The 2014 NBA preseason has brought little to no certainty to a number of decisions the Sacramento Kings must make before the regular season tips off. Coach Michael Malone may have hoped to have his lineups and rotations set for the upcoming year by the time the team made its final preparations, but the opposite has happened.
All Kings fans should assume about their team for certain is that the rotation is very uncertain. We know that Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins will have big minutes. At least, we know that Cousins will have big minutes. If Gay’s contract is not re-upped by Sacramento’s Pete D’Alessandro at the end of this year, he’ll likely be playing for another team come 2015-16.
Gay is a lock to be a starter and play big minutes for the Kings, but once the middle of the season comes around and Vivek Ranadive finally realizes that his team is nowhere near the playoff picture, future plans might be made to either plan for the dumping of Gay’s contract or polish his replacement. This could mean that Ben McLemore is pushed into a small forward spot for 10 or so minutes per game alongside his duties at the shooting guard position, so that the Kings can get a better idea of whether or not they will sign a free-agent to replace Gay, or keep the new player in-house with McLemore.
So, while the team allegedly wants to re-sign Gay, a portion of his minutes could be taken by McLemore.
But the thought of McLemore playing a forward position is sort of scary.
The small forward of today’s NBA is one of the most loaded positions, with talent at the upper ranks comparable to that of the point guard spot. Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, Luol Deng, Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward will be nightly assignments for the defensively under-matched McLemore. Malone and D’Alessandro have talked about him guarding this position, possibly to provide some insight into life without Rudy Gay, but it will not be successful. The offensive talent at the position is too high to trust a primarily offensive player to guard these guys.
As far as the rest of the Kings’ depth chart goes, nothing is set in stone, and coach knows it.
“We’re out here looking at different lineups to see who plays well together and who handles certain situations well, or doesn’t handle certain situations well,” said Malone.
Malone also mentioned that he will be asking for more than 30 minutes per game out his starters this years. We know that includes Cousins, and that it could also entail Darren Collison barring an outstanding early season from Ramon Sessions. But this large role for his starters brings up questions at multiple positions.
The shooting guard spot is highly contested and will remain contested beyond opening night. Both Ben McLemore and rookie Nik Stauskas are working toward being named a starter, and even then nothing will be promised. Stauskas shot well throughout preseason and McLemore had impressive athletic moments, but neither has solidified his role as a go-to guard.
Coach Malone has talked briefly about a three-guard rotation. It would include Collison at the point, Stauskas at the two, and McLemore manning the forward spot for defensive purposes. This, too, adds questions to the team’s rotations as it shows that Stauskas may have the edge in the battle for the guard spot.
“I think it’s been an effective tool for us,” Malone said. “ If you can put a ball handler like Darren or Ramon [Sessions] and shooters like Nik or Ben out there, that allows you to have three play makers and ball handlers out there who can get the ball where they want, and get into the drive and kick game and play the game off of each other.”
True, the thought of this three-guard set paired with Gay and Cousins in the front court is attractive from an offensive standpoint. The floor spacing from the three-point threats would give DeMarcus all the time he needs to work in the post and get himself easy buckets.
It would arguably be the smallest lineup in the league, but it has worked for teams in the past. A San Antonio Spurs lineup of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan gave Duncan more than enough room to work and opened up the floor for Green and Parker. The problem for Sacramento would be that McLemore would be manning the small forward position, so the same downfall of defense arises. Malone could put Derrick Williams in the starting lineup over McLemore, but there has been no implication of Williams starting or getting significant minutes.
If the Kings decide to go with the same conventional lineup which features Jason Thompson at the power forward spot, then we have to deal with watching Jason Thompson play the power forward spot. League-wide, he’s known as a decent forward. In Sacramento, Kings fans are practically foaming at the mouth for a starting lineup in which Reggie Evans, Derrick Williams or even Omri Casspi start over JT.
So, again, the Kings have a lot of decisions to make in a short amount of time. The lineup is not close to being finished, but maybe that’s a good thing. It’s likely that we’ll see a conventional, familiar lineup out there, but I’m hoping Malone shakes it up even a little bit.
I would start Collison at the point with Stauskas over McLemore at the shooting guard spot. Stauskas is a better shooter and scorer, and his defense throughout preseason was all but what was expected out of his relatively small frame. Throw Casspi at the small forward spot to space the floor and try out something new (Sacramento doesn’t have much to lose), and Gay at the four spot. Round it out with Cousins at the center position, and the team could be an upgrade from the paint-clogging, rebound-missing defensive disaster that is a lineup with Jason Thompson as a starter.
Hopefully, Malone does something to shake up the rotation. Either way, nothing will be set until well through the regular season.