Sacramento Kings 2016-17 Season Outlook: Finally Finding A Path?
The Sacramento Kings’ institutional dysfunction is a running NBA joke. Is there any hope this season, under new coach Dave Joerger?
The Sacramento Kings would make for a great NBA-themed traveling carnival. Problem is, they can’t pick up and move to a new, unsuspecting town every time their current town gets wise to the fact that the games are rigged and the carneys are pickpockets; though I will concede that if there were one team in the NBA that could adopt the traveling carnival business model, it would be the Kings.
Their dysfunction has become an annual NBA tradition, like pumpkin spice lattes or flu season.
It wasn’t always this way, though. The Kings teams from the early 2000’s played some of the most entertaining, ahead-of-its-time basketball ever.
Seriously, remember this?
Those teams were fun, talented, and unselfish. They helped usher the NBA into its modern, post-Michael Jordan era; unfortunately, the other team doing so was the juggernaut in Los Angeles. Still, there is proof that basketball can thrive in Sacto, it’s just that Vivek Ranadive and company have done seemingly everything they can to ensure that it doesn’t.
Constant executive and coaching turnover, poor hiring decisions, even poorer personnel decisions, and a meddling owner have combined to make the past decade a nightmare for Kings fans.
Just when you thought the Kings couldn’t make any more mind-numbing moves they go out and hire . . . wait . . . they hired Dave Joerger! In a shocking twist, the Kings made a sensible, good coaching hire this offseason.
After hiring Paul Westphal just to fire him after he butted heads with DeMarcus Cousins, firing Keith Smart after keeping him on a de facto interim tag for two years, firing Mike Malone because Cousins got meningitis (I guess?), and hiring George Karl for reasons that remain frustratingly inscrutable only to dump him after a season and a half, they got it right!
Joerger has a whole hell of a lot of work ahead of him, but if Kings management can remain patient and let him actually do that work, the the team will be in better shape sooner rather than later. Bear in mind that they did fire the only coach (Malone) who actually seemed to improve the team, so this all may be moot by the All Star break.
Unfortunately, the roster is still kind of a train wreck.
Boogie and the Beast
If the Sacramento Kings are going to take a step forward this year, it’ll begin and end with DeMarcus Cousins. He’s a legit NBA superstar at this point, but the Kings haven’t been able to build around him successfully for reasons both in and out of his control. George Karl’s system clashed with Cousins almost as much as they clashed personally and he still averaged 27 points and 11.5 rebounds a game last season with a PER of 23.6.
He’s awesome, but everything gets murky pretty quickly after that.
Willie Cauley-Stein will probably get the most run alongside Cousins. The second year big man from Kentucky rebounds well, can dive towards the rim on pick and rolls with ferocity, and is a plus defender (1.5 defensive box plus/minus). The problem is that he’s 7-feet tall and has little-to-no perimeter or high post game.
That’s a problem considering the fact that he’s playing alongside one of the best post players in the league.
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Cauley-Stein and Boogie have the potential to work together, though. Joerger had two talented, anachronistic big men in Memphis and found a system – several, actually – that maximized their talents by sticking Marc Gasol at the elbow and Zach Randolph down low and running most of the offense through the high post.
Cousins has the ability to play both effectively; Cauley-Stein doesn’t have Zebo’s post skills, but he knows how to finish around the rim. That means Cousins is going to have to really embrace the high post role if the Kings want to be able to space the court at all with both of them on the court.
Look for Cauley-Stein to get some more looks in the pick and roll game with Ty Lawson or Darren Collison, as well. If that becomes a consistent threat, Boogie can freelance by the basket, something at which he excels. Cauley-Stein would be a great piece on a team that could afford him a little more space and more minutes, but here we are.
He and Karl didn’t mesh last season, so hopefully he’ll spend more time on the court this season because, despite the lineup’s wonkiness, the Kings are probably going to be at their best when he and Boogie share the court.
Kosta Koufos brings some stability off the bench, but he’s a net minus on the offensive side of the ball. They reached in the draft for Georgios Papagiannis, a 7-foot-2 behemoth who spent the last few seasons in Greece. He moves well for his size and he’s only eighteen, but he’s just not going to see time on the court because there aren’t minutes to go around at the four or five spot.
Drafting him was kind of inexplicable, especially because there were a couple versatile wings left on the board, which leads us to . . .
Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes, and Omri Casspi will be flanking Darren Collison and the point guards this season. Not exactly a murderer’s row. Gay will still probably spend most of his time at the three, despite Joerger’s chatter about wanting to play small.
With the frontcourt situation the way it is and a star that isn’t best suited to play small, I see the transition into small ball being a very slow one.
