Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 14/15: Sacramento Kings @ New Orleans Pelicans

After my planned post on Miami-Boston was put off by injuries to Wade and Whiteside, it was good to get a chance to review two young, healthy teams.

The Pelicans possess one of the hottest commodities in basketball in the form of Anthony Davis, who has risen from first overall pick in 2012 to the forgotten MVP candidate of this season.

Despite missing former All-Star Jrue Holiday and stretch-four Ryan Anderson, the Pels are still in the hunt for a playoff spot in the brutal West, with former Kings guard Tyreke Evans enjoying a bounce-back season, Eric Gordon staying healthy and a number of other good role players contributing.

It's been a feel-good season for the Pelicans coming into this game, despite OKC continuing to edge ahead in the standings.

Davis is considered the future of the NBA, along with Durant, but the Kings' franchise player Demarcus Cousins is right there with him in talent.

However, the franchise has still suffered through a muddled season after a promising start.

Former coach Mike Malone had the team above .500, firmly in the playoff race and playing a cohesive, team-first game in the half-court.

Then Cousins went down with an illness and although losses came, they held their ground in the standings, only for new owner Vivek Ranadive to give Malone the boot, to the dismay of Cousins, the Sacramento fanbase and basketball lovers the world over.

It seemed like the more things changed the more they stayed the same for the Kings, with ownership making the same impulsive decisions as the unpopular Maloofs.

The reasoning given for the firing was that Ranadive wanted a coach who could play with more pace, to make the game more exciting and draw fans ahead of the new stadium being built.

While winning would seem to be a bigger draw for fans, the decision was final.

Interim coach Ty Corbin was a nightmare, demonstrating the same lack of ingenuity and inability to develop young players that had driven him out of Utah.

Finally, after the Kings were able to secure a Hall of Fame coach in George Karl, pushing past the rumoured disapproval of Cousins.

The early signs are good for Karl's Kings with the team earning a few impressive wins.

It was against this backdrop that the two teams squared off.


When the news came out today that OKC Thunder superstar Kevin Durant would undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season, I immediately started rooting for the Pelicans to sneak into the playoffs.

As ridiculous as Westbrook's individual efforts have been, they're also a bit old-hat for fans and seeing a young team - and budding superstar Anthony Davis - test their mettle in the post-season appeals to me a whole lot more.

Davis had a quiet game for the Pelicans, struggling to get easy looks with Rudy Gay doing an excellent job defending him and generally being overshadowed by Evans and Cousins.

The Kings did a good job of reading lob passes for AD and intercepted them on numerous occasions, forcing him to work for his points.

However, AD showed the makings of an elite post game, using a soft touch on hook shots from the block to score over smaller defenders.

If he can continue to improve his scoring in the low post to complement his deadly face-up game then the sky is the limit for Davis.

He also made an impact defensively with six blocked shots, although he didn't have much luck containing Cousins.

While Asik was tasked with guarding Cousins for the most part, it was great to see Davis match up with him over the course of the game and it will be a real treat to see these two battle it out for the next decade.

Davis is the future for New Orleans, but it was all about Evans in this game.

Tyreke displayed his typical driving game, but also showed off his improved jumper, canning several mid-range shots with confidence in the face of hapless Kings defenders.

While he needs to expand his range to the 3-point line, Evans used this game to remind his former franchise that they made a mistake in letting him go.

After being moved to the shooting-guard and small-forward since his rookie year, Tyreke is thriving at the point guard position with Holiday out and is a good complement to Davis as a guy who can attack the paint while opposing PFs are lured to the perimeter.

Ajinca is solid as a big off the bench, Norris Cole is back at his role-playing best and Quincy Pondexter is the perfect SF to add toughness to the side.

Asik's performance can be summed up by a single stat: one personal foul.

He battled with Cousins and made him work for the whole game without picking up a second foul and that's a success for the Turkish big man.

The Pelicans are a talented team on paper and have no need for another lottery pick.

The big question mark is Davis' durability but the other question's about this team's potential have been answered.

A small forward who can defend and shoot the long-ball like Kelly Oubre would be a good fit in the draft, but any 19-year-old is going to be an afterthought at this point.


It was a tale of two halves for the Kings in this game.

In the early going Sacramento was erasing any doubts I had about their suitability for a fast-paced attack.

Cousins was using his handle and passing ability to lead the break himself and score before the D was set in the half-court.

With 23 points on 10-14 shooting at the main break, Cousins looked set for a monster night and it was easy to see why.

His shooting touch in the mid-range is excellent for a centre, he ran the floor with the best and used an array of face-up drives and post-ups to frustrate the Pelicans' D.

More than anything it was the incredible energy he played with that impressed as he hustled on both ends to set the tone for his team.

Rudy Gay was feeling it early, taking away Davis' face-up game and battling inside.

Casspi was at his crafty best, Ben McLemore was using that athleticism to get out in transition and drain jumpers - even rookie Nik Stauskas sunk a long-bomb.

It was easy to see that I had been wrong, Cousins' versatility actually made him the perfect fit for Karl's up-tempo style.

But then the second half came.

Cousins, and consequently the Kings, were gassed.

The visitors stopped flying down the court, Cousins couldn't get easy looks and the Pelicans built upon a great lead.

Despite a monster dunk from Nik Stauskas, the second half was miserable for Sacramento.

Cousins became increasingly frustrated (although he did finish with 39 points and 20 boards) and the Kings were helpless to slow down New Orleans.

The real test for Karl with Cousins will be whether he can find the right balance between pace and exhaustion to let his star stay consistent through four quarters.

Derrick Williams was a bright spot though, as he confidently drilled a three-pointer, ran like crazy on transition and didn't seem lost defensively.

The former #2 pick didn't work out early in his career as an undersized PF, but as the NBA has shifted towards small-ball, Williams has found himself in the perfect situation for his talents and is worth keeping around for Sacramento.

 Gay avoided his iso-heavy bad habits of the past to put up a respectable 18 points at just under 50% from the field and was engaged defensively.

At 28, he's an ideal second banana for Cousins and a Kings team pushing for the post-season.

As I mentioned, Stauskas had some nice moments and it seems we might have given up on him too soon.

While he still gets beaten defensively, he's gaining confidence off the dribble and I wouldn't be surprised if he made a big jump in his second season.

The point guard and power forward spots are the biggest question marks for the Kings, so D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay would be welcome, but otherwise Porzingis, Myles Turner or Trey Lyles would make sense as stretch-fours.


Both teams are built around superstar big men and with all due respect to Okafor, Drummond and any other young big man out there, they are the future of the NBA.

The Kings and Pelicans have languished in the lottery for too long but with good and a bit of luck, they could both make the post-season next year, their stars are just that good.

The first-half performance of the Kings was definitely good enough to make the playoffs even in the West, it will be a matter of sustaining that over the course of a season.

I have a lot more confidence in Sacramento with Karl at the helm.

The Pelicans just need to stay healthy and they're right there so don't be too heartbroken if they miss the post-season this season, because Davis is still only 22.

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