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NBA Daily: Fixing The Sacramento Kings

In Basketball Insiders’ latest installment of “Fixing”, Matt John takes a look at the now-promising Kings’ next steps.

Matt John

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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.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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