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NBA Daily: Could Be A Tough Restricted Market

Steve Kyler takes a look at the impact restricted free agents who might be in store for a tough summer.

Steve Kyler

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Could Be A Tough Restricted Market

Last summer was a little brutal to some of the guys that bet on themselves and for teams that rolled the dice on restricted free agency. Most early cap projections have the 2018-19 NBA Salary cap increasing slightly from the $99.093 million it landed at this season to just around $101 million.

While the NBA is doing better than it ever has in the revenue department, the salary cap system is simply a mechanism to ensure the players, as a group, receive the agreed 49-51 percent of total Basketball Related Income. Part of the calculation to reach the cap figure is based on what’s already owed to players in salaries and benefits. Because NBA teams spent like drunken sailors when the salary cap exploded two seasons ago, the cap isn’t jumping up nearly as much as some expected when all the new television rights revenue started to pour in.

The end result is after two years of aggressive spending, most teams will be either over the cap or in some cases way over the luxury tax line before free agency even opens.

This will have an impact on the marketplace, especially for players hoping for a whopper of an offer sheet in restricted free agency.

Current cap projections peg the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, LA Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and possibly the Indiana Pacers as having meaningful cap space.

While they say it only takes one team to set a market, having so few teams with meaningful cap space could make for a tough summer.

It is important to point out that restricted free agency is a multi-step process which starts with the issuance of a qualifying offer. A player does not have to accept the offer, and the team can, at any point, pull that offer making the player unrestricted.

All pending restricted free agent players have two values to keep in mind – the qualifying offer value and a cap hold value. Cap holds are in essence cap placeholders which take up a fixed and defined amount of cap space. While teams can exceed the cap to re-sign their own players, there is always a placeholder on the cap until a new deal is reached or the team renounces that player.

Here are some of the notable pending restricted free agents and what we know today:

Jabari Parker – Milwaukee Bucks

[$8.85m Qualifying Offer – $20.3m Cap Hold]

The Milwaukee Bucks entertained a number of offers on Parker at the trade deadline and at least seriously considering moving him. This is actually really common for teams that may be struggling to understand a player’s worth on the market.

Given Parker’s knee issues the balance of the season will be important for setting a real price on Parker.

Most NBA insiders believe the Bucks are not only going to pay Parker, but they may not force him to play out of the Offer Sheet game.

The Bucks are going to be way over the salary cap, so there is zero reason not to retain Parker on a new deal, simply because they won’t get below the salary cap line with or without a new Parker deal, so in essence any money paid to Parker is money that’s only available to Parker and no one else.

There are Luxury Tax concerns, and that would be meaningful for a smaller revenue market like Milwaukee, but with a brand-new area ready to come online, the word is Bucks ownership isn’t worried about the cost of the roster.

Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic

[$7.26m Qualifying Offer – $16.51m Cap Hold]

Like Parker, the odds that Aaron Gordon is not re-signed in Orlando is pretty small; however, unlike Parker, the Magic may let the market drive the value of the next deal.

That’s not a reflection on how management views Gordon, simply that they are trying to shed cap dollars and get themselves right sided on a number of fronts and overpaying for Gordon is a concern.

The Magic are a team in transition, and there has been a growing sense that if Gordon did not want to come back, they might be open to a sign and trade, especially if the NBA draft yields a better fitting cornerstone player.

Like Parker, the Magic are going to be over the cap in a significant way, so money paid to Gordon is only available to him, and he would become tradable in January.

There is a scenario in which someone tries to poach Gordon with a max. level offer, but even then, the Magic would be smarter to match a deal unless it’s loaded with unfavorable terms to the Magic’s rebuild plan.

Dante Exum – Utah Jazz

[$6.61m Qualifying Offer – $14.97m Cap Hold]

Injuries have derailed Dante Exum’s NBA career, but there is a window this season for him to establish something of a market value in Utah with the team’s push toward the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Exum, he hasn’t done enough to live up to his draft hype, and he may be a player that takes the qualifying offer. In his case, one more year in Utah at $6.61 million, and the ability to veto any trades might be smarter than trying to find a deal that doesn’t tie him into a lower dollar deal.

