Culture of Hoops

Sacramento Kings: Takeaways from the Opening Week

Image courtesy of Sacramento Kings/Facebook.

Image courtesy of Sacramento Kings/Facebook.

For what seems like the first time in far too long, the Sacramento Kings have a winning record.

That record may only be 2-1, but it is winning nonetheless. From what we’ve seen offensively and defensively thus far in the young 2014-15 season, Mike Malone’s team is playing good basketball.

They’ve held their own against both the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, overcoming the deficit in talent and expectations through crucial performances from Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins.

These two have been Sacramento’s go-to characters on the offensive side of the ball, as Rudy has slowed down and let the game come to him rather than chucking up a plethora of ill-advised shots. He has somehow become mega-efficient offensively, despite the fact that he rarely takes advantage of pick-and-pops. His game has become somewhat similar to Carmelo Anthony‘s, one in which isolation play is a substitute for classic, pick-and-roll style offense. Despite all this, Gay has been productive for the Kings.

Cousins has been equally as impressive. This young season has shown that he has learned to collect himself both physically and mentally. Cousins is constantly talking to himself to calm down rather than exploding in a referee’s face as we have become so accustomed to seeing in recent years. He is becoming better every time the Kings play, and seems to have formed tight-knit bonds with his head coach and teammates. Against the Clippers, Cousins had 34 points and 17 rebound in a monster performance.

Cousins has proven his worth as a top-three center in the NBA. Malone has trusted him with the team’s reins on the offensive side of the ball, as Sacramento almost always isolates him in the post with entry passes from Rudy Gay or Darren Collison. He seals players out of the paint better than ever, and his reaching ability has gotten so developed that even a wild entry pass is cleanly caught and finished at the rim.

While Gay and Cousins have been exceptional this year, the log-jam at the power forward position has continued to bring about problems.

Jason Thompson‘s presence on the floor is virtually worthless when played at the same time as Cousins. His size and positioning on offense clog the paint and destroy any potential spacing the Kings might work with. In the team’s victory against the Clippers, Malone went with Omri Casspi to close out the game. With Casspi setting in the corners as a three-point threat and floor-spacer, Collison and Gay were able to create shots for themselves and set Cousins up in the post. No defender is going to be particularly worried about Thompson’s shooting, allowing to double-team Cousins without any threat of leaving a shooter open.

In today’s NBA, a power forward needs to shoot the ball from mid-range and beyond. Elite power forwards in the league have an ability to step out and knock down shots. Even Blake Griffin‘s mid- to long-range shot has improved heavily and forces defenses to abstain from helping too much down low. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, and Anthony Davis all have strong jumpers that force opposing power forwards to not over-commit on help defense in the paint.

Malone will likely make changes to the starting five. He has received a total of eight points in three games out of Thompson. He misses almost every mid-range shot he takes, and clogs the defense, which allows defenders to focus all their energy on over-guarding Cousins. It’s what has gotten him into foul trouble in the past and will continue to in the future. So, a rotational change could and should bring Casspi into the starting five for the Kings. He has shown his potency as a passer and has even slashed at defenses aggressively to give the Kings another player who is actually capable of scoring the basketball, unlike Thompson.

Moving to Sacramento’s backcourt, Darren Collison has been a perfect fit for this team. He has played like an All-NBA Defense point guard, slowing down Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard without much help from the rest of his backcourt. Collison has become effective in disrupting passing lanes and does not let anything come easily for opposing guards, likely an outcome of his previous mentoring from Chris Paul. He’s fit the bill with every defensive focus Malone has, and his fit with the team is apparent.

He is also surprisingly dangerous in transition. I have yet to see Collison make a judgement error or force anything unnecessarily. He turns the ball over from time to time as does any point guard, but he almost always makes the right call in transition offense. If he needs to slow down the possession and back out of the defense, he does. He keeps his dribble alive and is never afraid to try for a big bucket, as he did Sunday night against Los Angeles when he pulled up off a screen and drilled a mid-range jumper to seal the deal for the Kings.

Collison is better for Sacramento than was Isaiah Thomas. He is a polar opposite of Thomas, as getting teammates like Gay and Cousins involved and forcing errors on the defensive side is more important than his own scoring. He is well worth his three-year, $15 million contract.

As good as Collison has been, the other guard position has offered little to no production.

Malone went with Ben McLemore as the team’s starting shooting guard, not a big surprise considering that starting Nik Stauskas over him would effectively eliminate any and all confidence McLemore had. The right call was made on who should be the starter, as the Kings’ coaching staff is mostly concerned with the growth of their two young 2-guards.

That being said, Ben has just 10 points in the first three games of the season. His shot has been consistently bad, he has not been assertive with the ball in his hands, and he seems to have stopped running fast breaks with the intent of scoring the basketball. While Malone wants to nurture growth in McLemore’s game, some offensive production will be needed before the safety net is taken away and his starting role is compromised.

Stauskas is making a good case for himself. He has been consistent as a shooter from mid to long range, and his defense against opposing guards has been surprisingly stellar. He isn’t as strong as most of the shooting guards he’ll be covering, but his defense hinders opposing production nonetheless.

McLemore will likely be given the rest of November to prove himself as a player. Malone and others have stated numerous times that they love his defensive capabilities and his potential as a scorer. People have even drawn comparisons between him and Klay Thompson. However, the open three-pointers that McLemore is consistently bricking need to stop. All he needs to do to keep his spot is make around 40 percent of his wide-open three-pointers, and slash to the basket and earn trips to the line. Anywhere from 10 to 15 points per game will be more than enough to keep and even grow his minutes.

Stauskas has expressed that he is content as a backup, too. He understands that as a rookie he will take whatever he can get. The door is wide open for McLemore to solidify his role as the Kings’ starting guard.

The Sacramento Kings have looked strong as a unit in this young season, but there are still holes in the rotations and individual player performances. Coach Mike Malone has done well with the lineup at hand, and should consider making any of the necessary changes to further his team’s success.

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