Baller Mind Frame

NBA Season Preview: Sacramento Kings Team Preview

2014-15 NBA SEASON PREVIEW CONTENT LIST

Atlantic: Celtics | Nets | Knicks | 76ers | Raptors |Division Preview
Central: Bulls | Cavaliers | Pistons | Pacers | Bucks | Division Preview
Southeast: Hawks | Hornets | Heat | Magic | Wizards | Division Preview

Pacific: Warriors | Clippers | Lakers | Suns | Kings | Division Preview
Northwest: Nuggets | Timberwolves | Thunder | Trail Blazers | Jazz | Division Preview
Southwest: Mavericks | Rockets | Grizzlies | Pelicans | Spurs | Division Preview

Top 10 by Position: PG | SG | SF | PF | C
Top 10 Lists: Sixth Men | Sophomores | X-Factors | Rookies | Games to Watch | Comeback | Contenders | Breakouts

Articles: Assessing the Cavaliers Trio | Important Season for James Harden | Return of Paul George? | Trading Rajon Rondo | Are the Nuggets This Season’s Suns? | NBA’s Best Starting Five | NBA’s Worst Starting Five | Now or Never for Durant and Thunder After Injury

Fantasy Basketball: Top 10 PGs | Top 10 SGs | Top 10 SFs | Top 10 PFs | Top 10 Cs | Sleepers, Studs, and Sinkholes | Analyzing the Schedule | BMF Mock Draft | Cavs and Cav-Nots | Like A Bosh | Rajon Injury Impact

Media Day: Clippers | Hawks | Kings | Knicks | Magic | Mavericks | Nets

Image courtesy of Sacramento Kings/Facebook.

Image courtesy of Sacramento Kings/Facebook.

Choice can be deceptive. It feels liberating to have a wide-range of options, but it also broadens focus. Free will can be overwhelming, and induce crippling indecision.

In the NBA nowadays, team-building is generally limited to two destinations (though there are plenty of routes to get there): strip a team down to tank and rebuild, or make moves to contend in the foreseeable future. The Sacramento Kings, though, seem a little lost, and don’t have a road map, or refuse to use one. Despite being one of the worst teams in the league, they’ve positioned themselves somewhere in that in-between, a dangerous place in the NBA. The franchise has gone through multiple rebuild attempts over the last decade, but has little to show for them.

Now, the new regime looks like it wants to avoid the darkest-before-the-dawn talent-acquisition strategy by taking a short cut … but what if it leads to a dead end?

Because of the Kings’ annual appearances in the draft lottery, you may think they’re a young team. People typically expect bad teams with young talent to go through growing pains and progress year-by-year into a good team with experienced players. Only, Sacramento isn’t exactly a young team. Four of Sacramento’s five starters are entering at least their fifth season in the league, and two of the first players off the bench (Ramon Sessions and Carl Landry) will be playing in their eighth season. That’s a significant chunk of the rotation made up by veterans.

So the Kings are experienced, but the problem is that they aren’t good.

Rather than bottoming out, the front office wants to take a leap into relevance by acquiring veteran talent, but the veterans they have aren’t that talented. So where is this route leading the Kings?

It doesn’t seem like they know where they want to go, or at least not how to get there. The Kings have the competitive success of a young team – which is to say next to none –  but in an older team’s body. Moves will be made, but the Kings have been targeting more veterans. How good would the Kings really be (consider that they’re in the Western Conference) if they added Rajon Rondo or Josh Smith to their skin-and-bones roster? The team’s shelf-life would diminish, that’s for sure.

The Kings have been bottom-of-the-barrel for years, and fans don’t want to start looking forward to June in December anymore. This team may need to get that much worse, though, before it can get to a place where it’s truly competitive.

Sacramento may indeed be worse this season (or even worse, be stagnant), but the way its set up, I’m not sure if that’s going to help things get better.

The Kings have plenty of ways to get wherever it is they want to go, but they may need to change course, and narrow their focus to get there.

Most Important Player: DeMarcus Cousins
Without Cousins, the Kings could be the worst team in the Western Conference. Perhaps more important than (and also because of) the All-Star caliber numbers Cousins puts up on a nightly basis is that he demands double-teams. Beyond Rudy Gay, the Kings don’t have anybody that’s proven the ability to create their own shot, so Cousins’ ability to draw an extra defender will really help to open up the offense and get others good looks. The young center has always had good vision, and his ability to pass out of the double-team improved as the season went on. Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore – two potential lights-out shooters – should get plenty of wide open threes as a result.

