Jamal Crawford of the L.A. Clippers was recently a guest on the Basketball Insiders Podcast. Alex Kennedy and Michael Scotto interviewed Jamal and the Q&A can be found below. To the listen to the podcast in its entirety, click the play button above.
Question: Let’s start off talking about this season. You and I, in the past, have talked about the continuity that this Clippers team has. Not many teams have a core that’s been together for so many years. Where is your guys’ chemistry level at now and how comfortable are you guys playing with each other this point after so many years?
Crawford: “I think we’re very comfortable. Obviously, with injuries, it’s part of the game and you hate to see it, but we just have to hold down the fort until everyone gets back. With the chemistry we have with our core guys, we’re very familiar with each other. We’ve been through all kinds of wars together, all kinds of battles together, we know where each other are supposed to be on the court, we know how to communicate with each other, and I think all of those things are important. The first part of the season, we started off great. We had everybody healthy. The last few weeks we’ve had some injuries, especially our two top guys, so we’re just trying to hold down the fort until they get back to keep that chemistry rolling.”
Question: When you guys are fully healthy, you have Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and yourself, and you have deeper bench now. When you put all of those components together and you look at the Western Conference with the Spurs and the Warriors’ star-studded quartet that everybody talks about, where do you feel you guys fit in that mix when you’re fully healthy?
Crawford: “When we’re fully healthy, I think we’re just as good as anybody. I really believe that. Obviously, the Spurs are the gold standard and have been for the last 15 years, Golden State has had a tremendous run the last few years, and other teams are on the rise as well. But, when we’re healthy and right and playing at our very best, I feel like we’re built to play against anybody. We believe that as well. We just have to continue to go out and prove it and prove it when it counts and, obviously, that’s the playoffs.”
Question: Obviously, you’ve been Sixth Man of the Year multiple times and everyone knows what you can do off the bench. Austin Rivers was brought back too. But you guys also made some additions such as Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights. How good is this bench now? In the past, Doc Rivers always wanted to stagger the starting players and it seemed like there were very few guys on that bench that he could trust, outside of yourself and Austin. Now, having so many guys that can contribute, how much easier is it for you and how good is this bench?
Crawford: “Well, the bench is as deep as it’s been, obviously, and I think you have guys who all have had success on some level in the NBA. Guys are very competitive and, to be honest, we have a lot of scorers in that group. We have myself, you have Austin, you have Raymond, you have Mo, and then you have Wesley [Johnson], Brandon Bass, those guys do a good job of filling whatever role is needed that particular night. But, the first four guys are much more offensive minded. I think that’s a plus because, for me, it’s not just about me being Sixth Man of the Year again or being the main focus. I think more so in the past, it was me attacking off the bench and that was pretty much it. Now, I’d say we’re attacking as a group, when fully healthy, and I think that that’s dangerous for teams to scout against.”
Question: You obviously know a thing or two about putting the ball in the hole. Just recently, you passed Jason Kidd for number 78 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and I know that you’re a historian of the game. I’m going to take you away from the Clippers a little bit and just ask you more of an individual question. When you look at your career, how would you summarize your accomplishments to this point and has your career turned out better than you would have thought it would on your first day in the NBA?
Crawford: “When you first come into the NBA, you feel like you can conquer the world, so to speak. Everybody wants to be a star, everybody wants to go back to their neighborhood like, ‘You see what I’m doing out there?! I’m a star among stars,’ because, obviously, the NBA has the best players in the world. For me, I felt like, being a lottery pick going to a team, I thought I could play right away. To be honest, I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready physically, I wasn’t ready mentally, I had a lot of maturing to do. I didn’t play much my first year. Second year, going into that year, I was working out with Michael Jordan, tore my ACL, hurt my knee, so I basically missed that year. The third year I came back and we drafted Jay Williams from Duke and he had a lot of hype and was a really good player there, coming out as one of the top college players, so I had to wait my turn there. Then my fourth year was when I got steady, steady minutes, where I knew I was going to play a certain amount every single night, and my game started to grow. By my eighth or ninth year, I think the ninth year, I said, ‘Okay, I’m tired of losing, I’ll be a sixth-man.’ So, that’s not how I projected my career to go, but I think it’s turned out to be very unique, it’s been very cool and it’s obviously still going. It’s not what I thought it would be, but it’s been better in some ways as well. I think it’s been very, very unique. I think it’s been one of the most unique careers for sure.”