The prevailing thought is the Exum will be back in Utah, but it would take something pretty spectacular to think its on a new long-term deal.

Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics

[$6.05m Qualifying Offer – $13.61m Cap Hold]

The Boston Celtics had numerous offers for Smart at the trade deadline and opted to hang on to him. That bodes well for him staying in Boston beyond this season; the question becomes does another team test Boston’s taste for luxury tax?

Smart seems to be a player that will get offers; the question is will anyone offer more than the $13.6 million cap hold?

It is going to be hard to pry Smart out of Boston at value—it’s going to take an offer sheet that’s more than Boston will match, which means something in the $12-$14 million per year range on a multi-year deal.

With Celtics guard Kyrie Irving’s future a little uncertain (Irving is eligible for a contract extension this summer) would the Celtics be wise to let Smart leave before getting an answer from Irving?

If there is a player on the list that reasonably could be elsewhere next season, it might be Smart, but that seems far from certain.

Julius Randle – Los Angeles Lakers

[$5.56m Qualifying Offer – $12.44m Cap Hold]

Randle’s future is squarely tied to the Lakers pursuit of marquee free agents. While there is little doubt Randle has emerged as a promising young star, the Lakers are going to have a hard time clearing the necessary cap space to pursue two max-level free agents and hang onto Randle’s Bird Rights.

While Randle’s $5.56m qualifying offer is an easy number for the Lakers, it’s his $12.44 million cap hold that handicaps things. Unless the Lakers can find a way to jettison the lingering contract of forward Luol Deng without taking anything meaningful back against the cap, it’s going to be nearly impossible to get to two max slots and retain Randle.

There are scenarios where it becomes possible to add players and retain Randle; it would simply require the added player to not receive max level money.

The danger for the Lakers is that there appear to be two early suitors for Randle that may force the Lakers’ hand. The Dallas Mavericks have had an eye on Randle for some time and is the team most expect to be on Randle’s doorstep at 12:01 am on July 1.

Another team to watch is the Sacramento Kings. After dumping George Hill’s contract off on the Cavaliers, the Kings could have some cap money, and Randle is a name linked to them as well.

The easy answer for the Lakers is to simply lock Randle up early, which means the front office will have to ask for quick decisions from would-be free agents before another team puts an offer in front of Randle he is willing to sign and start the clock on the matching rights of restricted free agency.

Elfrid Payton – Phoenix Suns

[$4.53m Qualifying Offer – $9.99m Cap Hold]

The Orlando Magic dealt Payton to the Suns at the trade deadline after finding very little interest from other teams. The Suns, according to sources, were high on Payton and wanted to the opportunity to try out the fit before committing.

So far, Payton has been productive enough to think the Suns may hang on to him.

The wrinkle to watch in all of this is what could be as many as three first-round draft picks (most insiders believe one of those later first round picks is going to be traded), and a boatload of free agent money.

Assuming the Suns don’t find a better option in the draft, there is a good chance Payton is back in Phoenix on a new deal, but its unlikely the Suns are going to break the bank for Payton – meaning he might be poachable.

Zach LaVine – Chicago Bulls

[$4.42m Qualifying Offer – $9.60m Cap Hold]

There has been a lot of talk in Chicago about how much Zach LaVine is really going to command. Given the lack of cap money around the NBA and the Bulls ability to match anything reasonable, LaVine may be in a tough spot if he is expecting the marketplace to boost his deal.

Sources close to the situation said it would take a whopper of an offer for the Bulls not to match. The NBA has cautioned teams about declaring their willingness to match offers publicly, but Bulls sources that would comment on the subject found it laughable that LaVine wouldn’t be back in Chicago on a new contract, the question remaining is what’s the amount that gets it done?

Jusuf Nurkić – Portland Trail Blazers

[$4.14m Qualifying Offer – $8.84m Cap Hold]

It seems for some time that maybe the Blazers had cooled on Nurkić, as they explored trades for other centers for several weeks leading up to the trade deadline. In the end, the Blazers held firm and have gone a crazy run—enough to suggest that Nurkić might actually get a new deal in Portland.

