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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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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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