Beyond that, regardless of how you or anyone else feels about it, Cousins is Sacramento’s unquestioned leader in the locker room. In some ways that can be good and other ways … well. Cousins is ultra-competitive and emotional, which is why he lashes out so often. But on a young team that will probably experience a lot of losing, having a locker room leader that doesn’t settle for mediocrity could be an important influence. Last season a lot of players, young and old, seemed to be okay with losing. Cousins, though, would shrug off a 30-point, 15-rebound night if the team lost. Sure he needs to mature, but that’s the kind of attitude that the Kings need to infect the locker room – a lack of complacency – and it’s something Michael Malone, who has a similar mentality, will rely upon.

Sacramento has been a hopeless squad for years now, though. How long can Cousins fight complacency before he gives in?

X-Factor: Darren Collison
While Cousins was, without a doubt, the best player on the Kings last year, he wasn’t quite the heart and soul of the team. That was Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive point guard was energy personified, and Sacramento would have been much worse off without his spark, let alone his scoring. The front office made the controversial decision to let Thomas go to Phoenix, opting to pick up Darren Collison at a minor discount instead.

No one should expect Collison to replace Thomas’ scoring, but he will be relied upon to direct traffic and manage the game. There was a myth going around that Collison is the pass-first point guard that Thomas isn’t, but the latter’s assist rate was higher last season on a worse team, and with more minutes.

Collison doesn’t need to match Thomas’ output last year to prove an acceptable replacement, but he’ll need to make sure the offense runs smoothly and guys not named Cousins and Gay continue to stay involved throughout the game. Collison will also be expected to provide a defensive upgrade at point.

While he’s not much more than a role player, Collison plays a pivotal one, and how competently he runs the point could very well determine whether the Kings progress or take a step back.

Rotations: Malone’s starting lineup is pretty much solidified.

PG – Darren Collison
SG – Ben McLemore
SF – Rudy Gay
PF – Jason Thompson
C – DeMarcus Cousins

You could make the case for Carl Landry at the four, I suppose, but people second-guess Thompson every year, and every year he holds down the starting spot. I think Thompson will get traded sometime this season, but until then he’ll be the Kings’ starting power forward. His length, rebounding and versatile offensive game complements Cousins well enough.

Landry will probably be the first off the bench with Ramon Sessions and Ray McCallum, who had a strong finish to his rookie season, close behind. After that it starts to get a little shaky. The Kings’ depth is questionable at best this season.

What Needs to Go Right: Malone wants to build the team on a foundation of defense. He doesn’t really have the personnel to do that yet, but he won’t use that as an excuse. The Kings have been an abysmal defensive squad for years, and that will have to change if they want to notch 30 wins or more.

Sacramento lost a 20-point scorer in Thomas. While no one player is going to step in and replicate that, a number of players will have to be more aggressive on offense and collectively make up for the loss. An improved defense would help mitigate that as well.

It’s Really Bad If: Rudy Gay reverts to his old ways. The trade for Gay was criticized last year because of his grossly inefficient play. But something was different in Sacramento. Gay shot nearly 50 percent on the season, scored over 20 points a game, and seemed reinvigorated.

With Thomas gone, Gay is unquestionably the Kings’ second-best player now, so they need him to continue to play like he has, or else it could get ugly. Beyond Cousins and, perhaps, Gay, Sacramento has no truly reliable players that will clock more than 20 minutes a night. They need that consistency at the top, or it will go downhill in a hurry.

Bold Prediction: Ben McLemore will be replaced in the starting lineup by Nik Stauskas by January. McLemore looked like a deer in the headlights for almost his entire rookie campaign, which isn’t completely unexpected of a player in his first year. McLemore, though, was particularly passive for a player with his stroke and athleticism. He really does have a nice looking shot, but it didn’t fall last season. Occasionally, Malone would run plays for McLemore right off the bat to try and get him in a rhythm, but he would often disappear from games otherwise.

McLemore’s handle is suspect, which makes things a little harder on him offensively. He has to be aggressive off the ball, a hard thing to do. Patrolling the perimeter, running off screens, and making timely cuts, though, could make McLemore a useful weapon. He just didn’t do it enough last year. Malone shuffled him in and out of the lineup in efforts to adjust pressure and expectations on the rookie, and if he goes through an extended slump again, Stauskas could get the call. He has a skill set comparable to McLemore – athletic shooter – but he can handle the ball and find others.