As with Cauley-Stein, Gay is stuck in a situation where he just won’t have a ton of space; he’s become a viable mid range player (50% effective field goal percentage last season), but his favorite spot up around the elbows will hopefully be occupied by Boogie more than it has been in the past.
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The good news is that Gay doesn’t need a tremendous amount of volume to be an effective player any longer. He averaged 17.1 points and 6.5 boards a game last year while his usage percentage mercifully dropped about five points. `
He’s a useful three but not much more than that.
The jury is somehow still out on McLemore, which may just mean that he is who he is: despite a ton of athletic ability and a nice looking shot, a so-so player that can contribute semi-solid minutes off the bench or as a third or fourth option on a good team.
His usage percentage last year was a measly 17.2, and he’s probably best suited to run in the fast break anyways, something he won’t be able to do all that much in a Dave Joerger system. Hopefully Joerger sticks with him enough to find his stroke from outside so he can provide some much needed spacing.
McLemore will probably end up playing behind Arron Afflalo, which is . . . unfortunate. Afflalo is at least a known quantity, but he doesn’t grade out much better than McLemore. The things that McLemore has to improve on are largely fixable and things that Joerger teams are known for, like defensive effort and rotations, looking to pass more, and his willingness to create off the dribble.
Outside of Cousins, McLemore is the most athletic player on the roster who will get major minutes this season; if he commits himself to on-ball defense, he could play a big role on this team.
Maybe he can learn some defensive tenacity from Matt Barnes, who, in fairness, hasn’t actually played much defense over the last couple years, preferring instead to just commit fouls of all stripes. Still, he can at least stand in the corner and knock down the odd three, which is a plus at this point.
Anything to free up space in and around the lane. He’s also a vet that has been on some successful teams, so – even though he’s pretty clearly a little crazy – hopefully he can provide a good presence in a locker room that has seen nonstop turmoil since before the new ownership group took over.
Darren Collison is the nominal starter at the one position, but he’s out for the first eight games of the year due to a suspension. Ty Lawson and Garrett Temple will jockey for minutes, with Lawson probably getting the lion’s share. There are questions here even after Collison gets back. They brought in Rajon Rondo to run the point last year, for some reason, but he jetted for the Bulls in the offseason.
Don’t let that league-leading 11.7 assists per game fool you, he wasn’t nearly the player he was earlier in his career last season. Rondo seemed disinterested overall; he didn’t play defense and didn’t have much interest in scoring or moving the ball around beyond the one or two passes to get a shot off, though he did jell with Cauley-Stein.
I don’t think the Kings would miss him too much if they weren’t looking at Lawson and Collison as the main options, but here we are.
Lawson cratered on and off the court last season, and hopefully he can reignite the spark in Sacramento. He’s still only twenty-eight years old and still has the burst that made him an effective point guard in Denver. Hopefully Collison is good enough to limit Lawson to small chunks of playing time, during which he can play the pick and roll with Cauley-Stein or up the tempo of the offense (something this team will need).
Basically, absolute best case seems like Bobby Jackson.
Collison is who he is: a serviceable vet who can provide 10 points and five assists a game along with shaky defense. I don’t see that changing much this year.
The Sacramento Kings didn’t even play great defense when they were perennial title contenders in the early 2000’s, so it should surprise exactly no one that they’ve been a mess on that end of the floor for decades.
Joerger might actually change that with a system revamp and a culture change: Memphis defenses were almost as scary as actual grizzlies that had been trained to blitz the pick and roll during most of his tenure there.
Excepting last year’s get away season, the lowest the Grizz ever finished in defensive efficiency during Joerger’s time in charge was seventh. That roster was better equipped to choke offenses out than the one he’s currently working with, but Joerger clearly knows how to motivate his players on that end of the floor.
The Grizzlies were a thorn in the side of the Western Conference elite because they could overwhelm just about anyone on defense:
They probably had no business being as successful as they were, but it never looked fluky or like they were overmatched. Unlike offense, defense can be improved greatly by effort. Boogie has proven that he can be a great defender when he wants to be. Ben McLemore and Willie Cauley-Stein are both uber-athletic and young enough to learn how to play consistently great D, especially considering that Joerger’s system favors quick rushes into passing lanes and blitzes of screens around the perimeter.
Not having Tony Allen and Marc Gasol to smother people will make a huge difference, to be sure, but the Kings have some teachable talent. If Joerger can get those guys to give a damn on that end of the court, I think we’ll see immediate improvement overall.
This team is a mish mash of mediocre veterans and unproven young guys that have coalesced around a mercurial superstar amidst ceaseless administrative chaos.
The Sacramento Kings are probably not ready to take a big leap forward this season, but unlike with seasons past, there could be a design of what this team can become by season’s end.