Shaquille O’Neal as General Manager. An ESPN SC Featured. A palace fit for six Kings. This is the story of Kings Guard Gaming, the team who could never be king.
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The Kings Guard story is a familiar one: high expectations unmet, dysfunction and a vicious cycle of success and lack thereof, from the beginning through today.
The team unveiled a top-notch esports facility in the Sacramento Kings’ Golden1 Center arena well before the season, with owner Vivek Ranadive proclaiming: “This state-of-the-art facility will set a new standard and provide the best-in-class tools that the next generation of superstar gamers need to train, compete and win.”
And set out for superstars they did. At the inaugural NBA 2K League entry draft, on April 4, 2018, Kings Guard grabbed several noteworthy names. With the fourth overall pick, the team took Mitchell “Big Shot Moot” Franklin, a stretch big man known for a game-tying three-pointer that sent Pro-Am team Throwdown to the NBA 2K17 Road to the All Star Game $250,000 tournament final. In the second round, they nabbed Worthingcolt to complement Mootyy up front. In the third, Kings Guard grabbed what appeared to be one of the steals of the draft, Timelycook, a stellar defender who fell to the third round in part because he had qualified for the position-specific draft at point guard, rather than at his customary small forward position.
The media fawned. ESPN produced a SC Featured on the league, focusing on the Kings and the glitz and the glam of the team (Mootyy’s shades, represent). Brian Mazique of Forbes handed the team an A+ draft grade. A certain Operation Sports writer declared that their franchise outlook was “very, very bright” and gave the team high marks in multiple categories.
Kings Guard appeared poised to excel not only on the court but off it as well. Two days before the draft, the team announced that Shaquille O’Neal would be general manager, handing Kings Guard the moniker “Shaqramento” and one of the game’s most conspicuous figures by association. Famed MMA trainer Urijah Faber came on board as the team’s occasional trainer. Perhaps more than anything else, however, the house captured fan imagination and attention. The Kings entered the season among the favorites to win the league
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“They had a role crisis,” one prominent NBA 2K League figure told me. “On paper, the Kings came in looking like a great team with their ‘big 3,’ but it showed how not having a [point guard] can hurt you.”
Kings Guard struggled in the season’s opening Tipoff tournament, finishing 1-2 in three tight group games and failing to progress from the four-team group. Mootyy and Worthingcolt took time adjusting to life together in the frontcourt, and the team missed Timelycook’s defense, despite his serviceable play at point guard. But the team seemed to turn it around in the first four weeks of the regular season, going 3-1 and heading into the mid-season Turn tournament in the top half of the league. Those wins, however, came against Utah Jazz Gaming, Grizz Gaming, and Knicks Gaming, who finished a combined 16-26 in regular season play
They wouldn’t win another regular-season game until the last week of the season.
“Kings Guard drafted an extremely top heavy team with no vision on how to implement their talent into a cohesive lineup,” one NBA 2K League coach told me. “They had no coach, multiple leaders who didn’t see eye to eye and an infrastructure that would consistently fall apart. They practiced the least of any 2K League team and the result showed on the court.”
Bereft of backcourt scoring and wing defense, the Kings morphed into the league’s worst team for the middle third of the season. They notched the lowest FG% of any team in the league, per 2K Analytics, at 55 percent. They also produced the lowest EFG% among the 17 teams, at 61.4 percent, despite being an average 3-point shooting team. Timelycook never fit perfectly at point guard and struggled to balance scoring and facilitating. Despite averaging over 10 assists per game at point guard, he shot just 46 percent (and 32 percent from beyond the arc, or about one made 3-pointer per game) on his most prevalent point guard build, the Sharpshooting Playmaker.
But Timelycook wasn’t necessarily the problem. He averaged 2 steals per game, fourth in the league. When the team settled on their most competitive lineup, with him on a Sharpshooting Defender at shooting guard, they went 2-1. The rebounding, which figured to be one of the team’s strengths, faltered, and the Kings finished the season allowing 21.86 rebounds per game, most in the league, and commensurately allowed the third-most field goal attempts per game. In a six-minute quarter league where every possession matters, that’s an untenable path to tread.
Forward scoring may have been the team’s biggest variable. Scoring at the constantly changing small forward position correlated with team success. In wins, the team’s small forward scored 15.64 points per game. In losses, the position produced just over 10 points per game and shot 15 percent worse from the field. Power forward scoring tells the same story: 15.07 points per game in wins, and just 9.43 points per game in losses.
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The Kings made their most dramatic shift of the season too late. Ranked dead last in the league between Weeks 5-8, the Kings were slotted into the play-in game for the Ticket tournament. Going up against in-state foes Warriors Gaming, the team debuted a radical new lineup: Worthingcolt moved to point guard, a position he hadn’t played in years, while Mootyy took up sole residence in the paint at center.