Question: You’ve been one of the most successful sixth men in NBA history. I think a lot of guys that take on that bench role point to you and say, ‘I want to have that kind of impact.’ As you look around the league, who are some of the up-and-coming sixth men that people should have an eye on? Who are some guys who have stood out to you as being talented sixth men who may be able to take the torch from you whenever you’re done winning all of these awards?
Crawford: “I think some of the younger guys. I think Will Barton is a really good player. I think he’s up and coming for sure. I think Brandon Knight, I think he’s going through a transition with the role right now because, obviously, he’s been starting his whole career. I think he could be a really good sixth man. Obviously, Lou Williams has been a perennial great sixth man for years – he’s won Sixth Man of the Year. I think Eric Gordon, this year, has been phenomenal. I think they’re really featuring him when he comes off the bench, they’re really going to him. I feel like he is like I was in Atlanta my first year. Joe Johnson was our best player and he’s a perimeter player just like James Harden is for Houston, but [Gordon] is their second guy, he’s the second leading scorer. So I think there’s a lot of good sixth men out there and I think, right now, you see more people buying into that role. I think it’s kind of cool to be a sixth man now and that’s cool in itself, to have that kind of effect. Everybody wants to start, but I think it’s important to understand the bigger picture. Also, a lot of good sixth men can go somewhere else to start and now they’re closing games as well.”
Question: In years past we’ve seen guys like James Harden, when he was with OKC, get to the NBA Finals. Manu Ginobili was a guy who’s come off the bench and won a title. For you, if you were able to win a championship at some point during your tenure with the Clippers, coming off the bench, do you think that that’s something you really need on your resume, in a sense, to really justify that coming off the bench was the right way to go about trying to win a title?
Crawford: “I’m comfortable in my own skin from the standpoint that I don’t really need it to validate anything, but it would be really, really cool. That’s the pinnacle, winning a championship. That’s what you play for and I feel like, for me, that’s the most important thing and, really, the only thing left in my career to accomplish. The time of trying to be an All-Star, I think those years are in the past. I have a bigger goal now and that’s to try and win a championship. To win a championship, knowing that feeling, I won a championship in high school and that’s my best basketball memory. Knowing how that felt, I think winning one in the NBA would be 100 times as cool. That’s definitely what we’re playing for.”
Question: I’m curious about this so I want to ask you. Whenever the whole DeAndre Jordan saga was going on, there was a lot of talk about Chris Paul and his leadership. I think Chris is one of the best leaders in the NBA, he’s not afraid to bark at anyone, he holds guys accountable, he’ll grab your jersey, etc. But I think, during that period, there was some talk about Chris maybe being too intense and needing to change his leadership style for certain players. Have you seen any kind of change in Chris’ leadership? Does he approach certain players differently now and was that a learning experience for him? Or is he still the same Chris that we all know?
Crawford: “He’s the same Chris. I think, as you get further in the league, you evolve. For him, he’s definitely evolving, he’s trying to do whatever it takes to win every single night. But he knows that’s his style of leadership and we know and understand that and respect it, but he also has a certain patience with him as well about getting his message across. In the heat of the moment? Yeah, he may grab your jersey, he may yell at you, but it’s all coming from the same place of just trying to win. It’s not anything to embarrass you, it’s not anything to put you on front street or anything like that. It’s about him saying, ‘Look, we need to get this done.’ And he doesn’t mind if you do it to him either, so that makes it fair all the way around.”
