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NBA PM: Fixing The Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings have big decisions to make this summer. Where does the organization go from here?

Jabari Davis

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The Sacramento Kings announced they will pay for die-hard fans to get a tattoo of their new logo, rewarding those who show the ultimate dedication and team spirit. However, fans may want to know how the team plans to improve before making that kind of decision. The Kings have plenty of work to do this summer if they finally want to turn things around in a town current minority owner Shaquille O’Neal now calls “Shaqramento.” Clever nicknames and updated logos aside, the Kings are now faced with the task of finding some consistency in terms of organizational unity and with the coaching staff while also determining whether to consider a total reset of the roster and direction.

Following a 33-49 season that featured rumors about their head coach’s termination as many as three separate times (and they did ultimately fire George Karl just after the season), random ejections and stories of on-court and off-court trust or chemistry issues, Sacramento has some issues that need resolving. There are plenty of questions to be answered over the next few months for the Kings, and we took a look at several options for them to consider:

Make the right coaching decision so the franchise can establish some stability.

Remember when everyone thought Vinny Del Negro was somehow “holding the Los Angeles Clippers back” after leading them to a 56-win season, but failing to guide them past the second round of the playoffs a few years ago? It turns out Del Negro may have been more of a scapegoat than anyone realized at the time, which makes the news about his interest in Sacramento’s vacant position that much more intriguing.

Although boasting an overall 210-184 coaching record, Del Negro hasn’t manned the sidelines for a team since being let go by the Clippers following the 2013 season. The million dollar question with the Kings will always be how the coach ultimately vibes with DeMarcus Cousins, but whether the team decides to head in a different direction in terms of their franchise player remains to be seen. It would be fun to see Del Negro eventually get another shot with a young core once again.

Mark Jackson and Sam Mitchell are also names that have been linked to the position. Mitchell’s seven-year coaching career is highlighted by the 47-35 record his upstart 2006-07 Toronto Raptors ended with, but he’s just 185-242 overall – at least, in part, due to roster limitations. Jackson, to his credit, took an inexperienced Golden State Warriors team from 23 wins to 47 wins in his second season, before ending his run in Oakland with a 51-31 record. The Warriors qualified for the postseason in back-to-back years with Jackson at the helm (2012-14) for the first time since 1990-92.

Kevin McHale, fired by the Houston Rockets earlier this season, is another intriguing name to surface during Sacramento’s coaching search. Even though McHale won 54 and 56 games in consecutive seasons (2013 and 2014), it still didn’t earn him much leeway as he was rather unceremoniously terminated just 11 games into the year (4-7). Like Del Negro, McHale is considered to be a “players’ coach” and does have a history of (at least initially) getting through to players with peculiar personalities over the past few seasons.

Regardless of whether general manager Vlade Divac and owner Vivek Ranadive select one of these candidates or even one of the top available assistants (Jay Larranaga, Ettore Messina and the like), this franchise needs stability and a united vision moving forward. Additional defensive-minded players and a coaching staff that can establish a defensive identity wouldn’t hurt, either. But first things first, as they say.

Figure out what to do with franchise player DeMarcus Cousins moving forward.

The latest logo and team slogan updates are great in theory, but it will take more than a new paint job to get this car running again. While letting George Karl go makes it at least appear that they’ve made their choice in terms of which faction to build around, there are still those who believe the organization won’t be able to fully turn the corner without a complete overhaul.

Cousins has seen five coaches come and go since being drafted back in 2010. While his skills are undeniable and he’s almost universally regarded as one of the game’s top big men, the Kings haven’t been able to capitalize on his production in terms of actual team success. In fact, while there was a brief glimmer of hope during former head coach Mike Malone’s early tenure (prior to being terminated after just 24 games into his second season), their overall record during Cousins’ career is a paltry 162-312. Beyond the idea of finding the “right” coach to guide their mercurial star player, the front office needs to also determine whether Cousins is a player who can be the focal point of a playoff contender at this point in his career.

While the production is undeniable (averaging 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 65 games this season), neither are the results – in terms of wins/losses and in his actual behavior on the court or within the locker room. Although the Kings did finally cross the 30-win plateau in 2015-16 for the first time in Cousins’ career, the sum of the parts – at least on paper – still isn’t quite adding up, especially in a year when much of the bottom half of the Western Conference was either in a full-blown rebuilding mode or dealing with major losses due to injury.

Clearly, all of the dysfunction and problems cannot be laid at Cousins’ feet. However, he does have a certain amount of responsibility for his share of things as the main attraction for the Kings.

Fix this roster with a clear-cut vision of the type of team they want to be.

Successful teams aren’t built overnight and don’t develop chemistry simply by chance. It takes organizational stability and a united effort from top to bottom. While the jury may still be out on Willie Cauley-Stein, to say the Kings have had a questionable draft history over the last three or four years  would be putting it nicely. This year’s first-round pick could be a slippery situation depending upon how things go in the draft lottery.

Due to various transactions, the Kings have either their own pick or the Philadelphia 76ers’ pick, whichever is the lower between the two if the pick happens to fall within the top 10. If the pick falls outside of the top 10, then it is owed to the Chicago Bulls. Our latest mock draft has them selecting Notre Dame’s point guard Demetrius Jackson, which would likely signal a decision to go in a different direction at the position. Jackson is regarded as a good floor general who can do a little bit of everything in terms of scoring, playmaking and defending, but he could struggle against some of the longer guards initially (at 6’1) while continuing to develop and adjust to playing at the pro level.

Traditionally, this has been a franchise that has had difficulty luring top free agents to Sacramento, but they will have as much as $22.5 million to work with on the market this summer. That places them in the bottom-third of the league in terms of how much money they’ll have to spend, but it is difficult to say what they’d use it on as we simply don’t know which direction the franchise is headed at this point.

Caron Butler, James Anderson and Seth Curry have player options for the final year of their contracts and several others have non-guaranteed deals, but technically Sacramento’s only guaranteed free agent this summer will be point guard Rajon Rondo.

While Rondo can still impress the casual observer who still considers the stat sheet to be the holy grail when it comes to evaluating talent, there’s also a deeper way to factor in the actual impact of his production as well as how the enigmatic 30-year-old’s personality influences overall team chemistry. It would be unfair to reduce him down to a label of having “empty stats” or anything of that nature (after averaging 11.9 points, 11.7 assists and six boards per contest), but you also cannot completely ignore how ball-dominant he can be as well as his tendency to act abrasively with officials and coaches at times. Rondo and Cousins have clearly formed a bond, but that won’t necessarily guarantee his return to a team that is clearly looking to shift the general narrative and improve upon the negative stories that surround the organization.

There’s no easy answer when it comes to fixing this franchise, but this could absolutely be a pivotal summer in terms of reshaping what we’ve come to know as the current iteration of Kings basketball. With the coaching staff as well as what to do with the ultra-talented Cousins each in the balance, the 2016-17 Sacramento Kings could very well be the result of a total reset by ownership and management. Regardless of which direction they elect to go, fans in Sacramento probably deserve a bit more positivity surrounding their team for the first time in awhile.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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