For the tournament, it was magical. Worthingcolt and Mootyy found pick-and-roll chemistry early on through a simple strategy: roll, chuck up a shot, hope Mootyy gets the rebound if it doesn’t go in. The Kings beat Warriors Gaming Squad in the play-in game. The next day, they shocked the world by upsetting first seed Blazer5 Gaming 69-63 in the nightcap. They finally fell to eventual runners-up Celtics Crossover Gaming in the quarterfinals, the Kings’ only tournament finish in the money. Both Mootyy and Worthingcolt averaged double-doubles and over 20 points per game in the tournament.
But the magic didn’t last. With slim hopes of reviving their playoff chances after the Ticket exit, Kings Guard went 1-4 in the last four weeks of the regular season. They lost a close overtime game to the Celtics and a heartbreaker to Blazer5 Gaming after leading in overtime.
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Off the court was supposed to be a franchise strength. To some extent, it was. The team stayed in the above magnificent house, for which the players are all thankful.
“I will never live in another house like that,” Shane “Safiya4ya” Farrar said. “To share the experience of living in a mansion, and living in Sacramento, with such a great group of guys, whom I am happy to call my brothers for life, is an experience I will never forget.” Multiple players thanked the “more than generous” Kings organization.
But the mansion had its downsides. It was in El Dorado Hills, an hour away from the Kings’ arena and any engagements in Sacramento, which the team lost internet for multiple days on several occasions, halting practices. When their equipment arrived, they often struggled to connect with Central and Eastern-based teams. With only three other teams located in the West in season one, the Kings weren’t able to scrimmage as frequently with other league teams.
They also won’t be back at the mansion next season. The team leased it, and the owner sold the mansion near the end of the season. The team’s housing for season two remains uncertain.
Travel concerns certainly didn’t help the team. Sixth-round pick ColeWorld2K pointed to flight fatigue as being the team’s biggest weakness. Kings Guard was the lone team with consistent weekly layovers, spending 10 or more hours in the airport or air on most trips (which did at least provide incredibly amusing Worthingcolt-nap themed content). “It took a toll on all of us physically and mentally,” Farrar said. Coupled with the time change, the Kings had the longest commute to their weekly games, and, unlike Blazer5 Gaming, it clearly affected the team.
The Kings waited until July to hire a coach, at which point they were fading from playoff contention and struggling mightily in tournaments. They brought in Paolo Mancasola, a former D-I point guard who played professionally in Europe. While Mancasola brought a stabilizing tactical presence to the team and was well-liked by the players, his lack of competitive 2K experience and his late arrival hardly brought the Kings back from the brink.
Multiple sources with direct knowledge of the Kings’ situation pointed to a lack of structured management and preparation as severe detriments the team. Inconsistent practice schedules, a lack of serious care for results that didn’t mesh with the players’ desires to win and uncertainty about archetypes and roles all played a part.
Most debilitating was the team’s mixture of strong personalities. The team comprised players accustomed to winning early and often. Without a coach in charge early in the season, egos clashed. Single defeats offset solid progress, and the players struggled to find the team’s on-court identity. There’s no happier team than a winning team, and without the consistent victories to which their players were accustomed, the Kings faltered into a vicious cycle. How much the preseason hype played into that is unclear. Most players are willing to point the finger at themselves as a team that didn’t quite gel in time and didn’t find the right leadership until it was too late. As one source said: “Player egos, poor attitudes and a lack of maturity killed the team.”
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Everyone knows things have to change for next season. The Kings brought on former intern Jake Freiermuth as a full-time esports employee with the title of “Innovation & eSports Coordinator.” The housing has to be reconsidered. A coach must be hired early. There are rumors that the Kings are currently in the hiring process.
That opacity is part of the problem. Players across the league feel more comfortable when aware of their team’s plans, and the Kings Guard front office has given little long-term structure or indication of their planning. What is most often produced by the team, however, is videos featuring social media influencers such as Tristan Jass and Marcelas Howard. For hardcore Pro-Am fans, it’s easy to see the organization as prioritizing marketing and social media branding over scouting and gameplanning. A lack of transparency has done nothing to dispel such theories.
Kings Guard protected Worthingcolt and Timelycook for season two. Worthingcolt figures to return to his natural frontcourt position, while Timelycook, always known for his defense, should be an integral part of the team in a meta heavily reliant of lockdown defenders. The Kings have the third overall pick in the season two Entry Draft. They need to nail that pick and find a talented player who can help the team on and off the court.
The Kings suffered from a lack of leadership, team identity and frustrating defeats on the court. The team needs a dedicated coach and perhaps an analyst as well. They need to manage the draft successfully and build a competitive team. Shaq and social media content won’t do that. The organization has to resolve itself internally. Only then can they claim the title of the team who would be Kings.