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2014-2015 Sacramento Kings Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-2015 NBA season with a look at the Sacramento Kings of the Pacific Division.

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In Sacramento, the Kings have gone eight consecutive seasons without making the playoffs and will enter 2014-15 without any real expectation of fielding a winner. With a little luck, they can avoid being the worst team in the NBA’s Pacific Division, but if Kobe Bryant has anything to say about it, that is exactly where the Kings will find themselves at the end of the season.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Kings.

Five Guys Think

Sacramento is a truly confusing team. It’s bothersome that a player as good as Isaiah Thomas, easily one of the most underrated players in the sport, was allowed to walk away for nothing just so the team could pay the inferior Darren Collison nearly the same annual salary, but the real befuddlement comes from a roster built half from grizzled (and sometimes expensive) veterans and half from promising young players many teams would love to rebuild around. There’s no question that DeMarcus Cousins is the main event here, but Rudy Gay, on the cusp of free agency, is sure to have a statistically impressive year himself. Beyond that, the team is constructed of an odd mix of role players that, on paper, don’t always make a whole lot of sense with the other core players. Ownership really does want to win, but in an increasingly difficult Western Conference, the Kings don’t look any closer to the postseason than they did a year ago.

5th Place – Pacific Division

-Joel Brigham

The Kings’ front office has been very aggressive and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Pete D’Alessandro and his staff make another splashy move at some point during this season. Last year, they acquired Rudy Gay from the Toronto Raptors during the season, and in recent months they’ve been linked to everyone from Rajon Rondo to Josh Smith. The Kings want to add talented players and compete in the West, so they’re going to weigh all of their trade options moving forward. If they don’t make any roster changes, I think the Kings will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight year. DeMarcus Cousins should be an All-Star this year and continue his development and Gay has played well since the change of scenery. With that said, I didn’t like the decision to let Isaiah Thomas leave as a free agent and replace him with the inconsistent Darren Collison. The West is just loaded with talented teams, so it’s hard to imagine the Kings making the playoffs as currently constructed.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

There are many who can make the argument the Sacramento Kings are just spinning their wheels and grinding in place. There are others who believe the franchise is headed in the right direction. One thing mostly everyone will agree on is that the franchise isn’t strong enough to make a serious run for a playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference this season. However, there are positives aplenty for Kings fans to embrace. For starters center DeMarcus Cousins and forward Rudy Gay were key members of Team USA’s 2014 FIBA World Cup roster. A much more mature Cousins looks poised to take his game to the next level and it would be a huge shock if he doesn’t get strong All-Star consideration this season. Another sub .500 season looms for Sacramento, but they are headed in the right direction.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

With Isaiah Thomas having taken his talents to Phoenix, the Sacramento Kings will enter the season with Darren Collison and Ray McCallum as their primary playmakers. McCallum joins Ben McLemore, Derrick Williams and the Canadian-born Nik Stauskas as a group of youngsters whose best days may be ahead, and it is within that group that the Kings must hope the next piece of the puzzle emerges. There is no question that Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins are a talented duo, but in the Western Conference, it takes no less than five highly skilled players to give a team a shot at making a playoff run. It is difficult to imagine the Kings getting the type of upgrade they would need from pieces that are currently on their roster. The Kings have not made the playoffs since 2006, and that will not change this season.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

Over the course of the Kings’ current eight-year playoff drought, reasons to be optimistic about their playoff chances have been few and far between. An offseason in which they downgraded at point guard and used their lottery pick on the same position as they did the previous season doesn’t necessarily give reason to believe things are going to be much different this season, either. However, thanks to the presence of DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay – two borderline All-Star talents yet to hit their prime – they’re really just a piece away from being an intriguing team, even in the deep Western Conference. Their front office has made it abundantly clear that they are going to be aggressive, so it’s quite possible that they could land that player before the trade deadline. Until then, they’re closer to another 30-win season than the playoffs.

