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NBA Daily: Fixing The Sacramento Kings

In Basketball Insiders’ latest installment of “Fixing”, Matt John takes a look at the now-promising Kings’ next steps.

Matt John

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In this latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, we’re going to take a look at the one team that arguably has the least fixing to do: The Sacramento Kings.

Just saying that feels so unordinary knowing the Kings’ reputation. In a season that had no shortage of surprises, the Kings’ sudden uprise ranks among the most stunning plotlines. Usually, teams who just barely miss out on the playoffs feel ashamed and wonder what went wrong. Such was not the case with Sacramento.

They may not have been able to end their 13-year playoff drought, but for the first time since 2000, the Kings appear to have a promising future ahead of them.

What Is Working

That’s just it. Something’s working for the Kings. In fact, a lot is working for the Kings. Before this season, the only thing that has worked out for Sacramento since their last playoff appearance was the elite play of DeMarcus Cousins. Even then, it wasn’t like Cousins was getting them anywhere. Now, the tables have turned.

Pretty much everything is working in Sacramento. It’s just not working enough now to its best results, but the best should be yet to come. That is thanks to the play of what has now become one of the league’s most talented youth movements.

De’Aaron Fox made a strong case for the Most Improved Player Award. Improvement was to be expected out the sophomore, but Fox went above and beyond what was expected of him. Fox came into the NBA known for his speed and for his playmaking. What he was not known for was his shooting.

The Kings played at the fifth-highest pace this season, and Fox increased his assist average per-36 from 5.7 to 8.3. That couldn’t have been too shocking who already knew about his game. However, Fox increasing his effective field goal percentage from 44.1 percent to almost 50 percent thanks to his improved three-point shooting, which topped at 37 percent. If that proves to not be a fluke, then De’Aaron Fox’s ceiling just got a lot higher, which is bad news for the NBA.

Buddy Hield wasn’t too far behind him. Hield is starting to show why the Kings were head over heels when the team acquired him two years ago. With an increased role in the offense, Hield’s numbers skyrocketed, putting up 20.7 points on 46/43/89 splits. At 26 years old, odds are Buddy probably won’t improve from there. It doesn’t matter because he’s emerged as one of the league’s clearer sharpshooters.

The real key to the Kings’ future is Marvin Bagley III. Post All-Star break, Bagley showed he could be among the more talented young bigs in the league. He put up 18.5 points on 49/39/70 splits. In fact, an unfortunate late-season knee injury may have hurt his chances at better numbers. Not to mention, the Kings’ playoff hopes.

The Kings may regret passing on Luka Doncic, but Bagley may not be too far behind him.

Harry Giles has shown that he has talent. That talent has shown up albeit only in spurts. The Kings are taking the right approach of being cautious with him until they know he’s 100 percent ready to play starter minutes. Giles was once upon time the number one recruit in the country. He hasn’t taken over the league just yet, but he’s showing signs that it may not be out of the question.

There are of course others who have played and should play a meaningful for the Kings. Bogdan Bogdanovic did a fantastic job sliding into the sixth man role. Harrison Barnes started slow, but he figured it out and should get better when he hopefully returns next season. Nemanja Bjelica did fine in his role as a stretch big. With Bagley and Giles on the rise, he should thrive in his role as the third big.

The Kings now have a team on their hands. Now that they do, they must do everything in their power to keep it

What Needs To Change

Honestly, not much. Boy, isn’t that great to hear for Sacramento?

Sacramento has its backcourt of the future in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. It has its frontcourt of the future in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. He was frustrating at times, but Harrison Barnes is an above-average starting small forward who should get better with more reps on the team. All the Kings really have to do is wait to see just how good this group can be in a full season together until they decide what the long-term solutions are.

Besides, Sacramento seems to have already made its statement on what needed to change. After three seasons, the Kings fired head coach Dave Joerger.

Joerger’s firing doesn’t come entirely as a shock. It had been rumored for months on end that tension had erupted between him and management. Though many had hoped this was just smoke, the Kings’ apparently had had enough of Joerger and kicked him to the curb.

Whatever reasons the Kings had to fire him is their business. That doesn’t stop it from being a badly-timed move. The team’s performance this season demonstrated that Joerger’s strategy was getting one of the NBA’s laughingstocks the best results it had seen in over a decade. Getting rid of the maestro in the midst of the team climbing towards success just doesn’t seem wise.

