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.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.
Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”
Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.
The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.
Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.
With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.
One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.
“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”
Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.
“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”
In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”
Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.
While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.
Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.
“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”
The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.
Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.
“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”
Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.
NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.
The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.
Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.
Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.
There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.
Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.
In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.
Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.
Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.
This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?
There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.
Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.
Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.
The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.
There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.
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