In this latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, we’re going to take a look at the one team that arguably has the least fixing to do: The Sacramento Kings.
Just saying that feels so unordinary knowing the Kings’ reputation. In a season that had no shortage of surprises, the Kings’ sudden uprise ranks among the most stunning plotlines. Usually, teams who just barely miss out on the playoffs feel ashamed and wonder what went wrong. Such was not the case with Sacramento.
They may not have been able to end their 13-year playoff drought, but for the first time since 2000, the Kings appear to have a promising future ahead of them.
What Is Working
That’s just it. Something’s working for the Kings. In fact, a lot is working for the Kings. Before this season, the only thing that has worked out for Sacramento since their last playoff appearance was the elite play of DeMarcus Cousins. Even then, it wasn’t like Cousins was getting them anywhere. Now, the tables have turned.
Pretty much everything is working in Sacramento. It’s just not working enough now to its best results, but the best should be yet to come. That is thanks to the play of what has now become one of the league’s most talented youth movements.
De’Aaron Fox made a strong case for the Most Improved Player Award. Improvement was to be expected out the sophomore, but Fox went above and beyond what was expected of him. Fox came into the NBA known for his speed and for his playmaking. What he was not known for was his shooting.
The Kings played at the fifth-highest pace this season, and Fox increased his assist average per-36 from 5.7 to 8.3. That couldn’t have been too shocking who already knew about his game. However, Fox increasing his effective field goal percentage from 44.1 percent to almost 50 percent thanks to his improved three-point shooting, which topped at 37 percent. If that proves to not be a fluke, then De’Aaron Fox’s ceiling just got a lot higher, which is bad news for the NBA.
Buddy Hield wasn’t too far behind him. Hield is starting to show why the Kings were head over heels when the team acquired him two years ago. With an increased role in the offense, Hield’s numbers skyrocketed, putting up 20.7 points on 46/43/89 splits. At 26 years old, odds are Buddy probably won’t improve from there. It doesn’t matter because he’s emerged as one of the league’s clearer sharpshooters.
The real key to the Kings’ future is Marvin Bagley III. Post All-Star break, Bagley showed he could be among the more talented young bigs in the league. He put up 18.5 points on 49/39/70 splits. In fact, an unfortunate late-season knee injury may have hurt his chances at better numbers. Not to mention, the Kings’ playoff hopes.
The Kings may regret passing on Luka Doncic, but Bagley may not be too far behind him.
Harry Giles has shown that he has talent. That talent has shown up albeit only in spurts. The Kings are taking the right approach of being cautious with him until they know he’s 100 percent ready to play starter minutes. Giles was once upon time the number one recruit in the country. He hasn’t taken over the league just yet, but he’s showing signs that it may not be out of the question.
There are of course others who have played and should play a meaningful for the Kings. Bogdan Bogdanovic did a fantastic job sliding into the sixth man role. Harrison Barnes started slow, but he figured it out and should get better when he hopefully returns next season. Nemanja Bjelica did fine in his role as a stretch big. With Bagley and Giles on the rise, he should thrive in his role as the third big.
The Kings now have a team on their hands. Now that they do, they must do everything in their power to keep it
What Needs To Change
Honestly, not much. Boy, isn’t that great to hear for Sacramento?
Sacramento has its backcourt of the future in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. It has its frontcourt of the future in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. He was frustrating at times, but Harrison Barnes is an above-average starting small forward who should get better with more reps on the team. All the Kings really have to do is wait to see just how good this group can be in a full season together until they decide what the long-term solutions are.
Besides, Sacramento seems to have already made its statement on what needed to change. After three seasons, the Kings fired head coach Dave Joerger.
Joerger’s firing doesn’t come entirely as a shock. It had been rumored for months on end that tension had erupted between him and management. Though many had hoped this was just smoke, the Kings’ apparently had had enough of Joerger and kicked him to the curb.
Whatever reasons the Kings had to fire him is their business. That doesn’t stop it from being a badly-timed move. The team’s performance this season demonstrated that Joerger’s strategy was getting one of the NBA’s laughingstocks the best results it had seen in over a decade. Getting rid of the maestro in the midst of the team climbing towards success just doesn’t seem wise.
It also seems reminiscent of the time the team fired Mike Malone in 2014. Malone can sincerely boast that he was the lone coach of many that actually got through to DeMarcus Cousins that season. The team played well early on before Cousins went down, then management fired Malone because of differences. Just a couple years later, Malone is now one of the prime candidates to win Coach of the Year.
After what he’s done this season, it may not be long before Joerger does the same.