Question: Jamal, who were some of the better leaders that you’ve had as a teammate over the course of your career and guys that helped make their teammates better?
Crawford: “I would say Chauncey Billups is great. I would say Malik Rose is great. I think Allan Houston was great. I’ve had so many great teammates, so I don’t want to forget anyone. I thought Rick Brunson was great, early in my career, Charles Oakley, all those guys. I don’t want to leave anybody out. There’s some great, great people. Grant Hill was unbelievable. Paul Pierce is great right now. I’ve had some great teammates, especially great veteran guys that had high levels of success and that won championships, leading the way over the years.”
Question: Now, you’re a guy who is known for scoring the basketball. As Michael mentioned, it seems like you can embarrass anyone and get to the basket. Who are some of the defenders that you’ve had the toughest time against? The guys that, when you’re matched up against, you’re like, ‘Damn, this is going to be a little bit more difficult.’ Are there certain defenders that stand out like that?
Crawford: “Oh yeah. I think Tony Allen is a great defensive player. I thought Doug Christie was a great defensive player. Bruce Bowen. Kawhi [Leonard] is obviously a great defensive player. I think Garrett Temple is an underrated defensive player. I just mentioned two guys we’re about to play against, but I’ve got to be honest. (Laughs) Avery Bradley’s a really good defensive player. There’s some really good defenders out there, but, especially now, with the rules, it’s more team defense. If guys can funnel you this way or shade you that way, they know the help is going to be there and the Spurs are one of the best teams at doing that.”
Question: Jamal, you’re also known as a guy who can handle the rock. I’m curious, from your perspective, being that you’ve been in the league for a while, who are some of the better ball handlers that you’ve seen, along with yourself, that could get a shout out from myself on ‘Crossover of the Night’ on Twitter?
Crawford: “Absolutely Kyrie Irving. You have Chris Paul, you have Steph Curry, you have Tyreke Evans. I think Isaiah Thomas has a mean handle. Deron Williams, over the years, has had some crazy handles. Kemba Walker is an underrated ball handler. There’s a lot.”
Question: Jamal, last question for you. We’ve talked a lot about this, how you want Seattle to have an NBA team. You’ve done a good job of bringing NBA players to your summer pro-am out in Seattle and I know this is something that’s important to you since you’re from Seattle. I know [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson has gotten involved as well. How great would it be to see Seattle have a team before your career is over and, if that’s the case, could you see yourself possibly suiting up for Seattle as a way to end your career?
Crawford: “Well, I think getting a team back there is so important. When I was a kid, watching Gary Payton, watching Detlef Schrempf, watching Shawn Kemp, Vin Baker, they helped mold me and make my dreams a reality. I could go down to the stadium to watch those guys, and I could interact with them. Gary Payton was coming to my high school basketball games, so it made my dreams a reality, I could work out with him. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I can work out with Gary Payton! When I go back to high school, I should dominate.’ It just gave me a level of confidence. Now, with these kids not having that, the closest they get a chance to see a Kevin Durant or a Blake Griffin or a Chris Paul or a Kyrie Irving is on TV or on NBA 2K. To see these guys in person is [huge]. That’s why I always ask the kids every year at my pro-am, who do you want to see? Then I try and go [get them to play]. I hate asking anybody for anything but, for these kids, I’ll ask any of these players to come. Most of the players have, honestly, volunteered and said, ‘I would love to come out there,’ so it makes it a lot easier. Kids come out every single weekend, and it’s a packed house. They’re seeing some of their favorite heroes right there in front of them and they’re interacting with them, they’re talking trash to them, giving them a smile, whatever it might be – that’s a moment that will stick with them forever and I know that because I was that kid when I was 15 or 16 years old and I still have those memories. That’s why we do it. Hopefully, the team gets back in Seattle. Right now, all I see is L.A. You never know how things work out, but I just hope I’m still playing by the time a team comes back there.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.