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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
Most seasons, we assume the Kings won’t make it to November before counting their Ping Pong balls, so wondering if they’ll last until January means progress. Last year, they nearly made it to December before DeMarcus Cousins contracted viral meningitis, Mike Malone was fired and they began their annual tailspin.
But they’re still the Kings, right?
Coach du Jour George Karl reportedly pushed for the team to trade Cousins, arguably the league’s most talented center and a Second Team All-NBA selection this past season. New GM Vlade Divac traded last year’s No. 8 overall pick (Nik Stauskas), a protected future first-round pick and the right to swap two more just to clear $13.4 million worth of Jason Thompson and Carl Landry from their books. And then they used the majority of that cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, whose own 2014-15 season also ended on the sidelines.
That’s not to say Sacramento didn’t improve its roster this summer, as the Kings drafted defensive stalwart Willie Cauley-Stein with the sixth pick and used their remaining cap space to sign underrated big man Kosta Koufos, sharpshooter Marco Belinelli, veteran wing Caron Butler, bruising forward Quincy Acy and returning swingman Omri Casspi for a combined $19 million in 2015-16. There may be hope for Divac’s Kings just yet.
In the process, the Kings addressed three major concerns. Rondo’s ball-handling and court vision should support existing point guard Darren Collison on a squad that ranked 26th in assist percentage (55.4) and 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.25) last season. Belinelli, Butler and Casspi shot a combined 38.1 percent on 7.8 three-point attempts per game, which should benefit a team that ranked third to last in three-point shots per game (16.5). And the arrival of Cauley-Stein, Koufos and Acy should back Cousins in a frontcourt that ranked second from the bottom in protecting the restricted area (opponents shot 65.2 percent).
The question is whether those pieces will mesh, especially on the defensive end, where the Kings allowed a whopping 106.5 points per 100 possessions in 2014-15. Karl’s Bucks and Nuggets teams regularly ranked among the worst defenses in the league, and the Kings don’t exactly have a bevy of stoppers. Rondo made a few All-Defensive teams before his ACL surgery, but even he admitted to giving up in that regard years ago.
Sacramento does feature a number of individual offensive talents, including significantly improved efficiency from both Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore, and Rondo might hold the key to coordinating a cohesive unit. Once a brilliant facilitator, the four-time All-Star lost an improved jump shot and devolved into such a dreadful free throw shooter that he feared contact in the lane, severely crippling his once extraordinary ability to create. Now two-plus years removed from his knee injury, Rondo is playing on a one-year, $9.5 million salary in hopes of rebuilding his once stellar reputation, and perhaps no player has more to prove this season.
And then there’s Cousins, a mercurial superstar like few others. Submitting his first All-Star campaign, he ranked fifth in scoring (24.1 points per game), third in rebounding (12.7 per game), 11th in blocks (1.7) and seventh in player efficiency rating (25.2) behind MVP candidates Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul and LeBron James. His skill set offers Karl all sorts of roster flexibility, as Cousins can play alongside Koufos or Cauley-Stein in larger lineups and anchor the middle in small-ball configurations. Consider that a combination of Cousins, Gay, Casspi, McLemore and Collison averaged 117.5 points and outscored opponents by eight points per 100 possessions in a limited sample size last season.
Still, there are so many ifs —if Cousins and Karl can coexist, if Rondo returns to form and if they can be halfway decent defensively chief among them — and yet there’s still no guarantee they compete for a playoff spot. At best, they’re on the short list of teams vying for the eighth seed out West, and at worst they’re no better than the Sacramento teams that have failed to win 30 games seven years running. In which case, Cousins, Karl, everybody and anybody could be gone by the trade deadline. So, will the Kings make it to January?
Not unless everything breaks right for them, and keep in mind, this is the Kings we’re talking about.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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