Maybe there was more to this than just differences between coaching and the front office. As impressive as the Kings were, they lost so many games in heartbreaking fashion. Those heartbreaking losses really added up as the season progressed. The Kings were nine games out the Western Conference when the season ended, but they were in thick of things for the majority of the season.
Maybe the team would have had a different fate had they been able to close out some of their closer games. Joerger’s firing may have come as a result of management being disappointed in his failure to guide the team in crunchtime.
That is the one blemish on what was a more than admirable coaching job by Dave Joerger. By firing him, the Kings are signaling that they believe that this group is capable of making the playoffs that just need the right man to come up with the right plays in a tight game.
For their sake, let’s hope their right.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Let’s get to the most pressing question first for Sacramento: What do they do with Willie Cauley-Stein?
Much has been made about Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles that Cauley-Stein has become somewhat of an afterthought despite that he was the starting center through the duration of the season. It’s hard to see WCS coming back to the Kings unless he comes back on a discount. He hasn’t shown much improvement since his rookie season and he played less minutes on average than he did the previous season.
Both Bagley’s production and Giles’ promise make Cauley-Stein expendable in Sacramento. His minutes per game average slowly decreasing month by month showed that there was a blooming trust in the former two and as well as the opposite in Cauley-Stein. Because of that, it’ll be hard to see how he comes back.
As for the rest of the impending free agents from the Kings’ side, it really varies. Odds are, Harrison Barnes will probably opt into his contract because it’s difficult envisioning anyone paying him what Sacramento is paying him – $25 million. Even if he opts out, it’s hard to see the Kings letting him walk.
Alec Burks was somehow almost completely nonexistent when the Kings acquired him mid-season, so his return appears unlikely. Kosta Koufos saw his role decrease substantially so it hard seeing the Kings bringing him back unless there’s some sort of special rapport there. Yogi Ferrell and Frank Mason will both be on non-guaranteed contracts. Odds are, the Kings will keep at most one of them. Neither are awful. They’re just not good enough to both be on the roster.
Outside of Cauley-Stein and maybe Barnes, the Kings don’t have much to worry about as far as retaining players go. As far as adding players, well, the Kings don’t have any dire needs outside of solidifying the rotation. Their success this season just might make them look as appealing as they’ve been since the early 2000’s.
As for potential targets, the recently departed Iman Shumpert will probably be available this summer. He embraced being a King before being traded to the Rockets. There could be some hurt feelings there, but Shumpert would have familiarity with the team.
Now that the Kings are on the rise, more familiarity would be pretty nice to have.
Focus Area: Draft
So much went right for the Kings this season that it’s sad to say that the one bad apple in the bunch is losing their first-round pick this season thanks to their trade with Philadelphia nearly four years ago.
While it definitely sucks to lose a lottery pick, Sacramento should see the glass half-full by taking pride in the fact that unlike Brooklyn or New York in past years, it didn’t wind up giving up a top-10 lottery pick to their trade partner. Since many speculated that their talent level was low enough to potentially fork over the first overall pick in the draft, they can take solace in the fact that giving up the last pick in the lottery when pretty much no one expected them to is just more evidence of how they wildly exceeded expectations.
Sacramento will not be completely devoid of draft picks. This season, the Kings will have the 40th, 46th and 60th selections in the 2019 draft. With their squad the way it is, there is no glaring need for them at the present time. At least not until we see the full extent of what Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles are capable of.
If the Kings are able to add a positive contributor to their rotation via the 2019 draft, then all the power to them. It’s not a particularly exciting time for the Kings draft-wise, but for the first time in what seems like an eternity, there’s not nearly as much pressure for Vlade Divac and company to find a franchise-changing player.
Fun times are ahead for the capital of California. The youth movement is paying off. There appears to be a sense of team unity. There are no bloated contracts dragging the team down. It appears that the storm has passed over.
That is as long as they don’t screw this up, or in other words, pull a Sacramento Kings.
NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto
After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.
The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.
Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).
But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.
Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.
But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.
But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.
There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.
There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.
Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.
As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.
All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.
All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.
Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?
Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.
Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.
And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.
NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres
It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.
Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.
And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.
“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”
Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.
“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”
Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.
He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”
That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.
Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.
Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.
“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”
If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”
It might not have been a joke.
Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.
“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”
That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.
If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.
The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.
Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?
Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.
Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.
Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.
Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.
No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)
This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?
Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.
LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.
With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.
No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)
On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.
Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.
While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.
The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.
No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)
By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.
The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.
What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.
The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.
No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)
You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.
They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.
The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.
Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.
No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)
The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.
The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.
Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.
All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.
But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?