When asked to complete a preview and ultimate prediction article for the 2013-14 Sacramento Kings a win range somewhere in the area of 30-33 was settled upon if memory serves correctly. A five game improvement upon the 28-54 results from just a season before may sound like relatively modest expectations, but we also wanted to be fair to first-year head coach Mike Malone as he installed what they can only hope is a new sense of direction for the organization. However, he now has a year under his belt and expectations are only going to increase moving forward. Here’s our take on how they can meet, and potentially exceed them.
Continue to build around Cousins
There were already some openly questioning the decision to sign a max extension with the franchise’s figurative and literal centerpiece, a 23-year-old DeMarcus Cousins. Not because there was much doubt in his physical capabilities coming off averaging 17.1 PPG and 9.9 RPG in just his third season, but because of the difficulties he’s had with maintaining his composure in the past.
Supporters would tell you such struggles are merely a matter of the growth process for a highly emotional young star; while his detractors would fairly question whether he’d ever see enough of the type of leadership development during the life of the four-year extension for it to truly pay off for the new ownership group.
When Vivek Ranadive purchased the team from the Maloof brothers in 2013, he was reportedly told by everyone including the previous management to immediately ship Cousins out of town. Clearly, Ranadive didn’t rush to judgment, as their interactions eventually led to the $62 million extension. For the record, Cousins has followed that extension with career-highs in points (22.3 PPG), rebounds (11.8 RPG), field goal percentage (49.0 percent), and free throw attempts (8.7) per game.
Even those of us that believe in Cousins thought there could perhaps be a parallel between his youthful outbursts and the eventual transformation of a player like former Bullet/Blazer/Piston (among others) Rasheed Wallace. While both gifted and equally as versatile comparably, it took Wallace several stops and about half of his career to finally find the right fit in that 2004 Championship Pistons team.
The Kings are hoping to provide the right environment and supporting cast right there in Sacramento as Cousins continues to progress at what they hope is an accelerated pace. The likelihood of this is up for debate, but what is indisputable is their need for it to happen in order to avoid having their best-laid plans go astray. There has to be hope that the generally no-nonsense on-court presence of veteran Carl Landry in 2014-15 can be a positive influence. Landry was signed this past offseason, but has struggled to spend much time in the lineup with this young core due to various injuries.
Even in Landry’s absence, although he’s continued to have minor skirmishes and disagreements in 2013-14, Cousins has shown signs of maturity in certain cases. Just last week, he reportedly offered an apology to former San Antonio Spur (and current announcer) Sean Elliot for an unfortunate exchange they had way back in 2012. That probably isn’t a follow-up peacemaking that takes place just a year ago, so credit is due.
Sign Rudy Gay long-term, one way or another
The decision to take the risk other teams were reportedly unwilling to in acquiring Rudy Gay could pay some much-needed dividends as early as next season if the eighth-year swingman ultimately decides against opting-out of the final year ($19.3 million) of his contract in an effort to build upon what they have going in Sacramento.
The truth is, the market for Gay may not be as large as his representation may like, and a team potentially in a real growth spurt like the Kings may eventually be the best option as he considers his prime years. With the far more punitive nature of the current CBA, Gay has to expect at least a medium-sized pay cut regardless of where he decided to sign. In fact, unless he is willing to take what would undoubtedly amount to a massive cut to play with a contender, the Kings may end up being able to offer the best combination in terms of promise and salary.
As recently as February, Gay spoke to ESPN’s Marc Stein about his experience with the Kings.
“I’m not sure (which way he’s leaning),” Gay told ESPN. “I have to go into the summer with my people, think about everything, weigh out the pros and cons. I don’t know yet, but Sacramento has been great to me thus far. Obviously, I’m trying to tune it all out right now. All I can think about right now is how great Sacramento’s been to me.”
Obviously, not a guarantee by any stretch, but Gay does at least sound relatively optimistic about the prospects of remaining in Sacramento long-term. Beyond the fact that he’s been a more efficient player in Sacramento, part of Gay’s potential interest in staying could lie in the reasonably expected further development of the supporting cast as well.
Available free agents haven’t exactly been beating doors down to sign in Sacramento, so extra consideration should probably be taken when deciding how strongly to pursue an extension with Gay.
