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Domantas Sabonis, Monte McNair, and the Revitalized Sacramento Kings

The Kings GM swung for the fences by trading away valuable assets for Sabonis in 2022, and this year’s team is reaping the benefits of the bold move.

It’s a rather unusual feat seeing two teams pull off a trade that works for both sides, but the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers might’ve just executed such when the Kings traded away their 2020 No. 12 overall pick Tyrese Haliburton in exchange for two-time All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis last season.

Fans were appalled. Sacramento seemingly found a young backcourt to build around with De’Aaron Fox and Haliburton. And finally — FINALLY! — the Kings could establish some continuity.

Nope. GM Monte McNair had other plans — and it’s proving all doubters wrong with the Sabonis acquisition paying massive dividends for a team that has the longest playoff drought in the NBA (16 seasons).

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As of this writing, the Kings are the No. 5 seed in the West with only three losses separating them from the top spot. Fox is coming off a 37-point outburst against the Utah Jazz, while Sabonis finished the contest with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists. This isn’t typical of centers in today’s game, though Nikola Jokic has changed the “norm” for what a big man is capable of.

All said, the Kings are back and they’re fun. This is the fastest they’ve reached 20 wins since 2004-05 when Mike Bibby and Chris Webber were their cornerstones. Sabonis leads the NBA in rebounds and should be headed for his third All-Star appearance. Fox, 25, could be on that same plane with him for the first time. And if they keep this up, new head coach Mike Brown could be in line for Coach of the Year.

Establishing a culture always starts at the top. Governing owner Vivek Ranadivé bought the team in 2013 for $534 million and has seen a significant rise in capital, with the team currently valued at $2.03 billion.

However, frankly put, it’s been a bit of a circus since. Brown is the seventh head coach during that span and McNair is the fourth different GM. It’s nearly impossible to build a winning culture of any sort when there isn’t any consistency or continuity in the front office.

But things are different. McNair is calling the shots (and good ones at that), and Brown has fully embraced being a communicative, blue-collar player’s coach. Ranadivé, meanwhile, has done plenty to build an organic relationship between the franchise and its fans, from building Golden 1 Center in 2016 up to their present-day initiatives that we’ll touch on in a second (LIGHT THE BEAM!).

None of it would really matter if they weren’t winning — but they are. Let’s unfold what’s going on in Sactown.

McNair Making Moves

McNair took over as GM in 2020 and owned the playoff drought, hoping to flip Sactown’s rep amid their 16-year drought, one that’s attributed to turmoil, poor roster construction, and constant turnover. He admitted last year that staying patient during the process is “tough,” but something that needs to come with patience and “opportunity.”

“We want competitors, toughness,” McNair said after trading for Sabonis last season. “We need to improve our rebounding and defense. And I think all these guys that we’ve brought are not just great players, good talents, all that type of stuff, but guys that are going to fit into that type of culture we’re trying to build here.”

Here are some of his key moves since taking over in 2020:

  • July 2021: Drafted Davion Mitchell ninth overall. He finished second on the Kings in defensive win shares with .073. McNair exercised the team option for Mitchell through the 2023-24 season.
  • February 2022: Traded Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and Tristan Thompson to the Pacers for Justin Holiday, Jeremy Lamb, Sabonis, and a 2023 second-round pick. Sacramento also received a trade exception.
  • June 2022: Drafted Keegan Murray fourth overall. He’s already a starter in his rookie year, averaging 11.6 PPG.
  • July 2022: SAC flipped Holiday, Mo Harkless, and a top-14 protected 2024 first-round pick to the Hawks for Kevin Huerter. Huerter is averaging career-highs in PPG (15.6), 3PT% (42), and FG% (48.3).
  • July 2022: Signed Malik Monk to a two-year, $19.4 million contract in July 2022. He’s averaging a career-high 14.2 PPG in 20 minutes.

According to NBA Insider Marc Stein, an extension for McNair is “forthcoming” and likely to be announced soon. He’s in the final year of his three-year deal, and within those three years, he’s built a team that might end the NBA’s longest active playoff drought. All that despite having the league’s ninth-lowest payroll and the 13th-youngest team.

Kings Fan Engagement

Talk about a fun way to engage the fanbase. The Kings unveiled a victory beam earlier this season, powered by four purple lasers on top of Golden 1 Center that light up downtown Sacramento after every team win. During games, fans chant “LIGHT THE BEAM” and it’s taken on a life of its own.

In fact, Brown jokingly pleaded for a brighter beam after a 123-96 victory over the Clippers in early December. So, Ranadivé added more lasers to its purple spectacle to light up that Sacramento skyline. Then, he challenged fans to post pictures of the beam — more camaraderie, brand awareness, and fun for the base.

“I’m calling on all of Sacramento,” Brown said on Dec. 18. “When the beam is up, send your photo in of the beam and put your location and send it to the Kings account. If you’re in Orangevale, put Orangevale. If you’re in Loomis, put Loomis. If you can’t see it when you’re out there, let me know. And I’m going to call BS to Vivek.”

Back when the Golden 1 Center opened in 2016, Ranadivé and his team wanted to make sure it was revolutionary in regard to tech and social media. The Beam is a perfect way to enhance brand awareness and get people to rally around the team — whether they like hoops or not.

At the time of the opening, the arena’s network could handle over 500,000 Snapchat posts per second and 225,000 Instagram photos per second.

“We have the youngest fan base of all major sports [in the NBA], and they’re connected,” Kings team President Chris Granger told Sports Business Journal in 2016. “You can’t preclude them from that connection.”

Before the 2022 season, Ranadivé relaunched the team’s mobile app, providing fans opportunities to get even closer to the team by earning rewards, ordering food, managing tickets, and more. These things matter when you’re trying to build a fanbase and establish some sort of culture, specifically for a team like the Kings who haven’t been good and have to play in the same state as the Lakers, Warriors, and Clippers.

Is it Working?

It’s gotten better, but they’re still in the bottom 10 when it comes to attendance. It’s worth keeping the big picture in mind, a long-term vision for all facets: building a winning basketball team, a sustainable culture, and a committed fanbase. Take a look at how the Kings have fared since Golden 1 Center opened in 2016.

*2021 is not counted for due to the COVID-19 pandemic*

YearAVG.PCT.RANK (AVG)
202316,94896.222nd
202214,43982.129th
202016,79595.520th
201917,09697.721st
201817,555100.318th
201717,608100.616th
201617,25699.719th

“We believe that this will be one of the top performing venues not just in the country but in the world,” Ranadivé said in 2016.

As the chart indicates, numbers have fluctuated and seemingly haven’t correlated much with the success of the team. After all, the team’s best year (for attendance) was 2017 when it went 32-50.

Maybe that’ll change by the season’s end if they stay in the playoff hunt. The last time the Kings qualified for the postseason in 2005, they ranked 13th in the NBA for the highest average attendees (17,317). If they can get back to those ways, similar to those days, things should go up — like the beam.

Just ask McNair.

“I grew up in Southern California, those late ’90s, early 2000s Kings teams were so much fun and you saw the city and coming here in the new building and all of that, it’s been even better than that,” McNair said in March 2022. “I think the passion and the reception from the fans has been awesome. I think being in a city where the team is the number one show in town. And this is what people care about in the sports landscape and that’s so much fun, when it does pop off it’s going to be awesome.”

Until then, enjoy the ride and light the damn beam.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.