Last season was a big step forward for the Sacramento Kings. And for Kings fans, it was a long time coming. For years, the forgotten sons of California have been the poster child for mediocrity in the NBA. They’ve had lottery finish after lottery finish with nothing to show for it — but that all changed last season.
Through the first couple of months of the season, the Kings even held a winning record. They ultimately finished the season at 39-43, but it was their best finish in over a decade and good enough for ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoff picture.
Still, no matter how you slice it, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in Sacramento — mainly, that De’Aaron Fox emerged as a budding superstar. In his second season, Fox firmly established himself as the Kings’ point guard and franchise cornerstone of the future. Marvin Bagley III also emerged as a core piece of the foundation, thus giving Sacramento two draft lotteries in a row that they seemingly got right.
The midseason acquisition of Harrison Barnes also showed that the front office is firmly committed to winning and changing the losing culture that has been prevalent in Sacramento. It should be another season of growth for the Kings and we should know a little bit more about them once this season gets underway.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Shockingly, the Kings are one of the sweethearts of the NBA. They’ve got a great deal of young talent including Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles III, that latter of which is still somehow only 21. There is also strong support around them with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trevor Ariza. But no one is more important to the Kings’ success than De’Aaron Fox – and if he continues to improve, they very well may qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But the Pacific Division will be super unforgiving and coming away with a division crown is next-to-impossible for 2019-20.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Drew Maresca
The Kings finally showed signs of growth this past season, finishing just one spot short of the playoffs. They actually had a winning record at one point during the season. After years of being in the lottery and having nothing to show for it, it appears that they finally struck gold the past two drafts with De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III. Their recent free-agent signings and trades have also made a lot of sense, something that couldn’t be said about the Kings for over a decade.
The real question is going be can they build off the success from last season and continue their upward trajectory. Even though their roster should be improved, there’s no guarantee that they make the playoffs or finish above .500. On paper, they should be able to build upon last season’s win total, but it’s possible that they might still be on the outside looking in. As long as they don’t take a step back though, that’s all that matters. But the Kings should be able to finish at least at .500 — that alone would be a huge victory for a growing franchise.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
The excitement in Northern California is palpable when it comes to their Kings, as it should be. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield make up one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in all of the NBA. Their pace is fast and calculated, scoring in bunches while also involving teammates. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III will bring the energy that’ll give everybody fits. Though the make-up of their rostered core has essentially stayed the same, they’ve added veteran presences to bolster the experience level. Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph will help not only with development but also in the win column. Head coach Luke Walton’s stint with the Lakers didn’t go as planned like it once did with the Warriors — but we’ll see if Sacramento is the right fit with this promising group of players.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
The Sacramento Kings signed Harrison Barnes to a new four-year, $85 million contract. This is the biggest move the Kings made this summer in what was a relatively quiet offseason. That is admittedly a lot of money for Barnes, but I will give Sacramento credit for frontloading the deal so that Barnes will be making just $18,352,273 in the 2022-23 season, the final year of his contract. Sacramento has a surprising amount of depth and has balanced out the roster with an interesting mix of young and upcoming talent, along with some notable veteran players.
Adding Trevor Ariza is a nice move if he has some gas still left in the tank, especially considering only $1.8 million of his salary is guaranteed for next season. I also like the additions of Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph. Between these three, the Kings have added some defensive punch, which the team was in serious need of. However, the team still lacks the top-end talent to contend for anything more than a bottom-end playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It has been 13 seasons since the Kings last made the postseason, think about that for a minute. Top draft picks like Brandon Roy, Andrew Morrison and Andrea Bargnani were the names being talked about in the draft when the Kings last saw a playoff game. It is time. The Kings have so much young talent ready to burst on to the NBA stage as stars, so it is time. Sacramento has a head coach now that should make it work. It is time. De’Aaron Fox should be an All-Star level guy this season. Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes are exactly the right counter punches to Fox — plus they have size and athleticism, and added some solid veterans to anchor the team. It is time. With the Warriors hobbled with injury, there is a window for the Kings. It’s time.
3rd place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Kings used cap room to add veterans like Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon to a young team that wasn’t far from making the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. The team still has $4.8 million to spend via the Room Exception. Sacramento has 14 guaranteed players, suggesting the final standard roster spot will be fought for by Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Pineiro and Eric Mika.