The big issue facing both the Blazers and Nurkić is their proximity to the luxury tax. It’s possible the Blazers look to shed some contract money this offseason to clear up their cap, but with both Nurkić and fellow potential restricted free agent Shabazz Napier looking for new deals, the long-term may impact the short-term.

Blazers ownership has never had a problem spending money, but once a team rolls over the luxury tax line, it becomes harder and more expensive to make trades.

Given how well Nurkić has played (especially recently) it seems unlikely that Portland doesn’t retain him, especially considering how low both his qualifying offer and his cap hold are, the Blazers are in the driver seat on a new deal.

Rodney Hood – Cleveland Cavaliers

[$3.47m Qualifying Offer – $7.16m Cap Hold]

The prevailing thought around the Cavaliers is that Hood is not a rental. The Cavs made the deal to acquire Hood not only for the short term, but to re-sign him this summer.

While the future of LeBron James is going to weigh on every decision the Cavs make, the belief if even if James leaves,Hood is a good future piece to build around making his next deal something of a formality.

There is a window in which another team could try to poach Hood with a hefty offer, but given where the Cavs are cap wise, there is zero reason not to match, even a crazy offer.

As some on this list, the money paid to Hood is really only available to him, as the Cavs won’t get anywhere near cap space in the next couple of years.

Clint Capela – Houston Rockets

[$3.42m Qualifying Offer – $7.0m Cap Hold]

The cap hold on Capela makes it nearly impossible that he won’t be back in Houston. While the Rockets do have big dreams of what could be possible this summer, they can make all of their moves and still exceed the cap to re-sign Capela.

There is always the chance a team tries to force the Rockets hand and timing, but at the end of the day, just because a team makes an offer doesn’t mean Capela has to accept it.

It’s pretty safe to say the only uncertainty on Capela is how many years and how many dollars.

There are other players who could be restricted free agents based on being a second-round pick, being undrafted or simply signing shorter-term deals. As we get closer and closer to free agency, we’ll look at these in more depth.

Until then you can check out all the 2018-29 Free Agents here.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Six Small Sample Size Overreactions

It’s not always healthy to overreact to small sample sizes — but it sure is fun! Ben Nadeau checks in on five of his favorite early season storylines.

Ben Nadeau

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Today is October 20, 2018.

The newest NBA season has been a thing officially for four days. On Monday, Basketball Insiders’ Spencer Davies penned a piece with pointers on how to enjoy the 2018-19 campaign. Naturally, Davies urges that it’s important to not overreact to sample sizes after just two games. It’s sound advice but, on the other hand, it’s definitely not as fun either. Sports were tailor-made for grandiose overreactions, particularly in the volatile realm of professional basketball, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.

In game No. 1 last year, the Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo dropped 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in a nine-point win over the hapless Nets. Interesting, we thought, but small sample sizes, right? Two games later, Oladipo tossed out 28 points, four rebounds, five assists, four steals and four three-pointers — then 28-, 35- and 23-point lines quickly followed. When the season was all done and dusted, Oladipo’s blisteringly hot start ultimately finished with the guard hoisting the award for Most Improved Player. So, sure, some of this might be hollow, but there’s also a decent chance it isn’t either.

And if it isn’t just a momentary flash in the pan, here’s your cheat sheet for getting ahead of the rest of your friends, family and fantasy leagues.

Luka Dončić and Deandre Ayton: Special Already

It took about 30 seconds to realize that the NBA was blessed with at least two remarkably special rookies this season in Dončić and Ayton. The pair kicked off their respective careers against each other on Wednesday and, generally speaking, neither disappointed. Dončić brought his smooth operating style — the same style that helped him take home EuroLeague MVP last year — right from the opening tip. The Slovenian sensation tallied 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists, including a fantastic behind-the-back dime to a cutting DeAndre Jordan. It wasn’t exactly a coming out party, per se, but this 19-year-old may just meet all of our massive expectations and then some before long.