4th place – Pacific Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: In what may be considered a toss up, we are inclined to go with DeMarcus Cousins as the top offensive player for the Kings. Certainly, the debate is between he and Rudy Gay, but between the two, it is Cousins who boasted a higher points-per-game average last season (22.7 to 20.1) and it is Cousins shoots a higher percentage from the field. More importantly, however, is that Cousins is emerging as a playmaker from the pivot, evident by his average 2.9 assists per game last season—a number that is quite high for a center in the NBA. As his career has progressed, Cousins has seemingly become more comfortable with the ball in his hands, even if his effort seems to wane sometimes without it. With the departure of Isaiah Thomas and the 20.3 points per game he scored, it will be interested to see what becomes of the shot distribution in Sacramento.

Top Defensive Player: Cousins led the team in both steals and blocks per game last season, so an argument could be made in his favor, however, Carl Landry and Reggie Evans have each made careers out of being forces both on the glass and on the defensive side of the floor. The major issue with the duo of forwards, however, is that neither saw much time on the floor last season. Evans, for all that he is capable of doing on the defensive side of the floor, is a bit of a liability on the offensive end, so it should come as no surprise to see his minutes continue to dwindle. While there are quite a few players on the roster that are not complete liabilities on the defensive end, part of what may plague the Kings this season is the lack of a true difference maker both in the post and on the perimeter. We would be inclined to dub Evans as the top defensive presence, but his low standing within the team’s power forward hierarchy means he will not be given the opportunity to make a huge difference.

Top Playmaker: Darren Collison will join the Kings for 2014-15, making it his fifth NBA team in his six-year career. To this point, we will question whether Collison has what it takes to be a starter in the NBA. He has appeared most comfortable and competent as a reserve to Chris Paul in both New Orleans and Los Angeles and noticeably struggled as a starter in Indianapolis before eventually being put out in favor of George Hill. Collison still has value, however, as a competent floor general and a point guard who excels as both keeping his dribble alive and keep his eyes on the weak side of the floor. Although last season’s 5.2 assists-per-36-minutes were the lowest of his career, the Clippers were not a team that solely focused on running up and down the floor and getting up quick shots. In Sacramento, the game plan will involve utilizing the young legs available to Mike Malone and will give Collison more control over both dictating tempo and creating and finding opportunities for his teammates. Ray McCallum will have an opportunity to show what he is capable of after moving up the team’s depth chart, but we deem Collison to be the top playmaker, for now.

Top Clutch Player: When the game is on the line, Rudy Gay will be the one taking the final shot. As a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Gay hit his fair share of big shots in tight moments but has been unable to have the same sort of success as a member of the Toronto Raptors and, since, as a member of the Kings. Still, all statistics (and even recent history) aside, if the Kings are down by two points with a single shot remaining to either tie or win the game, coach Malone will certainly turn to Gay. There may be other opportunities for another player adept at creating opportunities to emerge, as well, but the Kings will first have to find themselves in some close contests before that happens, and that will be no easy task.

Top Unheralded Player: Look no further than Ray McCallum, who, after having an impressive showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, helped the Kings walk away with the Summer League title and the the Most Valuable Player Award for his performance in the championship game. Last season, at various points, McCallum found himself playing behind not only starter Isaiah Thomas, but also Ben McLemore, Greivis Vasquez and even John Salmons and Marcus Thornton. Now, with the departed Thomas a member of the Phoenix Suns and the uncertainty surrounding whether or not Collison can be a consistent force as a starting point guard, McCollum will enter the season second on the point guard depth chart for coach Malone and will likely be the first or second player off of the bench. The opportunity will be there and the talent is there, so we would keep an eye on McCallum’s production this season.

Top New Addition: After being selected with the eighth overall pick of last June’s draft, the hope and expectation for the Kings is that Nik Stauskas can have an immediate impact on the team. Stauskas possess most of the weapons that a shooting guard needs to have at the NBA level, including NBA range, a good pump-fake and the ability to both catch-and-shoot and pop off of screens. He will probably begin the season as the second guard off of the bench, but should complement both Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins well. When Stauskas is on the floor, opposing defenses will have to keep an eye on him and his presence should help to maintain an open floor for Collison, Gay and Cousins to utilize their skills and abilities without defenses collapsing on them without consequence.

