- Sam Smith
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Their stars seemingly can't get along. There are trade demands. There are guys leaving. There are whispers about others having bailed out. There's talk of ownership insincerity. Of coaching insecurity.
The Lakers? The Trail Blazers? Nope. The intersection of NBA distress and anxiety these days is Sacramento, the league's newest dysfunction junction.
You're going to need a scorecard for this one.
Let's see: Chris Webber thinks everyone is at fault but him. OK, that's not news. As far as we can tell, C-Webb likes Mike Bibby but doesn't care much for Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic. Peja needs Vlade, who got tired of all C-Webb's stuff so, get this, he chose to join the Lakers. Now Peja wants out, this after C-Webb seemingly blasted him again last spring after the Kings' annual playoff disappointment. C-Webb said it was someone's fault, but he wasn't saying exactly who. They suspect Bobby Jackson should have played or at least given it a try, but he didn't feel he could. They wonder if making less than a third of what Bibby made led to that.
Coach Rick Adelman supposedly has been told unless the team does something spectacular this season, he's gone. Funny. To most of us, he did something spectacular last season in pushing the Kings to the verge of the league's best record with Webber out and then blowing it by allowing Webber to play himself into condition when everyone guessed he'd rather have him sitting on the bench. And there are the good 'ol boy owners, looking around for a new city and a new arena while playing that game of the rich and infamous of the NBA of filling up their roster with a fantasy league team and refusing to pay for the reserve strength by letting the likes of valuable contributors like Hedo Turkoglu and Jim Jackson go for virtually nothing to save money.
So now Stojakovic wants to be traded, Jackson probably does as well given his well-below-market pay. And I'd rather have him as my point guard than Bibby. We're not sure what Doug Christie thinks, but it's believed his wife is unhappy. Divac got fed up with the whole thing and went to play with Kobe Bryant, apparently preferring a more stable teammate and team situation. Brad Miller was said to have pulled in another fish and popped another can open.
Yes, the Sacramento Kings, the NBA's destiny's darlings of a few years ago are the league's biggest light at the end of the tunnel that is about to be a train wreck.
Well, that's if Geoff Petrie ever lets them get all the way there. I just loved the way he told Webber to go flip burgers a few years back before Webber's love for Sacramento renewed, or at least his love for the $100 million left on his contract.
No, the noise you hear coming out of Sacramento is not cowbells.
Phil Jackson must be getting a good laugh out of this.
It seems like the great Western Conference semifinals dynasty has come to an end.
You really rooted for the Kings a few years ago. I know I did. I secretly wanted them to get by the Utah Jazz when they were just starting this thing when Webber came in 1998 and Peja was still going by the name of Predrag. They were enthusiastic, fun and talented. You had to love the way they actually tried to score as the NBA game elsewhere evolved into Barney and Baby Bop play hoops. Adelman taught offense and they played it. They looked for and found the open man. They really did run, one of the few teams that did so after all the coaches in training camp said they would. Oh, those passes. My heart beat faster to watch the ball wing in and out of the post like it did. And C-Webb ... finally. Oh, what a talent. He could do everything, although the problem mostly had been he'd tried everything. His game sometimes was too much like his personal life -- willing to try everything once.
But he seemed to settle down and use his talent instead of abuse it and the Kings were the best team I saw in 2001-02. They were the best team in the Western Conference finals. Yes, they did get taken out of Game 6 by the referees. But they had the chance at home in Game 7 and blew it.
Too pretty to win, everyone said.
Perhaps it was true. I thought for sure they'd get there last season, but Webber never could come back. I thought the Lakers could implode at some point, but that was hardly a unique prediction. I didn't think the Spurs had quite enough with David Robinson gone, and in the end it may have been true. But who could have called that Derek Fisher shot? I didn't expect the Pistons to get there. And no one did before Rasheed Wallace showed up.
Give Webber credit. He did try. He was awful much of the time upon his return from serious surgery, but he was just there. Too often he hasn't been. Which is the problem with Webber. It's not really his fault. But you can't count on his body. Some guys are like that. They break down or simply break. No doubt his body will succumb again. Bad luck. Michael Jordan, until after his first retirement, hardly worked out at all. He just played. He had the perfect body. It worked. Webber's games-played chart reads like a bingo game: 76, 54, 15, 72, 42, 54, 67.
Jackson was too important and too overlooked. Mike Bibby is fine, but Jackson is in your face making plays. He had this abdominal thing and it was a problem. But they whispered he could have at least tried to play in Game 7 against Minnesota. Maybe if he wasn't making less than $3 million with Bibby making over $10 million, Jackson would've played. Heck yes, he signed the contract. He didn't have to. But even Lawrence Funderburke made more.
It makes a man stop and think before threatening his career for that team. Maybe.
Anyway, there was no winning anything with a beat-up Webber and no Jackson. And then it sounded like Webber blamed Stojakovic, who hasn't always distinguished himself in the playoffs. And it sounded like he wasn't very kind to Vlade. And all that finger pointing gets confusing when no one knows the direction you're heading.
In the meantime, the owners got mad at the city over a new arena. Who doesn't believe they're trying to get the franchise to Las Vegas, where they own a casino? They were among this new breed of owners with a lot of money they really didn't work long to earn and frustrated athletic fantasies. So they said they'd spend whatever they had to spend. Until they found themselves writing $10 million checks after the season to the owners practicing financial stability, like, oh, Donald Sterling. So they gutted their bench for a million here and there and there was no one left when Webber wasn't C-Webb and Jackson was on the bench.
So Vlade took off and now Peja wants out, figuring this is no longer a place to be the last guy standing from Eastern Europe. After the way he dealt with Webber, you don't figure Petrie is going to be cowed by anyone's demand.
It's just finally time to get rid of Webber. Yes, it's easier said than done when he has a balky knee and a bulky contract. But the run is done with him. Whether it be injury again or just discord, the seeds have been planted and they're about to sprout into a bushel of problems.
Stojakovic is too good and paid too little ($7 million) to trade. He's not going anywhere. Divac, really, was the emotional leader of the team, and without him it's not going to be the same anyway. Christie is going on 35 and with a year left on his contract after this season. It's time for the Kings to scale it back and plan around Stojakovic. Remember, it wasn't us booing Webber, but the fans in Sacramento last season.
The Kings should see if they can work their way under the salary cap in a few years. The notion is the West is wide open now without Shaquille O'Neal. Perhaps. But there are a lot of good teams remaining in the Spurs, Timberwolves, Grizzlies and Rockets. The Kings are carrying the look of a second-tier, miserable and bitter group.
Send Webber to the Heat for Eddie Jones and put Webber where he fits, as the supporting actor. That would save the Kings $20 million over the course of their contracts. Bite the bullet and take a lesser player to get rid of Webber. Too bad the Knicks pawned off all of those expiring contracts for Jamal Crawford. Perhaps they could have secured Webber for them. Maybe someone would take Christie for an expiring deal. With a base of Stojakovic, Miller and Bibby, it won't take long to build back up. They're all young enough to remain a core for some time.
The chemistry and mix have to change. Perhaps get rid of Bibby if you can and keep Jackson. Who knows what that would produce?
The Kings have several options. The worst is to remain as they are and allow the NBA to watch their disintegration.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.