You’re not going to believe this, but going into the season with a head coach dissing and trying to trade his star player, and said star player all but calling said coach a snake, didn’t work out super great for the Sacramento Kings.
Despite loudly proclaimed playoff expectations, the NBA’s perennial poster children for off-court drama entered 2015-16 looking poised to implode, thanks to the broiling beef between George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins, the introduction of volatile just-excised-from-Dallas point guard Rajon Rondo, and the lack of any reason to believe one of the league’s worst defenses would suddenly start getting stops. It didn’t, which you could attribute to a general lack of defensive talent … or, if you were so inclined, you could chalk it up to roster-wide gutlessness. Guess which one Karl chose?
Shockingly, such assessments didn’t endear Karl to his players, and continued subpar results did little to inspire the trust of owner Vivek Ranadivé or general manager Vlade Divac. Equally stunning: a front office that had made two midseason coaching changes one season earlier managed to pooch the Karl situation, getting close to canning him before abruptly changing their minds (reportedly to avoid paying out his full salary post-termination) despite repeated reports that he’d lost the locker room.
That became increasingly clear later in the season, as Karl seemed to go out of his way to downplay good performances by Sacramento’s young players, only to see Cousins and the rest of the Kings stand up for their teammates and dismiss the coach’s comments. Bad scene, everyone’s fault, and as soon as the Kings finished a 10th straight sub-.500 campaign, Karl was gone.
Few expected the Kings to land a high-profile replacement for their “radioactive” opening, but Sacramento scored Dave Joerger, he of the 147-99 regular-season record and three straight playoff appearances in Memphis. Of course, Joerger was only available because the Grizzlies had fired him after “months of internal acrimony” stemming from the coach seeking permission to pursue other jobs for the second time in three years. So, y’know, how much more “stability” Sacramento finds here remains to be seen.
And that’s just off the court.
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
After bidding farewell to Rondo — reasonable enough, given how little his statistical accumulation seemed to translate to team success and how much money he got from Chicago — the Kings’ point guards are Darren Collison, who will miss the first eight games of the season while suspended for pleading guilty to a domestic violence incident this summer, and Ty Lawson, who was a shell of a shadow of his former self last year after washing out of Denver following a pair of DUI arrests. A team that finished 19th in 3-pointers made and 21st in 3s attempted last year let late-season bright-spot sniper Seth Curry walk because … um … reasons?
Rudy Gay doesn’t know what the Kings are doing, and doesn’t seem eager to find out. Boogie’s not totally sure either, and with just one more year remaining on his contract after this one, it’s time to start wondering if he’ll see the finish line of this marathon rebuild.
The coach and rotation are different, but the questions remain the same. Can Cousins carry an imbalanced roster light on playmaking and shooting far enough to get Sacramento back in the playoffs? Have the Kings finally found the right coach to fully unlock Cousins’ massive potential, to coax a decent defense out of mismatched parts, and to establish a foundation for the future? And if not, are we really going to do all of this all over again next summer, too?
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
pretty much a daily question but, what are the Kings doing?
— Joe ???? (@joebw11) February 18, 2016
The marathon continues…
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) December 7, 2015
Did the summer help at all?
Some, probably, because a honeymoon-period Joerger is a serious upgrade over the chaotic insanity of the Karl era. From a personnel standpoint, though, it’s hard to get too excited about the summer haul.
Bringing in Arron Afflalo to start at shooting guard after an iffy-at-best season with the Knicks seems more like an indictment of Ben McLemore’s stunted growth than a serious upgrade. Matt Barnes was a good soldier for Joerger in Memphis and can still offer some production while sopping up wing minutes, but he shot 38 percent from the field last year and will turn 37 this spring.
Garrett Temple and Anthony Tolliver are solid citizens who offer specific NBA skills — Temple’s defensive activity, Tolliver’s floor-spacing up front — and can plug a few different lineup holes, but neither moves the needle much. Added in late August on a one-year deal, Lawson could be a difference-maker if he can bounce back from a personally and professionally disastrous 2015-16. As with Afflalo, though, hope that he’ll make a meaningful impact only highlights just how bare the Kings’ cupboard is at point guard.
For what it’s worth, at least Boogie appears to be a big bleepin’ fan:
A video posted by Sean Cunningham (@abc10sean) on Oct 3, 2016 at 10:07pm PDT
On top of the questions surrounding the veteran additions, it’s unclear just how much we can expect from the three first-round picks Divac and company made at June’s 2016 NBA draft, otherwise known as The Night Boogie Decided We All Needed To Know How Taxing He Finds Hot Yoga:
Lord give me the strength ????????
— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) June 24, 2016
Sacramento entered draft night with the No. 8 overall selection and — after trading down and shipping Italian shooter Marco Belinelli to the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 22 pick — exited with three first-rounders plus the rights to draft-and-stash prospect Bogdan Bogdanovic, a two-time Euroleague Rising Star recipient who played a big role on the Serbian national team that won silver at the 2016 Summer Olympics. But Bogdanovic will stay in Turkey this year; he’s a long-term upside play, not immediate help.