Looking ahead, the Kings need to pick up team options on Marin Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Caleb Swanigan and Harry Giles before November. Buddy Hield is eligible for a contract extension before the season, which is reportedly under discussion. If Hield does get a sizable deal, the Kings may not have significant cap room next summer.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield
Buddy Hield struggled a bit when he was first traded to Sacramento, but now he’s developed into one of their major building blocks. Last season, his third in the NBA, Hield had his best year yet. He started all 82 games while putting up 20.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 42.7 percent from the three-point line, plus 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
When the Kings initially traded for him as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, owner Vivek Ranadive famously proclaimed that he had Stephen Curry potential. Now Hield is no Curry, of course, but he’s a talented offensive player in his own right. He’s expanded his game to the point where he’s more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble. Entering his fourth season, and with a potential contract extension looming, look for him to take another step forward and establish himself as one of the league’s top perimeter scorers.
Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon/Trevor Ariza
I’ve got to go with two players for this category. Both new additions, Dedmon and Ariza will bring plenty of value to the Kings, especially on the defensive end. Dedmon is likely going to be the starting center and a good fit next to Bagley in the frontcourt. He isn’t particularly quick, but he is mobile enough to be a deterrent at the rim when opposing guards attack the basket, plus a decent man defender in the paint.
Ariza may be getting up there in age, but he is a veteran guy who still can be a positive on the defensive end and cover multiple positions. It’s currently unclear how much Ariza will actually be deployed, but what the Kings really need from him is to be a defensive leader. Or, Ariza’s role should be someone who will help set the tone defensively and cause a ripple effect trickling down to the rest of the team. He spent last season shuffling between lottery teams in Washington and Phoenix and, now on a team looking to win, his defensive mindset should really stand out.
Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox
Hield may be the Kings’ best offensive player at this moment — but with the game on the line, there’s nobody else on the team who you would want the ball in the hands of over Fox. Two years ago as a rookie, Fox hit several game-winners and stepped up in late-game moments. He proved he wasn’t afraid of the moment and he’ll continue to be the player the Kings will trust with the game on the line.
Part of what makes him so dangerous in crunch time situations is that he can make the right play. In the clutch, the correction option isn’t necessarily shooting the ball. Sometimes the best move is reading the defense and making a play for someone else on the team. Fox is a solid playmaker and, in late-game situations, he’s that much more difficult to defend in that he could create a shot for himself or find a teammate for a better look. Look for him to continue his growth and cement a reputation as one of the league’s best clutch players.
Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox
Just like the Kings will want the ball to be in Fox’s hands late in the fourth quarter, they’ll also want the ball in his hands throughout the majority of the game. As mentioned before, Fox has the ability to make the correct play whether that’s as a scorer or as a facilitator, and the young guard is always willing to get his talented teammates involved.
One area that Fox excels in is in transition. He’s incredibly quick on the break, and he’s constantly got his head up looking to see who’s running with him. If you get out on the break with Fox, there’s a high chance he’ll find and get you an easy look at the rim. He averaged 4.4 assists per game as a rookie, and he almost doubled that last season with 7.3. He’s got all the tools to solidify himself as one of the NBA’s elite playmakers.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Bagley III
It’s hard to imagine a player who was a top-two pick in the draft being unheralded, but here we are. While Luka Doncic, and to a lesser extent, Trae Young, dominated the top rookie conversation last season, others, including Bagley, had great years. He may have been hit with injuries at key times last year, but he still averaged 14.9 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds. And that was with him coming off the bench.
Bagley should be the team’s starting power forward from day one. He is already a solid scorer in the paint, but where he stands to improve is his shooting. He’s a pretty good shooter from mid-range, but he can really add another dimension to the Kings offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also become a better player on the defensive end of the floor, where he has the tools to be a player who can guard multiple positions. With increased minutes this season, expect him to take a bigger leap in year two.
Best New Addition: Cory Joseph
The addition of Joseph was big in that he gives the Kings a legitimate backup point guard who can give Fox a breather. Throughout his career, Joseph has been solid. He’s a player who knows his role and doesn’t try to overstep that. He runs the offense with the second unit and he provides a defensive spark off the bench. Needless to say, that’s all the Kings will likely ask him to do.