It also seems reminiscent of the time the team fired Mike Malone in 2014. Malone can sincerely boast that he was the lone coach of many that actually got through to DeMarcus Cousins that season. The team played well early on before Cousins went down, then management fired Malone because of differences. Just a couple years later, Malone is now one of the prime candidates to win Coach of the Year.

After what he’s done this season, it may not be long before Joerger does the same.

Maybe there was more to this than just differences between coaching and the front office. As impressive as the Kings were, they lost so many games in heartbreaking fashion. Those heartbreaking losses really added up as the season progressed. The Kings were nine games out the Western Conference when the season ended, but they were in thick of things for the majority of the season.

Maybe the team would have had a different fate had they been able to close out some of their closer games. Joerger’s firing may have come as a result of management being disappointed in his failure to guide the team in crunchtime.

That is the one blemish on what was a more than admirable coaching job by Dave Joerger. By firing him, the Kings are signaling that they believe that this group is capable of making the playoffs that just need the right man to come up with the right plays in a tight game.

For their sake, let’s hope their right.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Let’s get to the most pressing question first for Sacramento: What do they do with Willie Cauley-Stein?

Much has been made about Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles that Cauley-Stein has become somewhat of an afterthought despite that he was the starting center through the duration of the season. It’s hard to see WCS coming back to the Kings unless he comes back on a discount. He hasn’t shown much improvement since his rookie season and he played less minutes on average than he did the previous season.

Both Bagley’s production and Giles’ promise make Cauley-Stein expendable in Sacramento. His minutes per game average slowly decreasing month by month showed that there was a blooming trust in the former two and as well as the opposite in Cauley-Stein. Because of that, it’ll be hard to see how he comes back.

As for the rest of the impending free agents from the Kings’ side, it really varies. Odds are, Harrison Barnes will probably opt into his contract because it’s difficult envisioning anyone paying him what Sacramento is paying him – $25 million. Even if he opts out, it’s hard to see the Kings letting him walk.

Alec Burks was somehow almost completely nonexistent when the Kings acquired him mid-season, so his return appears unlikely. Kosta Koufos saw his role decrease substantially so it hard seeing the Kings bringing him back unless there’s some sort of special rapport there. Yogi Ferrell and Frank Mason will both be on non-guaranteed contracts. Odds are, the Kings will keep at most one of them. Neither are awful. They’re just not good enough to both be on the roster.

Outside of Cauley-Stein and maybe Barnes, the Kings don’t have much to worry about as far as retaining players go. As far as adding players, well, the Kings don’t have any dire needs outside of solidifying the rotation. Their success this season just might make them look as appealing as they’ve been since the early 2000’s.

As for potential targets, the recently departed Iman Shumpert will probably be available this summer. He embraced being a King before being traded to the Rockets. There could be some hurt feelings there, but Shumpert would have familiarity with the team.

Now that the Kings are on the rise, more familiarity would be pretty nice to have.

Focus Area: Draft

So much went right for the Kings this season that it’s sad to say that the one bad apple in the bunch is losing their first-round pick this season thanks to their trade with Philadelphia nearly four years ago.

While it definitely sucks to lose a lottery pick, Sacramento should see the glass half-full by taking pride in the fact that unlike Brooklyn or New York in past years, it didn’t wind up giving up a top-10 lottery pick to their trade partner. Since many speculated that their talent level was low enough to potentially fork over the first overall pick in the draft, they can take solace in the fact that giving up the last pick in the lottery when pretty much no one expected them to is just more evidence of how they wildly exceeded expectations.

Sacramento will not be completely devoid of draft picks. This season, the Kings will have the 40th, 46th and 60th selections in the 2019 draft. With their squad the way it is, there is no glaring need for them at the present time. At least not until we see the full extent of what Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles are capable of.

If the Kings are able to add a positive contributor to their rotation via the 2019 draft, then all the power to them. It’s not a particularly exciting time for the Kings draft-wise, but for the first time in what seems like an eternity, there’s not nearly as much pressure for Vlade Divac and company to find a franchise-changing player.

Fun times are ahead for the capital of California. The youth movement is paying off. There appears to be a sense of team unity. There are no bloated contracts dragging the team down. It appears that the storm has passed over.

That is as long as they don’t screw this up, or in other words, pull a Sacramento Kings.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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