– Moke Hamilton

Who We Like

1. DeMarcus Cousins: Yes, he may have some maturity issues, but if the Kings ever decided that they wanted to trade Cousins, there would be no shortage of suitors. The bottom line with Cousins is this: he simply combines a bevy of skills that the NBA rarely sees in a center. His midrange and back-to-basket game, while still developing, are both sound. He impacts the game defensively and executes interior passes extremely well. If his emotions were in check and if he found himself playing with a plus-defender beside him in the post, we would see even more from Cousins. He is still a blue-chip prospect.

2. Ray McCallum: Without opportunity, a youngster’s talent will remain untapped and his ceiling unknown. It is for that reason the Ray McCallum may be the biggest beneficiary of Isaiah Thomas’s departure. The first step toward becoming an everyday force in the NBA is dominating inferior competition and McCallum certainly did that in Las Vegas this past summer. Though he is regarded primarily as a scoring point guard, McCallum should be able to provide the Kings with some much-needed perimeter offense. Better yet, he will get an opportunity to show whether and to what extent he can contribute at this level.

3. Derrick Williams: With a number of talented players being selected after him in the 2011 NBA Draft, Williams has struggled over the course of his first three years in the league. Still, as just 23 years old, it is far too early to declare Williams a bust. At various points last season, he showed some of the flashes of potential that helped the Minnesota Timberwolves decide he was their pick after the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Kyrie Irving. Williams should see an uptick in his minutes this season and his production may benefit from playing with Darren Collison.

4. Carl Landry: Landry is the type of player whose contributions go largely overlooked, but one whose contributions can often make the difference for a team that is on the fringe of contention. To the Kings, he may have more value to them as a trade chip than he does with what he will actually contribute on the floor, but that depends on where coach Mike Malone puts Landry in the depth chart. Alone, he is not talented enough to make the Kings a playoff team, but he is certainly the type of gritty, blue collar player that we have a lot of love and respect for. The Kings may run into size issues in the big Western Conference, but if there is a small power forward with whom a coach would choose to go into battle with, Landry is certainly one of them.

5. Their Youth: Like many other teams across the league, the Kings have amassed an impressive array of youngsters that includes both DeMarcus Cousins and Ray McCallum and also Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas. In return for the departed Isaiah Thomas, the franchise received the rights to Alex Oriakhi—a former UCONN stud who also made meaningful contributions in Las Vegas this past summer. Along with the aforementioned Williams, the Kings have a few studs who may emerge as top-flight NBA talents over the next few years. They need it to all come together in Sacramento, but it all begins with dedicating the franchise to developing youth and being patient. So far, the first of those two steps has been subscribed to.

– Moke Hamilton

Strengths

The Kings are built around two offensive forces in DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay that will attract a lot of attention from opposing defenses. With Darren Collison and Ray McCallum both adept at creating opportunities off of the dribble and Nik Stauskas and Omri Casspi providing floor spacing, the Kings have a few of the components necessary to create a somewhat potent offense. While merely relying on scoring more points than the opposition has rarely been the recipe for sustained success in the NBA, the Kings at least have a core whose offensive talents should mesh quite well.

– Moke Hamilton

Weaknesses

Defense and turnovers. Although DeMarcus Cousins is one of the few NBA players to average greater than one block and one steal per game, he is not the defensive anchor that a playoff team would count on each day. As a post defender, Cousins is a bit impatient and still needs to improve on his lateral quickness. Last season, the Kings allowed 103.4 points per game, which was seventh-highest in the league. They simply have not done enough to adequately address that this offseason, so a repeat performance is likely. The other major concern for this team will be turnovers. Last season, Cousins turned the ball over 3.5 times while Gay did so three times. Since these two will be possessing the ball most often, that is very bad news. Fortunately, Darren Collison should lessen the extent to which Cousins and Gay handle the basketball, and Collison himself turned the ball over just 2.3 times per 36 minutes last season.

