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NBA Saturday: Lawson May Make Rockets Top-Tier Team

If Ty Lawson overcomes his off-court issues, he could elevate the Houston Rockets to new heights.

Jesse Blancarte



On July 19, the Denver Nuggets traded point guard Ty Lawson to the Houston Rockets. Along with Lawson, the Nuggets sent Houston a 2017 second-round pick in exchange for Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni (who was subsequently waived), Joey Dorsey (bought out), Nick Johnson and a lottery-protected 2016 first-round draft pick.

Lawson, age 27, has been in the NBA for six seasons and has established himself as one of the league’s best playmakers and a solid overall point guard. Lawson has career averages of 14.2 points, 6.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game and was ranked third in assists per game last season, outpaced only by Chris Paul and John Wall.

However, Lawson has struggled with off-court issues, including, among other things, a history of alcohol abuse that dates back to his time at the University of North Carolina (Lawson pleaded guilty to underage drinking and driving in 2008). Lawson was arrested twice this year for suspicion of driving under the influence – first in January and again in July. Lawson recently went through and completed a court-ordered 30-day rehab program and is actively working to overcome this ongoing problem. Alcohol addiction is a very serious issue and basketball should be an afterthought for Lawson until he is able to take control of the situation.

With that said, if Lawson is focused and can take control of his off-court issues, he could make a major impact for the Rockets this upcoming season. When recently asked about playing for the Rockets, Lawson talked about being a key piece in helping the Rockets compete for a championship.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Lawson told Fox 26 Houston. “I was like, before I even came to the team, I was talking to James Harden. I was like, ‘Man get me over there.’ I’ll be that piece to get [you] over the hump. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air.

“It’s a huge chance. [The Rockets] went to the Western Conference Finals [last season] and could have won, but you just needed a couple of extra pieces. So I’m excited to be playing in a situation where I know I have a chance to win.”

Lawson is right; this a big time opportunity for both him and the Rockets. A lot of things will need to come together for Houston, but the addition of Lawson could take the Rockets from arguably a second-tier Western Conference team and put them into the upper-echelon with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

The first thing most people mention when talking about Houston adding Lawson is how he potentially fits next to superstar shooting guard James Harden. As all NBA fans know, Harden handles the basketball quite a bit for the Rockets and is their de facto point guard. Harden has a strong handle, attacks the rim relentlessly with his herky-jerky Euro step and is great at kicking the ball out to teammates for open jump-shots. This strategy works quite well for the Rockets, especially with Harden playing next to Patrick Beverley, who is a relatively low usage point guard that has found success as a defender and spot-up shooter from three-point range. The same dynamic applied with Jason Terry, who took over for Beverley in March when he tore a ligament in his left wrist, which required season ending surgery. Terry is a low usage combo guard who is well-suited to play off the ball as a spot-up shooter considering he is ranked third in NBA history in made three-pointers.

However, Lawson is far from a low usage point guard. For the 2014-15 season, Lawson ranked 20th overall in Nylon Calculus’ True Usage statistic (which is an estimate of the percentage of offensive possessions on which a player contributes to the end result while he is on the floor) with a 50.4 True Usage percentage. Harden registered a 53.7 True Usage percentage, which ranks 10th overall among all NBA players – behind other high usage players like Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, John Wall and Chris Paul. With Lawson and Harden both accustomed to playing lead guard, there are concerns as to how effectively they will play with one another.

It’s true to a certain extent that both Harden and Lawson need the ball in their hands to be effective. However, both players rank near the top of the league in drives to the rim per game, according to SportVu, and both are great at finding teammates open on the perimeter for open jumpers. Having two lead guards who can attack the rim relentlessly to either score at the rim or create open three-point attempts should work quite well in Daryl Morey’s analytically driven offensive scheme. The Rockets make it a point to take the majority of its shots either at the rim of from beyond-the-arc, cutting out less efficient shots like mid-range jumpers. But the Rockets relied on Harden almost exclusively to create open perimeter jumpers for teammates, which required Harden to play heavy minutes.

The Rockets’ offensive efficiency fell off a cliff when Harden was on the sideline, dropping from 107.7 points per 100 possessions to 93.7. This isn’t too surprising since the Rockets didn’t have many playmakers last season and were so dependent on Harden to create spot-up opportunities. This is where having Lawson could really pay off. Lawson led the league in assist opportunities per game last season and had a 27.5 Assist Usage percentage, which was the fifth highest rating in the league. Lawson is a skilled and willing passer (much like Harden) and should be able to somewhat maintain Houston’s offensive efficiency when Harden rests.

In addition, neither Lawson nor Harden’s individual games should suffer individually too much. Harden was relied on way too heavily last season to generate points and scoring opportunities for Houston. Because of this, teams sent double-teams at Harden early and often, forcing him to take 7.6 pull up jump-shots per game, which was the ninth highest amount in the league last season. While Harden shot 46.4 percent on these particular shots (a good mark in comparison to other high volume shooters), he stands to improve his offensive efficiency by taking set shots from passes from Lawson, who should draw a lot of defensive attention. Of course, taking the ball out of Harden’s hands too much is a bad idea, but adding more playmaking to Houston’s offense makes it harder for opposing defenses to come up with effective defensive strategies.

