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Now What? Sacramento Kings

As the regular season nears the finish line, some teams have begun to examine the state of their franchise. The Sacramento Kings have some major decisions to make in the off-season, but there are also some bright spots that the organization will use as building blocks for their future.

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The Sacramento Kings have never really had high expectations entering a season. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs, Rick Adelman guided them to 44 wins during the 2005-06 season. That team was led by Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Metta World Peace. The face of the franchise now is De’Aaron Fox, who was just eight years old the last time this team played in the postseason.

The last 15 years have been a wild ride, but there may finally be light at the end of the tunnel. Most of that depends on how the off-season goes. The Kings have just nine games remaining on their schedule, with a trip to Dallas up next.

Sacramento has won just four of their last 16 games, which began with a nine-game losing streak and a 49-point blowout at the hands of the Utah Jazz last Wednesday. They did follow up that game by beating the Los Angeles Lakers on their home floor to spoil LeBron James’ return after missing 20 games. This came without the help of their star point guard. Last Friday the team announced that Fox would miss at least the next 10-14 days due to health and safety protocols.

The 12th-seeded Kings are currently 5.5 games out of the final spot in the Play-In Tournament, on the brink of elimination. In addition to Fox missing time, Sacramento has been without Harrison Barnes and Marvin Bagley III over this stretch as they continue to deal with injuries. Bagley made his return on Friday but this is still a very young team without much veteran experience to help guide them.

With their season seemingly headed for the finish line, it is important to get a gauge on where this team is at. What changes are likely coming in the days ahead? Where do they need to improve in the offseason? What is working and what needs to be fixed? The answers to these questions can be found below.

Strengths

Despite their lack of collective talent, the Kings do have a young, All-Star-caliber point guard that should be the face of their franchise for years to come. Fox has elevated his game this season in a multitude of areas. The former Kentucky Wildcat is averaging career-highs in points (25.2 per game) and field goal percentage. His shot-making and ability to get to the rim will give even the strongest defenses serious trouble. Fox’s scoring has increased but he is also trusting his teammates more, and distributing the ball before the double-team can get to him.

Sacramento also found a real gem in Tyrese Haliburton. The Kings stole the Iowa State guard with the 12th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and he has truly been a bright spot for this organization. With Fox being 23 years old and Haliburton just turning 21, this backcourt duo gives Sacramento something special to build around going forward.

The Kings also rank fifth in terms of field goal percentage as a team this season. This is due to them getting quality shots by moving the ball, instead of relying heavily on isolation plays. Despite their youth, the Kings don’t turn the ball over much, ranking ninth-best in the league in that category.

Weaknesses

Luke Walton is finishing up his second season as head coach and the results have not been great. Walton’s Los Angeles Lakers teams increased their win totals each season under his tutelage, but that has not been the case in Sacramento. The Kings have suffered the same type of late-game collapses and struggled with in-game adjustments with Walton at the helm.

The Kings have gone through ten different coaches since their last playoff game. Whether or not the organization decides another coaching change is in order, there is still much more work to do. One other area they must improve is their team defense. This season they rank dead last in both defensive rating and opponents scoring. They were in the bottom third in those same categories last season.

The last time Sacramento ranked better than 20th in defensive rating was the 2005-06 season; the last time they made the playoffs. That is not just a coincidence. If they want to turn this ship around, they are going to have to start playing solid defense.

Other weaknesses that need to be addressed include free-throw shooting and three-point shooting as a unit. While Buddy Hield has been one of the best shooters from distance this season, the team as a whole has struggled. Sacramento shoots 22.7 free throws per game, which is the seventh-most in the league. The problem is, they are hitting just 74.6 percent of those, which ranks 25th. Many of their close games have been decided because of poor shooting from the charity stripe.

Opportunities

The future still looks bright for the Kings, as they have the majority of their core under contract through at least the next couple of seasons. Fox signed a multi-year extension before the season and is under contract through the 2025-26 season. Barnes is signed on through the 2022-23 season and Hield’s contract goes a year longer than that. Haliburton has three more years on his rookie contract and the team has some options on a few other guys.

As far as the draft goes, the Kings do have all of their own first-round picks to use over the next seven years. Should they get a little bit of luck in the Draft Lottery, a top-four selection could land them Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs or Jalen Green. A talent like Mobley would certainly fit right in with this young group and really allow them the opportunity to blossom together.

There will be plenty of opportunities for guys to continue to grow and prove themselves. This is a very young team with nine players having less than five years of experience. With some added veterans, additional talent and a possible coaching change on the horizon, the Kings should be able to improve next season and possibly push their way into the postseason.

Threats

The biggest threat facing this team going forward will be what happens to their core of big men. Richaun Holmes and Hassan Whiteside are both hitting free agency, and while Whiteside probably won’t be a huge loss, the team desperately needs to bring back Holmes. The former Bowling Green big man has had a career year in Sacramento, increasing his numbers in nearly every statistical category. His rebounding has been crucial for this team, which currently ranks dead last in hitting the glass.

Since Sacramento signed Holmes to a two-year deal in 2019, they do not have full bird rights. The Kings don’t have cap space so the maximum deal they could offer him would be around $43 million over the next four seasons. That may not be enough to keep the talented big man, although he has carved himself a nice role with this team.

The bigger story might be what happens with Bagley, who will be a free agent after next season. The second overall pick in the 2018 draft is averaging career-lows this season and has only played in 38 games after missing the last six weeks with a hand injury. Bagley is eligible for a rookie-scale extension before next season, but James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area believes his time in Sacramento will soon be coming to an end.

Bagley may just need a change of scenery to get his career back on track. The Kings will have a handful of games to showcase him to other interested teams as the regular season comes to a close. The organization did sign Chimezie Metu and Damian Jones to multi-year deals and could always look elsewhere, but retaining Holmes should be a major priority in the offseason.

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Headlines

Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option

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First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.

Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.

Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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NBA

Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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