– Moke Hamilton

The Salary Cap

Once Rudy Gay opted into his contract in June, the Kings were committed to stay above the salary cap. Sacramento used their Mid-Level Exception on Darren Collison and rookie Eric Moreland, which locked in a hard cap at $80.8 million. The Kings have also agreed to deal Jason Terry, reportedly to the Houston Rockets for non-guaranteed players in return (including Alonzo Gee) — making sure the franchise drops under the league’s $76.8 million luxury-tax threshold. The hard cap isn’t the issue for the Kings — it’s staying under the tax itself. Sacramento still has their Bi-Annual Exception ($2.1 million) and a handful of trade exceptions, notably one for $3.6 million in a deal sending Isaiah Thomas to the Phoenix Suns. Those exceptions aren’t likely to be used to add salary, unless the Kings are simultaneously trimming (ideally from their way-too-long list of power forwards). Expect Jeremy Tyler’s non-guaranteed, $948k contract to be cut before any of it locks in on 9/15/14.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

The Sacramento Kings were criticized by many, including this writer, for giving DeMarcus Cousins a maximum extension last offseason. But it must be said in retrospect that the extension worked out about as well as could have been expected. Cousins had his best season, and even improved a bit on defense in his first year under coach Mike Malone. He was at the top end of what reasonably might have been expected from him last season, which begs the question of whether he would have performed quite as well without the security of a long-term commitment from the Kings and owner Vivek Ranadive.

Despite the strides he made last year though, Cousins still must improve defensively if the Kings are to become playoff contenders, as creating a solid defense is very difficult with a center who is below-average defensively. The former Kentucky center is the latest and perhaps most interesting test case for the Team USA effect, and as of this writing he has looked better defensively the last few games.

Aside from Cousins though, the Kings are floundering from a strategy perspective. They lost Isaiah Thomas, by far their second-best player a year ago, to a Phoenix Suns offer sheet they could have matched. Instead, the replacement is Darren Collison, and ostensible upgrade as a defender and distributor who in fact is neither. Rudy Gay was convinced to stay at an astronomical salary for this year, while the shooting guards are the defensively-challenged Ben McLemore and Nick Stauskas. Power forward is also a massive question mark, with a combined $20 million invested in Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams, and Reggie Evans resulting in below-average play on both ends. Cousins might actually be the best defender in the starting lineup.

The Kings have seemingly focused on contending immediately since Ranadive took over in 2013 (with the four-year contract for the then-29 year-old Landry the most salient example) but the math to merely making the playoffs in the next few seasons with this roster is quite muddled. Long-term, the need is for power forwards who can either shoot or defend next to Cousins, and at least one perimeter player who can do both. Until such players are on the roster, it is difficult to see how the Kings can take much of a step forward in the brutal Western Conference.

Best Case

38-44

Cousins carries over his Team USA defense the last few games to the NBA season, and Malone somehow wrings enough out of everyone else to get the squad into the top-20 on that end. Somehow, the Kings are right about Collison, Stauskas provides needed shooting, McLemore becomes playable, and the Kings get a little better on offense despite losing Thomas. This team underperformed its Pythagorean record by five games last year, so even modest improvements could result in a lot more wins if they have average or better luck in close games.

Worst Case

24-58

Cousins is no better than a season ago on offense. Gay reverts back to Toronto form, while Collison plays the same way he has everywhere else he has started and gets his job taken by Ray McCallum by the end of the year. Neither Stauskas or McLemore can defend anyone and struggle from outside, the power forwards continue their mediocrity, and injuries strike key players Gay and Cousins, neither of whom has a reasonable backup.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

How Far Can DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay Take the Kings?

As a tandem, Cousins and Gay certainly have their faults, but in terms of talent, the duo represent a solid-enough building block for a team that hopes to contend for a playoff spot. Now entering his fifth NBA season, Cousins’ game has shown some growth, but he still needs to mature quite a bit. Being a part of Mike Kyzyzewski’s 2014 FIBA World Cup team may help, but Cousins would certainly have to emerge as a leader for a young and impressionable Kings team to have any chance of being great. As for Gay, he is a gifted and versatile offensive force but has been wrongly typecast as someone through whom an efficient offense can be run. Gay would be best served by playing with a point guard who could take him off the ball more and simply find him when it was time for Gay to take a dribble or two and finish. With one defensive stalwart and a playmaking point guard, this duo can help end the playoff drought in Sacramento, but the rest of the roster would need to pull its weight, and it needs to do so now with Gay entering the final season of his current contract.

– Moke Hamilton

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