Then there’s Ayton, the reigning No. 1 overall pick and presumed future star as well. While everybody rightfully gushed over Dončić on opening night, Ayton went and showed out himself. With 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a block, Ayton went toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Jordan — a center 10 years his senior and an excellent rim protector in his own right — and shot 72.7 percent in his debut. The 7-foot-1 prospect will need to overcome some defensive hurdles, but he’ll put up some serious numbers in this Suns offense — that is nearly guaranteed. The last few years have brought some incredibly talented classes to the league lately and this one, headlined by Dončić and Ayton, appears as if it could be just as good.

Caris LeVert is LeGit

All summer, it was LeVert this and LeVert that. His coaches showered effusive praise on the third-year wing, while teammates — both new and old — touted LeVert as a breakout candidate this fall. Well, so far, it looks like his admirers were right on the money. LeVert, a slasher at heart, talked throughout last season about maturing and growing into his body — now, we’re getting an important taste of that comfort he’s long sought after. Dropping 27 points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal in 34 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, LeVert carefully used every herky-jerky step to mince his opposition to shreds. When the Nets were floundering in another infamously poor third quarter — a tradition like no other, at this point — it was LeVert that helped to claw them out of their self-made deficit. Most of the attention in Brooklyn has been focused on D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen, but perhaps it’s now LeVert’s time to shine.

On Friday, he did exactly that. The Nets called on him time and time again against the Knicks and the budding star delivered in spades. Not only did LeVert set a new career-high of 28 points, but 15 of them came in the final 12 minutes, including a tough, game-winning finish with just a second left on the clock. If people simply assumed that Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie would seamlessly resume duties as the crunch-time operators, they’d be dead wrong so far. The Nets have gone to LeVert with the game on the line twice in a row already and there’s a fair chance a star is being born in front of our very eyes.

The Knicks Are Probably Bad… But Absolutely Fun

In the Knicks’ season opener, jokes were flying around social media early about their potential ineptitude, particularly so without Kristaps Porzingis to save the day. Of course, New York then went and dropped 49 points on Hawks’ heads in the second quarter and never looked back. The Hawks are likely destined to be in the cellar this season and the Knicks won’t get 31 points from Tim Hardaway Jr. each night out. Having said all of that, this is an honest-to-goodness fun basketball team and, all of a sudden, there’s a nice collection of youngsters New York can develop moving forward. Kevin Knox, who surprisingly lost his starting spot just before the season began, tossed in 17 points versus Brooklyn on Friday; with newcomer and the perpetually-breaking-out Mario Hezonja helping with 15 points of his own in the opener.

Led by the ever-charismatic Enes Kanter (cue the nipple clip) and Hardaway Jr., it’s way too early to think about the postseason for the Knicks, but there will be plenty of reasons to tune in. Former G-League castaway Trey Burke is still here too, playing side-by-side with the defensive-minded Frank Ntilikina, while preseason standout Allonzo Trier is looking right at home in the rotation. The cherry on the top? Mitchell Robinson, the uber-athletic mystery man from June’s draft, has played just one minute in their first two games — his time will come soon enough. Even if head coach David Fizdale can’t transform the Knicks immediately, they will play hard and stay competitive on most nights — that alone is a better fate than half of the league’s lottery-bound franchises. The Knicks might be bad, but they’ll be a fascinating puzzle to watch come together over the coming months.

Devin Booker: Still Divisive, Still Very Good

Long before Booker brought home a five-year extension worth $158 million, fans and pundits alike were arguing about the sharpshooter’s true impact on the game. Between the Suns’ losing record since his arrival and an open discussion on empty stat-padding, many scorned the Phoenix front office for giving the 21-year-old a max deal. But if the next 81 games are anything like his first outing, Booker will be torching any defender that comes near him. Even a semi-alarming hand surgery in early September couldn’t slow down Booker in the opener. Against Dallas, Booker poured in 35 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 6-for-10 from three-point range — well, then. New head coach Igor Kokoškov promptly called Booker their “anchor” and noted that he will only continue to improve.

