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Fixing The Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings are a continued maturation process and perhaps a productive summer away from showing true signs of improvement. Can they build upon recent developments to bring a winner back to that fanbase?

Jabari Davis

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When asked to complete a preview and ultimate prediction article for the 2013-14 Sacramento Kings a win range somewhere in the area of 30-33 was settled upon if memory serves correctly. A five game improvement upon the 28-54 results from just a season before may sound like relatively modest expectations, but we also wanted to be fair to first-year head coach Mike Malone as he installed what they can only hope is a new sense of direction for the organization. However, he now has a year under his belt and expectations are only going to increase moving forward. Here’s our take on how they can meet, and potentially exceed them.

Continue to build around Cousins

There were already some openly questioning the decision to sign a max extension with the franchise’s figurative and literal centerpiece, a 23-year-old DeMarcus Cousins. Not because there was much doubt in his physical capabilities coming off averaging 17.1 PPG and 9.9 RPG in just his third season, but because of the difficulties he’s had with maintaining his composure in the past.

Supporters would tell you such struggles are merely a matter of the growth process for a highly emotional young star; while his detractors would fairly question whether he’d ever see enough of the type of leadership development during the life of the four-year extension for it to truly pay off for the new ownership group.

When Vivek Ranadive purchased the team from the Maloof brothers in 2013, he was reportedly told by everyone including the previous management to immediately ship Cousins out of town. Clearly, Ranadive didn’t rush to judgment, as their interactions eventually led to the $62 million extension. For the record, Cousins has followed that extension with career-highs in points (22.3 PPG), rebounds (11.8 RPG), field goal percentage (49.0 percent), and free throw attempts (8.7) per game.

Even those of us that believe in Cousins thought there could perhaps be a parallel between his youthful outbursts and the eventual transformation of a player like former Bullet/Blazer/Piston (among others) Rasheed Wallace. While both gifted and equally as versatile comparably, it took Wallace several stops and about half of his career to finally find the right fit in that 2004 Championship Pistons team.

The Kings are hoping to provide the right environment and supporting cast right there in Sacramento as Cousins continues to progress at what they hope is an accelerated pace. The likelihood of this is up for debate, but what is indisputable is their need for it to happen in order to avoid having their best-laid plans go astray. There has to be hope that the generally no-nonsense on-court presence of veteran Carl Landry in 2014-15 can be a positive influence. Landry was signed this past offseason, but has struggled to spend much time in the lineup with this young core due to various injuries.

Even in Landry’s absence, although he’s continued to have minor skirmishes and disagreements in 2013-14, Cousins has shown signs of maturity in certain cases. Just last week, he reportedly offered an apology to former San Antonio Spur (and current announcer) Sean Elliot for an unfortunate exchange they had way back in 2012. That probably isn’t a follow-up peacemaking that takes place just a year ago, so credit is due.

Sign Rudy Gay long-term, one way or another

The decision to take the risk other teams were reportedly unwilling to in acquiring Rudy Gay could pay some much-needed dividends as early as next season if the eighth-year swingman ultimately decides against opting-out of the final year ($19.3 million) of his contract in an effort to build upon what they have going in Sacramento.

The truth is, the market for Gay may not be as large as his representation may like, and a team potentially in a real growth spurt like the Kings may eventually be the best option as he considers his prime years. With the far more punitive nature of the current CBA, Gay has to expect at least a medium-sized pay cut regardless of where he decided to sign. In fact, unless he is willing to take what would undoubtedly amount to a massive cut to play with a contender, the Kings may end up being able to offer the best combination in terms of promise and salary.

As recently as February, Gay spoke to ESPN’s Marc Stein about his experience with the Kings.

“I’m not sure (which way he’s leaning),” Gay told ESPN. “I have to go into the summer with my people, think about everything, weigh out the pros and cons. I don’t know yet, but Sacramento has been great to me thus far. Obviously, I’m trying to tune it all out right now. All I can think about right now is how great Sacramento’s been to me.”

Obviously, not a guarantee by any stretch, but Gay does at least sound relatively optimistic about the prospects of remaining in Sacramento long-term. Beyond the fact that he’s been a more efficient player in Sacramento, part of Gay’s potential interest in staying could lie in the reasonably expected further development of the supporting cast as well.

