Saturday, October 6, 2012

Team Preview: Sacramento Kings

Okay guys, you'll have to bear with me with this one, it might be a little short or rushed but the day got away from me and I need to be somewhere in a couple of hours.

The Sacramento Kings are a team waiting to take that next step for years now, and although on paper they have a very talented young core, the front office hasn't done a great job with the draft picks available and as a result the pieces don't necessarily fit together the way a team should. Whether it was trading down to get Jimmer Fredette with Brandon Knight still on the board, passing on Barnes for a tweener forward in Robinson or signing Marcus Thornton to a multi-year deal despite his many shortcomings, the future of the franchise off the court isn't the only thing that's hazy. But, you have to make do with what you've got, so let's get amongst it.

While having a deep roster is important, with young teams it can be more important to avoid a logjam so the players have a little consistency and room to go in their formative years in the NBA. Unfortunately, the Kings are a textbook example of how not to build your guard rotation, which for Sacramento consists of Tyreke Evans, Aaron Brooks, Marcus Thornton, Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette and occasionally John Salmons. Although Tyreke was drafted as a point guard, and accomplished an historic feat as a rookie while playing the position, his bread and butter has always been scoring so he's more suited to the off-guard. However, he needs the ball in his hands to be effective and he hasn't shot the ball well since coming to the NBA, which means he's more of a tweener than a combo-guard, in that rather than being able to play both positions effectively, he's unable to play either the right way. However, it's not all Tyreke's fault, he's had to endure terrible team mates, an unexpected coaching change, and the sort of positional instability you can only really handle if your name is Lebron James. Tack on a nagging case of plantar fasciitis and other assorted injuries and it's no wonder his progression has stalled. That said, coach Keith Smart will have the opportunity to install his systems properly with a full training camp, Tyreke has been more or less healthy this summer and the Kings finally snagged the sort of back-court partner Tyreke has always needed in Aaron Brooks. This is a make or break year for Tyreke with the Kings, if he stays at the same level for another season they'll be forced to look elsewhere for the future of their franchise. All Tyreke needs to do is show he can play the SG position with reasonable success, continue to fix his jumper and display leadership on a team that desperately needs it. Tyreke's ball-dominant tendencies and extraordinary ability to beat his own man with that smooth handle makes him an ideal match for a point guard who can shoot the long ball accurately, get others involved and play without the ball in his hands. Thankfully, this is just what Tyreke got in Aaron Brooks. Although Brooks is only a career 36% shooter from range, he shot close to 40% in the 2009-10 season where he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award. It's no coincidence that the 09-10 season was the only time he's averaged more than 30 minutes per game, which indicates that he's a rhythm shooter, and there's no reason he can't thrive again with the extended minutes he'll be seeing as the starting point guard for the Kings. Although he's been bounced around a few teams in his five year pro career (including going to China last season), he gives the Kings exactly what they need, and despite being a bit of a diva off the court in the past, his humbling fall from grace and age (27) should prevent this being an issue in Sacramento. Marcus Thornton is the real headache facing the Kings, he's undersized at 6'4, doesn't know the meaning of the word assist (career 1.8apg) and hasn't met a shot he didn't like, despite shooting only 43.8% from the field last season. Yes, he puts points on the board, but it's his attitude on the court that is the real danger. He will rarely make the extra pass, he's more concerned about his own numbers and ego than winning, and his production drops off immediately in limited minutes. For whatever reason, the Kings front office fell in love with his empty numbers to the detriment of Tyreke Evans, and if Evans and the Kings are going to move forward, it needs to be without Thornton on board. With Brooks likely to start at the point, you'd hope Coach Smart will abandon the idea of Tyreke as a SF and sit Thornton on the bench, but with the Kings you never know. Isaiah Thomas is a great value player for where he was taken and what he brings to the court, but that is no reason to lose your head and declare him a building block, because at the end of the day he's still grossly undersized and lacks the upside to compensate. With Brooks on board Thomas should be relegated back to his role as backup point guard and unlike Thornton, he can produce in limited minutes and is a team-first player who really cares about winning. If the Kings are smart they'll keep him on board, but not overpay for a guy who is best served as a role player on a playoff team. What can I say about Jimmer? I never quite understood the hype in college, and I was even more gobsmacked when the Kings passed on the opportunity to get Brandon Knight by trading down for him. Although on the surface he fits what the Kings needed in a backcourt partner for Evans with his sharp-shooting skill-set, his complete inability to play without the ball in his hands, poor catch and shoot numbers, inability to guard his man, timidity when faced with NBA level defence and score-first mentality made this pick a disaster. Although he showed in Summer League that he's been working hard, he's still never heard the word "accountability" on the defensive end, and he's as ball-dominant as ever, with a very limited upside. If he can beat out Thomas for the backup point guard spot or even come off the bench as a shooting guard he might be able to find a niche as a Steve Kerr type of player, but Jimmer is just a glaring reminder of the dangers of college hype. Salmons is the last man in the rotation, and despite being advanced in years his production has dropped significantly since his first year in Milwaukee and he doesn't provide the sort of leadership you expect of a veteran. He'll see some time at the 2 and 3, but the smart money says it will be mostly during garbage time.