By drafting Stauskas, the Kings set themselves up for an eventual Highlander situation at shooting guard: there can be only one. Maybe McLemore would be better off coming off the bench. But that will also depend on how the Kings’ latest rookie shooting guard performs.

PLAYER PROFILES

Sim Bhullar, C
Strengths: He’s big. Really Big.
Weaknesses: He’s so big, he has a hard time getting back on defense. He also lacks a lot of skills.
Season Prediction: Bhullar is a long-term investment for the Kings. He played 10 minutes total in Sacramento’s seven summer league games. He’ll likely play most of the season on the Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ D-League affiliate.

Omri Casspi, SF
Strengths: Rebounding, defending, can play two positions, familiar with Sacramento eateries.
Weaknesses: Inconsistent shooter.
Season Prediction: Casspi’s return to Sacramento could be a fruitful one. If he plays defense, Malone could rely on him off the bench.

Darren Collison, PG
Strengths: Speed, experience, shooting.
Weaknesses: Is he a reliable starter?
Season Prediction: Collison’s a proven veteran that has been successful at every stop he’s made. (Too many, by the way.) But he’s better suited as a backup than a starter. He’ll be serviceable in the role, but won’t hit the highs Thomas did last year.

DeMarcus Cousins, PF/C
Strengths: All-around offensive game, handles the ball better than anyone his size in the league, great positioning for charges.
Weaknesses: His emotion often betrays him, defense is up and down.
Season Prediction: Cousins will make the 2015 Western Conference All-Star team, and finish with 50-60 double-doubles.

Reggie Evans, PF
Strengths: Rebounding, biceps.
Weaknesses: Offense.
Season Prediction: Evans will be relied upon to bring energy and toughness off the bench, and will be Malone’s go-to guy when the starters are dogging it.

Rudy Gay, SF
Strengths: Scoring, length, experience.
Weaknesses: Three-point shooting.
Season Prediction: Gay turned it around in Sacramento last year, but with more pressure on him to perform, he could revert. Either way, he’ll average 22 points a night.

Ryan Hollins, C
Strengths: Length, shot-blocking, rebounding.
Weaknesses: Thin, can get pushed around.
Season Prediction: Hollins will start the season as Cousins’ backup, but that could change as moves are made or others move up the depth chart.

Carl Landry, SF/PF
Strengths: Mid-range game, rebounding, toughness.
Weaknesses: Defense.
Season Prediction: Landry was out for most of last season, but if he stays healthy, he’ll be an important part of Sacramento’s bench.

Ray McCallum, PG
Strengths: Pick-and-roll, driving, defense, stamina.
Weaknesses: Inconsistent shooter.
Season Prediction: McCallum stepped up in a big way when Thomas went down last season, looking like the Kings best selection in the 2013 draft. He’ll provide a spark off the bench.

Ben McLemore, SG
Strengths: Shooting, defense, athleticism.
Weaknesses: Shooting, passivity, ball-handling.
Season Prediction: (See: prediction, bold)

Eric Moreland, PF
Strengths: Shot-blocking, energy, rebounding.
Weaknesses: Offense.
Season Prediction: Moreland had a good showing in Las Vegas this summer. He can really protect the rim, and might fight his way into Malone’s lineup; might even see a few minutes at center.

Nik Stauskas, SG
Strengths: Shooting, vision, athleticism.
Weaknesses: He’s a rookie.
Season Prediction: Stauskas should provide the Kings with a versatile option on offense, but the jury’s out on his defense and his inexperience will probably be the cause of some struggles.

Jason Thompson, PF/C
Strengths: Length, rebounding, versatile offense
Weaknesses: Inconsistent (except after a call goes against him – then he consistently argues with the ref).
Season Prediction: Pete D’Alessandro has been trying to trade Thompson for months. He’ll find a suitor by February.

Derrick WilliamsSF/PF
Strengths: Energy, athleticism, attacking rim.
Weaknesses: Gets lost on defense, shooting, defense, inconsistent, did I say defense?
Season Prediction: The Williams acquisition last season was a justifiable flier by D’Alessandro, but Williams will never be the player he was in college, and another team/fan base will likely learn that by the trade deadline.

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