When you make major roster changes, you cross your fingers and hope that everything works for the best. Our only hope to remain an elite team last season was for everything to break just right. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to realize that C-Webb wasn’t back to 100 percent and might never be, and while Doug still gave exceptional effort, the mileage was taking its toll. We were winning games, but not quite as easily. We didn’t have the same depth. We were still a good team, but not a legitimate contender.
From a personal standpoint, it’s very difficult to make the decision that it’s time to shake up the team. You grow to like players and care about them. You know your fans have an attachment – particularly in Sacramento. And, while it’s sometimes forgotten, players are people, too. They like to know they’re valued by a team, and a trade can mess with their lives and psyches. Pro basketball is a business, true, but there’s a relatively small group involved – front office, coaches, and players – and we’re all in it together. So you don’t make big trades lightly.
That being said, we’d already gone through the gut-wrenching process of parting with Vlade, and that helped steel us to make the next logical moves. The trick for Geoff Petrie was to make deals that allowed us to move forward while continuing to win. The trick for Rick Adelman, which was even more difficult, was to integrate new players into an unfamiliar system while maintaining that high level of play. From a coaching standpoint, it’s extremely difficult to have the team churned up – to lose guys who have been key players on big-time winners and not to have much of a fall-off. Rick never received the credit he deserved for winning 50 games last year with a squad that not only changed personnel and styles, but also had major injuries.
We sent Doug Christie to Orlando on January 10, 2005, for shooting guard Cuttino Mobley and forward Michael Bradley. Geoff saw the opportunity to get a younger player with a smaller contract. Cuttino came in and helped us win a couple of games right off the bat, which allowed our players and fans to accept him more readily than they otherwise might have. He’s a very different kind of player than Doug – more offensive-oriented. There were times when Cuttino didn’t look like the ideal fit for us, but at the same time, he was on the court. Doug only played 21 games for Orlando before shutting it down for the season.
There was a rumor making the rounds that we traded Doug in part because he was a bit eccentric. People made a big deal about his hand signals to his wife, Jackie, during games and how they supposedly were talking to television people about doing a reality show. The trade was made strictly for basketball and financial reasons: Doug was an older player who had lost a step and is due $8 million this season. We’d become accustomed to Doug’s somewhat different ways, and everyone on the team liked him. If he wasn’t such a selfless teammate, maybe you’d have heard some grumblings, but no one ever put him down. As for the reality show, there are only 18 billion of them on these days, so who cares?
If Chris Webber had snapped back into form and Bobby Jackson had been healthy, would we have made the Christie trade? I’d guess no, because we’d have probably felt we could make a run at the championship. But once we all agreed that we probably weren’t going to need to have our ring fingers measured, we decided to try to rebuild on the fly – get younger, deeper, and better prepared to win in the future without taking a major step backwards.
With that in mind – going back to the end of the 2003-04 season – Rick couldn’t have handled things any better than he did. If he had done things differently at any step of the way, we wouldn’t have been able to trade Chris. If Rick had used C-Webb as a reserve or limited his minutes as a starter – not allowing him to put up the numbers he did – C-Webb wouldn’t be in Philadelphia today. We’d still have a Chris Webber who isn’t quite Chris Webber anymore at $20 million per season.
When you’re paying anybody – Shaq, Kobe, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, whoever – a superstar salary, one that takes up 30 or 40 percent of your salary cap, you have to have a major star. If you feel that that’s changed, that the player isn’t a star anymore, you have to do something. We’ve never had a player of Chris’s caliber, and who knows when or if we’ll have one again? He was the key guy to all the success we had. At the same time, if he got hurt again or couldn’t bounce back to an All-Star level, we’d be in deep trouble – totally hamstrung under the salary cap rules.
From our viewpoint, Chris, for all his contributions, couldn’t play at the same level going forward, and we needed to get out from under that contract and bring in some players. Chris didn’t have the lift or lateral movement he once had. Before the knee injury, C-Webb was one of those magnificent athletes who could run easily, was a quick and strong jumper, and could go through guys around the basket.
Some people were surprised that we’d trade C-Webb, or trade him when we did. Others were surprised that we could trade him. Most of the national media thought it was a home run for Philly. They saw C-Webb as he used to be and asked, “Why would the Kings trade one of the five or six best players in the world?” Well, the Kings wouldn’t have, and didn’t. Geoff Petrie had been looking into making the deal for some time, but quite honestly, there weren’t many potential trades out there for a guy with bad wheels and a huge contract. We weren’t mulling over 17 offers. Geoff made the best deal he could. Most basketball people saw that Chris was damaged goods.
Things change due to age, injuries, whatever. Probably the best example is Michael Jordan coming back the second time. Michael was still really good, but he wasn’t the best player in the world by any stretch. The game was harder for him. He still cared, and he still wanted to be the best in the world; he just couldn’t be. Paul Newman’s still a great actor, but he can’t play Cool Hand Luke anymore. He can’t be a leading man anymore. Can C-Webb? Time will tell.