Small Forwards:
The small forward position is a bit of a head-scratcher for the Kings, they have an obvious need there, but when given the chance to take the perfect small forward for this team in Harrison Barnes, they instead opted for another big man in Thomas Robinson. Now they are left with Francisco Garcia, Travis Outlaw, Tyler Honeycutt and James Johnson. Garcia's best season came in 08-09, but his numbers and effectiveness have been in a steady decline ever since and it's hard to see them increasing this season. That said, he's a hard worker who doesn't complain so at the very least he'll provide a bit of passion to a team that is sorely lacking it. Outlaw was a promising player with Portland a few years back, but after being grossly overpaid by the Nets and then failing completely to live up to his contract his performance suffered considerably. However, he's long, athletic and largely inoffensive, so he should be part of the rotation early. Tyler Honeycutt was one of their other draft picks last season, but he played only sparingly. Despite this, he's still got a reasonably high upside at only 22 years of age and if he continues to put on muscle should be able to work his way into the starting SF position either this year or the next, that's how bleak things are at the 3 for this team. James Johnson is another candidate to start at the SF position, he's a big body, defends his man with great effort and intensity, shoots a reasonable 30% from range for his career and doesn't need shots to be effective. Ideally, Johnson will start with Honeycutt being developed off the bench as the eventual starter in the future barring any other acquisitions.

Finally a position where the Kings have done things right! The Kings hit a home run with the acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins in the 2010 draft and incoming rookie Thomas Robinson could be a similarly successful selection. Cousins struggled early in his career, clashing with Coach Westphal and antagonising his opponents with colourful hand gestures, but after Keith Smart was hired as head coach his production rapidly increased. In a show of solidarity, Cousins told reporters that it was his and Tyreke's team still, and they Evans was a large part of this team's future, regardless of what other people said. This speaks to the growing maturity Cousins has exhibited as his young career has progressed, and he realises that he can't do it all alone. However, his conditioning remains worrisome and if he's ever going to take the next step and become the All-Star C he's capable of being, he'll need to drop the fat and improve his stamina, mobility and lateral quickness. Expect Cousins to increase his scoring numbers and efficiency, and be a legitimate 20/10 guy on his way to a possible All-Star selection in the West, IF he can reduce his foul count and stay on the floor longer. Thomas Robinson was a workhorse in college, a tremendous athlete and a relentless competitor. These are qualities that are in short supply in the Kings locker room, and hopefully his work ethic will rub off on his team mates, because as Robinson already demonstrated in Summer League, he isn't going to hide his emotions or just take losing lying down. With Cousins banging on the low block, Robinson will be better served as a pick and roll partner for Tyreke Evans, with his ability to shoot the mid-range jumper and great mobility making him an ideal fit. However, despite his good qualities, I am still sceptical about how high he was taken, and I think he'll struggle initially in the NBA as he comes to terms with the fact that he's not a stand-out athlete every night any more. How well he adapts to the length and strength of NBA bigs will be worth watching as his rookie season progresses. Backing up these two youngsters are Chuck Hayes and Jason Thompson. Hayes is a consummate veteran, who defends the low block with the best of them despite his small stature at 6'6", and plays with a relentless motor. He'll provide leadership, great minutes off the bench or as a starter and won't ruffle the feathers of his team mates, which is really what you expect your veterans to do (I'm looking at you John Salmons). Jason Thompson is a long, athletic PF/C who shoots a great percentage from the field, will hustle defensively and work hard. However, he lacks a polished offensive skill-set, and at 26 years of age already, doesn't look like he'll ever develop one. Despite this, he's a useful role player to have and a quality big man to bring off the bench or start if need be. Whether Robinson starts right away will be dependent on how well he plays in training camp, but either way, the future of the Kings will rest in how well Cousins and Robinson can complement each other on the court and off.

Interesting Storylines:
Should I stay or should I go? This is the question the Maloofs seem to be asking themselves, and the answer is always different depending which day of the week it is. Although there are plenty of great basketball storylines (can Jimmer get on the court? is it Tyreke's or Cousins' team? etc.) the biggest shadow looming over this franchise is the possibility of an impending relocation. This is likely to distract the team and alienate a once rabid fan-base as the season wears on.

Season Prospectus:
Unfortunately, it looks like these guys are bound for another trip to the lottery, albeit at a higher seed this time around. With their new additions and a full training camp under Coach Smart, the Kings should be able to leapfrog the Rockets, Suns and Blazers to compete with the Warriors and Jazz for that 8th spot in the West. Ultimately they will fall short, but should finish with around 35-40 wins, which will be a success for a team which has languished in the bottom 5 teams for the past few years.

Next up are the Portland Trailblazers.

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