant all season has been a game-changer on the financial front when it comes to keeping fans engaged.

That’s quite a change from the Kings’ days of old, when even their most ardent loyalists would lose interest once the team fell in the standings during the second half of the season. When it comes to the way the Kings are viewed within the league and agent world, the optics have improved greatly since Brown’s arrival. And while the Kings’ offense that was the league’s best two seasons ago regressed, Brown sees long-term promise in that the defense — which has long been an issue in Sacramento — improved from 24th in his first season to 14th in his second. As Brown’s side sees it, the list of reasons justifying a new market-value deal is long.

For Ranadivé, though, there’s surely frustration with the fact that the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde ways of this Kings team ultimately cost it an invitation to the postseason party. The meeting of the minds, if there’s going to be one, will need to be somewhere in between.

About an hour before the season-ender on Friday night in New Orleans, Ranadivé and his daughter, Anjali, posed for a picture on the court. They held up the back of the jean jacket that Anjali wore to the game and posted it on Instagram. It had Monk’s name and number spray-painted onto it.

Luka Dončić fell on Monk’s right knee on March 29. It sprained his MCL. Monk couldn’t make it back, stripping the Kings of their third-most productive player during the stretch run, generating an unanswerable “what if?” about the playoff ceiling of this team.

Now there’s another: What if Monk leaves this summer? In an interview with The Athletic in early March, Monk expressed a desire to return. Ownership, management, coaches and teammates all want him back.

But the Kings are in a financial crunch. CBA rules limit what they can give Monk. The projected max starting salary they can offer is $17.4 million, translating into a four-year, $77.9 million max long-term offer if extended out with maximum allowable raises.

There’s fear that a team with plenty of cap room, knowing these constraints, will swoop in with a similar long-term offer in the $100 million range that could be too lucrative for Monk to decline. He’s 26 and was nearly out of the league a couple years ago.

“Money talks,” Fox said. “You can’t play this game forever. We have such a short window to play basketball. Not everyone is going to be (LeBron James) or (Chris Paul), play 19, 20 years. You have to be able to get paid whenever you can. That’s what Vince Carter told me. He played 21, 22 years. I’d love to have (Malik) back, but I don’t know what the future holds.”

If Monk departs, the Kings can’t use all that money in free agency. They’ll be limited to the midlevel exception, projected at $12.9 million. There should be some rotation players available in that range, but the larger question is whether this team needs a more substantial piece, someone alongside Fox and Sabonis in the pecking order.

That would need to be done via trade. Because they missed the playoffs, the Kings retained their first-round pick in June’s draft. It’ll be either 13th or 14th. They still owe a top-12 protected first-round pick to Atlanta next season for the Huerter deal.

But the draft asset cupboard is still pretty loaded and they have plenty of mid-sized contracts to facilitate deals. Barnes makes $18 million next season. Huerter makes $16.8 million. Trey Lyles makes $8 million.

The Kings front office was protective of Murray in trade talks for Pascal Siakam and others near the trade deadline. It’s difficult to imagine that changing. But McNair, in an interview with The Athletic last summer, did indicate there’d be a time to press fast forward if the opportunity presents: “I think we’re in a spot where if there is an aggressive play out there, we’ll be one of the teams that can knock on that door.”

That’s the rub for these Kings. They’re stuck, for now, on the doorstep of something special.

They have foundational players such as Fox and Sabonis, whose presence raises their collective floor, but lack the sort of dynamic talent (even potentially at the top-end) and depth that would elevate them to true contention. They added Sasha Vezenkov and Chris Duarte last summer, but neither could crack the regular rotation.

They enter the summer with roster flexibility that could lead to real improvements, but more than enough uncertainty on that front to inspire some angst. Do they have the sort of organizational continuity that is so important in times like these? That part remains to be seen.

“There’s something to build off still,” Fox told reporters after the loss to the Pelicans. “The West isn’t getting any easier. It’s a disappointment not being in the playoffs. But it’s something to build off … Obviously there is a lot more stability than there has been in the past. But as a team we have to get better. You never know what can happen.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo courtesy of Rocky Widnern, Kelsey Grant, Jed Jacobsohn /NBAE / Getty Images)

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