Chris’s evolution from inside to outside player was a big factor for us, because we really didn’t have another low-post threat. We hoped that Chris could come back and establish that for us, but he just didn’t have the legs under him and couldn’t do it consistently. We’ve seen that many times with big guys who are injured.
In exchange for Chris, we got three guys – Brian Skinner, Kenny Thomas, and Corliss Williamson – who are players. Whether we keep them all or not, they all have value around the league. We have more flexibility as well as the chance to win just as many games by playing a little differently. If the Philly deal hadn’t gone through, there might not have been a trade, period.
Much was made of the dynamic between Peja and Chris. Without naming names, C-Webb criticized some of his teammates after the Minnesota series, and many people assumed that Peja was his main target. So what if Peja was the target? A guy was disappointed in losing and popped off – happens all the time. The media wanted to make it out as if there was a Peja clique and a Webber clique in the locker room, portraying it as an either/or situation. That simply wasn’t the case.
Peja and Chris always liked each other. Chris’s game didn’t fit Peja’s as well as Vlade’s did, and I’m not sure exactly what you do about that. I thought, at the start of last season, that Chris went out of his way to find Peja. Because he’s not a one-on-one guy, Peja needs guys to find him, and Vlade was good at that. Chris was, too, although he might not have found Peja as often as Vlade. That wasn’t a matter of dislike, though. People have a tendency to attach personalities to it when it’s really about the way guys play.
The difference between Vlade and Chris was that Vlade really did look to make the pass first. That was his instinct. Whether he was playing with Magic Johnson or Larry Johnson or Peja, Vlade was a facilitator. While Chris is a very good passer, his first instinct is to score. He is used to being the guy the team looks for, with good reason. That’s probably why he had some problems with Allen Iverson last year. Now, Chris probably needs to make some changes because he can’t do some of the things he once could, plus he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, and it’s not going to be there nearly as often.
Essentially, what Geoff did with the C-Webb trade was take a big contract and break it into smaller pieces. We certainly don’t have any problem keeping any or all of the three guys we got – perhaps in different roles than they had at the end of last season – and all three are tradable. Kenny Thomas has been a double-double guy – a starter on some good teams. Corliss Williamson was the Sixth Man of the Year a couple of seasons ago. Brian Skinner was a starting center in Milwaukee on a playoff team. The guys we got aren’t major stars, but they’re also not chopped liver.
After the C-Webb trade, we won two straight road games, beating the 76ers in C-Webb’s Philly debut and then a good Washington team. But faster than you can say “delusions of grandeur,” fate once again kicked us in the shins. Brad Miller broke his leg at the end of the Washington game. We already were without Bobby Jackson, who was recovering from a torn ligament in his left wrist. The combination of remaking the team and playing without two major guys down the stretch was asking a lot. We gimped into the playoffs with a 14-11 record after Brad’s injury. At least we managed to win 50 games for the fifth straight season.
Brad came back for the first round of the playoffs against Seattle, but he wasn’t the same guy coming off a broken leg. Not many players would even have tried to come back that quickly. Brad was able to play pretty close to normal on offense, but he wasn’t close when it came to defense and rebounding. He wasn’t able to react as well, which is perfectly understandable. Defensively, you’re reacting to the other guy. Rebounding, you’re reacting to the ball. Offensively, you can kind of plan things out and control things more, so Brad could be more effective that way.
The Sonics took us out in five games, which, given the circumstances, shouldn’t have come as a total shock. For those out there who have questioned Peja Stojakovic’s toughness in the playoffs, it should be noted that he led us in scoring in three of the games, including 38 points in the last one. If, like some of the talk show hosts seem to think, anything less than a championship is a failure, I guess we failed. Of course, by that standard, it’s very difficult to be a success. If that’s the only gauge, then any talk show host who doesn’t have the highest-rated show in America is a failure, too, right?
When we first became good, our only goal was to continue to be good. Nowadays, a 50-win season can be a disappointment. I guess that’s a compliment, in a way. If we’d have only won 49 this year, people might have come to Arco Arena with tar and feathers. That’s fair; it’s the way it is. But look what happened last season with the Lakers and Timberwolves, the two Western Conference finalists from 2003-2004: Neither team made the playoffs. There’s nothing unusual about a significant drop-off when things change. Fortunately, it didn’t happen to us. That in itself is significant, and it bodes well for the future.
Jerry Reynolds serves as director of player personnel and television analyst for the Sacramento Kings. A longtime college coach, Reynolds joined the team's staff when the Kings moved from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985 as an assistant coach to Phil Johnson. After coaching the team himself for a year, he served as an assistant to Bill Russell. He replaced Russell as head coach before moving into the Kings’ front office in 1988. Don Drysdale covered the Sacramento Kings from their arrival in Sacramento in 1985 until 1994 for the Sacramento Union. He also worked for the Marin Independent Journal and the Oakland Tribune and has written about basketball for numerous magazines
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