The same seems true of No. 13 pick Georgios Papagiannis, a 7-foot-2, 260-pound, 19-year-old Greek center whom scouts say has “the potential to develop into an NBA-caliber player over the next several years” but “isn’t a particularly versatile or dynamic big man at this stage.” Ditto for No. 28 selection Skal Labissiere, a wafer-thin 7-foot 20-year-old whose shot-blocking and shooting range at one point made him the nation’s top prep prospect, but whose inconsistency and lack of production at Kentucky sent his draft stock plummeting. No. 22 pick Malachi Richardson might have the physical tools and shot-creating talent to bolster Sacramento’s wing rotation, but he’ll have to displace Afflalo, McLemore and/or Temple to do it.
The hope is that that Joerger’s the marquee acquisition to make it all work — to reorient the offense and activate other scorers by making Boogie a bit more of a high-post playmaker, to devise a scheme that will foster tangible improvement in a defense that hasn’t broken out of the bottom 10 in points allowed per possession in a smooth decade, and to bring general stability to an environment that’s been in near-constant flux for years.
Potential breakout stud:
Cauley-Stein. The No. 6 pick in the 2015 draft missed 16 games due to injury and at times took up residence in Karl’s doghouse, but showed signs as a rookie of being the kind of rim-rolling, paint-protecting, ground-covering big man who could help propel Sacramento forward.
The Kings’ defense as a whole belched true terrors last year, but in his limited role, Cauley-Stein often looked like a breath of fresh air. Joerger’s Grizzlies teams made their mark by choking opponents out, but Collison and Afflalo aren’t in the same ZIP code as Mike Conley and Tony Allen as point-of-attack stoppers, meaning much will be asked of Cauley-Stein as communicator, intimidator and eraser. The sophomore could be equal to the task. Opponents shot just 47.9 percent at the rim last year when he was in the area, according to NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data — a top-25-caliber mark among rotation players, in the ballpark of quality bigs like Amir Johnson, Anthony Davis and Derrick Favors.
Equally impressive: the knack Cauley-Stein showed as a pick-and-roll finisher on offense. He graded out in the 81st percentile among NBA players as a point producer when rolling to the rim, averaging 1.14 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting. That’s the same number as Tyson Chandler … who, when you think about it, seems pretty close to the Platonic form of the player Sacramento should hope Cauley-Stein becomes. (It’ll be interesting to see if this is one area in which not retaining Rondo, who assisted on nearly 35 percent of Willie’s buckets, hurts Sacramento.)
Like most rising sophomores, Cauley-Stein’s got plenty of room to improve. He finished in the 55th percentile of NBA players in limiting opponents when defending the post, per Synergy; the 52nd percentile against spot-up shooters; and the 34th percentile on both isolations and when guarding roll men in the pick-and-roll. The quick-footed ex-Wildcat at times looked pretty adept at handling himself when switched onto smaller ball-handlers on the perimeter, but he’ll have to continue to hone that skill to stifle teams aiming to break down Sacramento’s coverage by drawing bigs out into deep water.
On offense, as expected, most of Cauley-Stein’s contributions came within arm’s reach of the basket. Layups and dunks accounted for 63.4 percent of his field-goal attempts, and 87.3 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the rim, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s shot charts. Cauley-Stein spent the summer working with former Kings great Peja Stojakovic on refining his shot, but it’s not like Joerger needs him to become a stretch five to expand his game. Showing an increased capacity to make the extra pass in non-finishing situations would be a start; Cauley-Stein was just the 13th freshman forward/center in Basketball-Reference.com’s database to play 1,400 or more minutes as a rookie and log fewer than 40 assists.
It remains to be seen how Joerger will manage Sacramento’s crowded frontcourt, especially given his stated interest in playing small-ball lineups (which indicates Joerger thinks he has more reliable wings than I do). But on a roster full of known-commodity vets and not-ready-for-prime-time players, Cauley-Stein looks like the only dude capable of making a leap right now. If he can, Sacramento’s outlook brightens significantly.
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Cousins plays dominant, MVP-caliber two-way ball while taking strides as a leader. Joerger and Cauley-Stein help Boogie boost Sacramento’s D from awful to average. Afflalo, Barnes, McLemore and Omri Casspi knock down enough shots to keep defenses from choking the paint. Collison and Lawson hold down the fort. Nothing catches fire in the front office, and the Kings eke out the eighth seed to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
If everything falls apart:
Some combination of elements — Cousins, Gay, Joerger, Divac, Ranadivé — combust, again leaving Sacramento in flames on and off the floor. A lack of support gives us yet another season of Boogie Against The World, and still-porous perimeter work creates an 11th straight bottom-10 finish in defensive efficiency. The Kings again fail to crack 35 wins, and the team chooses to trade Cousins rather than watching him walk in 2018, prolonging the dispiriting rebuild in California’s capital.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
35-47, tied for 11th in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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