While Lawson isn’t a great spot-up shooter (Beverley had a better spot-up three-point percentage than Lawson last season), he’s solid, and like Harden should have the green light to fire from distance in Houston. With so much attention drawn by Harden, Lawson should be in line for some easy looks from the perimeter this upcoming season. This is important since Lawson’s offensive efficiency numbers and shooting percentages have dipped virtually each season as the Nuggets increasingly relied on his ability to both score and create scoring opportunities for teammates. With more weapons and a MVP-caliber teammate in Harden, Lawson won’t be targeted by opposing defenses as he was in Denver and he can be more selective with his shooting.

In addition, Harden and Beverley have already developed specific plays that Lawson should be able to utilize as well. For example, Harden often times set ball screens for Beverley, which usually created enough space for Beverley to either attack the rim or get an open look for a three-pointer. It will be interesting to see how defenders choose to defend this type of play when Lawson is the ball-handler considering the fact that Lawson is a much better all-around offensive player than Beverley. The same improved pick-and-roll action should apply with Dwight Howard as well. When Howard dives to the rim, defenses tend to send multiple defenders to prevent him from getting an easy shot at the or near the basket. This is what makes adding Lawson so important. The Rockets now have someone, other than Harden, who is a multi-threat with the ball in his hands. Defenses can no longer hone in on just Harden or Howard, and now have to make tough decisions on who to cheat off of.

Harden is understandably optimistic about the pairing and had good things to say about Lawson and how he will fit in Houston.

“Ty is definitely going to help us,” Harden said during a break in the Kroger Unplug and Play James Harden Basketball ProCamp in The Woodlands on Saturday. “He gives us that quickness, that speed, playmaking ability, something that we were missing, especially deep in the playoffs. We’re going to welcome him with open arms. We’re happy to have him.”

By adding Lawson, the Rockets have also improved their transition game. Lawson led the Nuggets to 57 wins in the 2012-13 season, playing at the league’s second-fastest pace. Last season, the Rockets played at the league’s second-fastest pace as well, which is necessary since the Rockets lacked playmakers on offense and their half-court game got stagnant at times. At age 27, Lawson is in his athletic prime and should be able to keep up Houston’s fast-paced offensive attack. While Lawson won’t have the altitude advantage that he had in Denver, he still is one of the league’s fastest guards and has experience running a fast-paced team.

Where things are less promising is on the defensive side of the court. Lawson is just 5’11 and has never been much of a defensive player. Putting him next to Harden could be problematic since Harden has never been much of a defender, though he did show improvement last season. However, the Rockets had the league’s sixth-best defense last season, despite playing Terry and Prigioni next to Harden almost exclusively after losing Beverley. If there is anything the Rockets could absorb, it’s a slight drop off on defense, especially with Beverley coming back healthy and likely playing more than 20 minutes a game and Howard hopefully 100 percent healthy.

If the Lawson-Harden combo doesn’t work out, then Rockets head coach Kevin McHale can restore Beverley as the starting point guard, allowing Lawson to lead Houston’s second unit. Some would argue this is what McHale should do from the start since Lawson and Harden’s respective playmaking abilities may overlap one another, diminishing their ability to individually make an impact on the court. This is where McHale will need to actively monitor how Harden and Lawson are playing together and adjust accordingly while stagger minutes. Whether Lawson starts or not, McHale should rotate his backcourt in such a way that either Lawson or Harden is essentially always on the court. The good news for Houston is that it seems Lawson and McHale have already developed a good relationship with one another.

“It means a lot, they believe that much in my game,” said Lawson, who added he’s excited to play for McHale. “It means a lot that he feels that way about me.”

Before trading for Lawson, the Rockets seemed to be a step behind some of the powerhouse teams in the Western Conference. The Warriors, Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are all as good, if not better than last season. By giving away supplemental pieces for a point guard that can play at near All-Star levels, the Rockets are optimizing their championship window, though the move comes with obvious risks.

Despite being a nice addition on paper, Lawson can’t help the Rockets if he can’t regain control of his life and overcome the obstacles in his way. A person’s health and well-being comes before something like basketball and Lawson should not return to the court until he is truly ready to do so.

Hopefully Lawson can regain that control and remind us all of just how effective he can be when focused and in control. If he can, Houston has a shot to make some real noise in the stacked Western Conference.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.




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NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch

Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.

Shane Rhodes



The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.

And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.

The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.

With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.

While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.

The Competitive Postseason Bubble

There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.

In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.

Out West, it’s more of the same.

Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.

The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.

Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.

The Three-Man Race for the MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.

But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?

Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.

As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.

The Anthony Davis Situation

The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.

So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.

The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.

The Battle for Zion

Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.

The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.

As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John



The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks



Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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