Fox hasn’t really had a reliable backup and now he does. Although facilitating and defense will be the main things he will be asked to do, Joseph can score if necessary. He’s a decent shooter from both mid- and three-point range. The Kings have a couple of other options offensively with the second unit, so Joseph will do a solid job quarterbacking them when the starters need a rest.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Harrison Barnes
Barnes is just a solid player that plays hard on both ends of the floor. When the Kings acquired him at the trade deadline last season, he immediately made an impact. His scoring might have dropped slightly from Dallas, but he wasn’t asked to do as much on the offensive end as the Mavericks needed him to do. He shot pretty well with the Kings too, 45.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. Along with Fox and Hield, Barnes helps form a very good perimeter trio. He’s also capable of playing power forward in some small-ball lineups.
2. Richaun Holmes
Holmes has quietly become one of the better backup centers in the league. All teams need solid second units and the Kings did a good job this summer of solidifying their bench. Holmes is very active around the rim both offensively and on the defensive end. He’ll crash the glass for second shot opportunities, always ready to catch a lob. Defensively, he can protect the paint and alter shots when opposing players attack the rim. On the cheap, that’s an absolute win for Sacramento.
3. Harry Giles
Giles is the real wild card here on the roster. His potential development could be the key for Sacramento to really take another step forward. Of course, Giles missed his entire rookie year with an injury and then he started off predictably slow as he adjusted to the NBA game last season. As the campaign went on, however, he started to show glimpses of the player who was once considered a highly-touted prospect. He has a very versatile skill set that is perfect for a big man to thrive in today’s NBA. Alongside Bagley as well, the Kings are in a great position for youthful big men.
4. The Kings’ Front Office
The Kings’ front office was once synonymous with incompetence. And even in the early days of Vlade Divac, both as the general manager and president of basketball operations, they still made some very questionable decisions. But in the past two years or so, they’ve actually put forth some great moves. Even better, their drafting has seemingly been spot-on. Their free-agent acquisitions have been wise and thrifty. The trades they’ve made have made sense. Hope springs eternal in Sacramento and this front office led by Divac is a big reason why. The Kings finally showed improvement on the court last season — let’s see if it will all continue in harmony.
Wing scoring, that’s a major point of strength for the Kings. The trio of Fox, Hield and Barnes have the potential to be one of the most lethal scoring units in the league out on the perimeter. All three shoot at 45 percent or better from the field, as well as 37 percent or better from the three-point line. They all can create their own shot, and Hield is rapidly improving in that regard. Simply put, they’re players that you can give the ball to and be comfortable as they try to generate some offense. Best, all three are relatively young too with their best basketball ahead of them. Laugh now, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about this group quite a bit this season when it comes to perimeter scoring.
Defense was still a major issue for the Kings last season, and they’ll need to improve in that regard if they want to seriously enter into that upper echelon in the Western Conference. Thankfully for them, some of their new additions should help in that regard. Ariza, Dedmon, Joseph, and Holmes are all capable defenders. They’re also going to be coming off the bench, with the exception of Dedmon who will likely start. Barnes is a good defender in the starting lineup, but it’s going to take a collective effort from each starter to be a better defensive team.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Kings finish with a winning record?
Sacramento actually had a winning record early in the season. They only finished two games under .500. With continued development from their core guys and the impact of their new free-agent additions, yes, the Sacramento Kings will finally finish the season with above .500 for the first time in over a decade. Will it be good enough, however, to make the playoffs? That remains to be seen as the Western Conference has plenty of good teams. But an injury here or there on another team and that winning record could come with a Sacramento appearance in the postseason.
NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain
Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.
The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.
“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield is taking these contract talks very personally. In an emotional postgame interview, he talked about “finding another home” if the team doesn’t get a deal done by Monday’s deadline. pic.twitter.com/sEkJEZfNkS
— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 17, 2019
The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.
But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.
“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”
Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9 attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.
Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.
That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.
Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.
The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.
Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.
Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?
Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.
There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.
If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.
Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.
“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.
NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance
The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.
Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.
But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.
But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.
The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.
But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.
These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.
Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.
Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.
The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.
That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.
Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.
The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.
Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.
For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.
Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?
It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.
Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.