Rather than opting out, Gay could decide to play the final year of his contract leaving him as an unrestricted free agent following 2014-15. If the organization has determined he’s a good fit with their core, they may even decide to offer Gay an extension somewhere in the neighborhood of four years, $48 million; similar to what Golden State’s Andre Iguodala received just last summer.
Let the market dictate Isaiah Thomas’ value
Although only listed at a diminutive 5’9 (by NBA standards), point guard Isaiah Thomas has enjoyed a steady improvement in each of his first three seasons. The former second-round 60th pick, or the NBA’s version of “Mr. Irrelevant” was has been so good this season (20.7 PPG, 6.4 APG) that he made a solid point guard acquisition in Greivis Vasquez all-but entirely expendable from the very moment his sneakers touched down in Sacramento (from New Orleans). Vasquez was eventually moved to Toronto in the deal for Gay, but Thomas’ marked improvements certainly would have made for an easier decision.
Thomas is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and while it is uncertain whether the organization see’s him as the point guard of the future, they might find it difficult to replace his productivity at the rate they’d likely be able to re-sign him long-term. He’ll earn significantly more than the $885,000 he made this year, but the Kings might deem the added expense worthwhile if Thomas is seen as vital toward the team’s overall chemistry.
Develop Ben McLemore
First-year shooting guard Ben McLemore has enjoyed a few impressive performances and early-career highlights including a fun moment during the dunk contest that involved jumping over Kings’ minority owner Shaquille O’Neal, but coach Malone would probably be the first to tell you the rookie still needs to continue developing his all-around game.
With the reputation as both a shooter and a scorer heading into the year, McLemore hasn’t been able to consistently align the speed of his game with the pace of the action to this point. Much of developing that consistency at this level is in finding a way to control your tempo so that you can repeat the motions you’re fighting to perfect and normalize as a young player. McLemore still has plenty of room to go, but appears to have the right approach and a desire to get there.
Fill out roster with unselfish, defensive-minded role players
Roster flexibility could be generated if they were to find a suitor interested in the services of a veteran shooter in Jason Terry in the final year of deal, or someone else intrigued by the reclamation project that is now former lottery pick Derrick Williams. The one-time second-overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft remains an intriguing figure as the debate over his true position rages on amongst coaches and GM’s. The team reportedly shopped Williams prior to this season’s February 20 trade deadline, so it wouldn’t exactly come as a shock to see a move explored in the offseason.
Some of the more glaring areas this young team will need to address for 2014-15 will be in their dedication to both the defensive end and in playing a more team-oriented style rather than relying upon so much of the one-on-one action. An adjustment period to Malone’s defensive schemes was to be expected, but the head coach also knows his team will probably need a significant drop from the 103.6 PPG they are currently surrendering (#26) if they want a realistic shot at competing in what will undoubtedly be a tough Western Conference yet again.
Ranking toward the bottom in team assists is also somewhat expected when you have a scoring point guard and a young team, but dead last is simply never acceptable (#30 – 19.0 APG). The discipline and natural chemistry that comes from convincing a young team to buy into the “pass-first” mentality in the interest of getting the best available shot takes time to develop but can cause a team to transform from an efficiency standpoint seemingly overnight once it sets in.
While not guaranteed, the Kings will likely be lottery-bound once again. Barring a finish outside of the bottom-12 (which isn’t likely), the Kings will maintain their pick in the draft. They currently possess what would be the seventh-worst record in the league, and a miracle late-season run is not expected.
Our most recent Basketball Insiders 2014 Mock Draft (by Yannis Koutroupis) shows plenty of talented options within the 7-10 range that should be at the Kings’ disposal. Plenty of options are available, including inserting a versatile and talented power forward such as Arizona’s Aaron Gordon or even a stretch-four shooting threat such as Creighton’s Doug McDermott to provide court balance.
Benefits can be drawn from either direction, or any other decision the Kings might ultimately come to, but the main positive to take from their current situation is that the proverbial “light the end of the tunnel” finally appears to be developing. The once-rabid and ever-proud fanbase fought to keep their Kings in Sacramento, and it would be nice to see them continue their current relative upswing. The organization still has plenty of work to do, but at least they have a foundation in place to build upon.
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