Available free agents haven’t exactly been beating doors down to sign in Sacramento,  so extra consideration should probably be taken when deciding how strongly to pursue an extension with Gay.

Rather than opting out, Gay could decide to play the final year of his contract leaving him as an unrestricted free agent following 2014-15. If the organization has determined he’s a good fit with their core, they may even decide to offer Gay an extension somewhere in the neighborhood of four years, $48 million; similar to what Golden State’s Andre Iguodala received just last summer.

Let the market dictate Isaiah Thomas’ value

Although only listed at a diminutive 5’9 (by NBA standards), point guard Isaiah Thomas has enjoyed a steady improvement in each of his first three seasons. The former second-round 60th pick, or the NBA’s version of “Mr. Irrelevant” was has been so good this season (20.7 PPG, 6.4 APG) that he made a solid point guard acquisition in Greivis Vasquez all-but entirely expendable from the very moment his sneakers touched down in Sacramento (from New Orleans). Vasquez was eventually moved to Toronto in the deal for Gay, but Thomas’ marked improvements certainly would have made for an easier decision.

Thomas is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and while it is uncertain whether the organization see’s him as the point guard of the future, they might find it difficult to replace his productivity at the rate they’d likely be able to re-sign him long-term. He’ll earn significantly more than the $885,000 he made this year, but the Kings might deem the added expense worthwhile if Thomas is seen as vital toward the team’s overall chemistry.

Develop Ben McLemore

First-year shooting guard Ben McLemore has enjoyed a few impressive performances and early-career highlights including a fun moment during the dunk contest that involved jumping over Kings’ minority owner Shaquille O’Neal, but coach Malone would probably be the first to tell you the rookie still needs to continue developing his all-around game.

With the reputation as both a shooter and a scorer heading into the year, McLemore hasn’t been able to consistently align the speed of his game with the pace of the action to this point. Much of developing that consistency at this level is in finding a way to control your tempo so that you can repeat the motions you’re fighting to perfect and normalize as a young player. McLemore still has plenty of room to go, but appears to have the right approach and a desire to get there.

Fill out roster with unselfish, defensive-minded role players

Roster flexibility could be generated if they were to find a suitor interested in the services of a veteran shooter in Jason Terry in the final year of deal, or someone else intrigued by the reclamation project that is now former lottery pick Derrick Williams. The one-time second-overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft remains an intriguing figure as the debate over his true position rages on amongst coaches and GM’s. The team reportedly shopped Williams prior to this season’s February 20 trade deadline, so it wouldn’t exactly come as a shock to see a move explored in the offseason.

Some of the more glaring areas this young team will need to address for 2014-15 will be in their dedication to both the defensive end and in playing a more team-oriented style rather than relying upon so much of the one-on-one action. An adjustment period to Malone’s defensive schemes was to be expected, but the head coach also knows his team will probably need a significant drop from the 103.6 PPG they are currently surrendering (#26) if they want a realistic shot at competing in what will undoubtedly be a tough Western Conference yet again.

Ranking toward the bottom in team assists is also somewhat expected when you have a scoring point guard and a young team, but dead last is simply never acceptable (#30 – 19.0 APG). The discipline and natural chemistry that comes from convincing a young team to buy into the “pass-first” mentality in the interest of getting the best available shot takes time to develop but can cause a team to transform from an efficiency standpoint seemingly overnight once it sets in.

While not guaranteed, the Kings will likely be lottery-bound once again. Barring a finish outside of the bottom-12 (which isn’t likely), the Kings will maintain their pick in the draft. They currently possess what would be the seventh-worst record in the league, and a miracle late-season run is not expected.

Our most recent Basketball Insiders 2014 Mock Draft (by Yannis Koutroupis) shows plenty of talented options within the 7-10 range that should be at the Kings’ disposal. Plenty of options are available, including inserting a versatile and talented power forward such as Arizona’s Aaron Gordon or even a stretch-four shooting threat such as Creighton’s Doug McDermott to provide court balance.

Benefits can be drawn from either direction, or any other decision the Kings might ultimately come to, but the main positive to take from their current situation is that the proverbial “light the end of the tunnel” finally appears to be developing. The once-rabid and ever-proud fanbase fought to keep their Kings in Sacramento, and it would be nice to see them continue their current relative upswing. The organization still has plenty of work to do, but at least they have a foundation in place to build upon.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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