In the midst of Booker’s 19-point fourth quarter explosion, he showed off the full arsenal. Certainly, Booker is known from his long-range skills, but the talented scorer is proficient at taking defenders off the dribble as well. Booker has only played once — he’ll face off against the Denver Nuggets later on today — but he just continues to chug along, picking up right where he left off in March of last year. Through injury, rehab and a big money contract, it may just be time to admit that Booker is every bit ready to become a star. With potential-laden assets like Josh Jackson and Ayton surrounding him now, we’re about to find out how good this former Wildcat can be.

For now, the shaken-up Magic Eight Ball says this: “Signs point to yes.”

Kemba Walker: Setting Charlotte Ablaze

It feels like an eternity has gone by since the Walker trade rumors initially began — running the full gamut between certain availability, cautious denial and the point guard’s steadfast desire to stay right at home. Still, Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and Charlotte has their work cut out to even make the postseason in the weaker Eastern Conference at all. While destinations like Cleveland and Phoenix have popped up in accordance, Walker has gone on record that he wants to “create something special” with the Hornets. But when push comes to shove, will Charlotte be willing to take the risk of their star walking away for nothing? As of now, February is a lightyear away, however, and Walker himself has helped the Hornets off to a positive start through two games.

Albeit in a slim one-point loss to Milwaukee, Walker erupted for 41 points, four assists and two steals on 7-for-13 from three-point range. On Friday, the Hornets took home their first win of the campaign on the back of Walker’s 26 points, five assists and five three-pointers. Flanked by standout rookie Miles Bridges, a more confident Malik Monk, plus healthy versions of Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller to boot, Walker looks poised to record his best season yet. Walker, 27, has always been a big-game killer and more than happy to talk down those pesky trade rumors — but this will be an extremely interesting case to check in on in a few months. Walker can’t keep up a 34.5-point per game pace, obviously, but it certainly appears as if a special, fire-breathing effort is brewing down the coastline. Don’t sleep on Kemba, he’ll make you pay.

Julius Randle: Unleashed?

And then there’s Randle: New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins replacement, the formerly renounced Los Angeles Laker and criminally underpaid big man. Under the never-well-hidden guise of LeBron James’ inevitable arrival, Randle seemed like a bit of an afterthought this summer for the purple and gold. Despite improving in every successive season, Randle’s trip to unrestricted free agency was a bit of a dud too, eventually landing him in a fantastic situation alongside Anthony Davis on a two-year deal worth $18 million. Randle is no stranger to impressive performances — his 36-point, 14-rebound, seven-assist onslaught last year against the Cavaliers instantly comes to mind — but he’s been undoubtedly key to the Pelicans’ red-hot start.

Randle is currently stepping confidently into three-pointers — he’s already at three through two games and his career-high in a season is just 17 — and the 6-foot-9 big man has shot 55 percent during their blowout victories over the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. But what’s been most impressive so far is his continued versatility on the offensive end; smooth enough to stroke from deep, but more than able to post up, spin past a defender and then throw it down. Needless to say, the list of players capable of such flexibility, particularly those at the age of 23, is a short one. For now, he’ll continue to come off the bench behind the floor-stretching Nikola Mirotic — off to an even hotter start than Randle, somehow — but these minutes aren’t going anywhere.

The season is still in its early infancy stages but these storylines seem like sure-fire bets to continue well into the future. Whether these players compete for postseason hopefuls or lottery-bound rebuilders, it’d be wise to watch these storylines unwind and take shape. Most would agree that Dončić and Ayton are special — but how quickly can they find consistent success at the top level? LeVert and Randle are poised for their biggest respective seasons yet, while Walker and Booker look to ready to smash their detractors once again. Tiny sample sizes are admittedly dangerous, that goes without saying, but they can also offer helpful glimpses through the crystal ball at some of the league’s brightest stars. Feel free to sleep on these entries here — but if Oladipo taught us anything last season, it’s that these type of starts can turn into year-long heat checks and a renewed status across the entire league.

Who here has called next?

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NBA Daily: Can The Milwaukee Bucks Be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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