With a new coach and a better Boogie Cousins, maybe the Kings won't be so bad
Could this be the year Sacramento takes a step forward?
If you believe the Sacramento Kings will be terrible next season, your best argument is that they're the Sacramento Kings. Ever since former coach Rick Adelman left town 10 years ago, it has been safe to proclaim that the Kings will be awful. In recent seasons, their front office has been impatient and directionless, and all signs point to ownership being the root cause of their problems. They are essentially the anti-Spurs: no franchise deserves the benefit of the doubt less than this one.
Last year, a mishmash of defensively deficient veterans and young players trudged their way to a 33-49 record under a coach that should never have been there. Franchise player DeMarcus Cousins cursed out George Karl in the locker room after a loss to the Spurs in November. Players thought Karl was fired during the All-Star break, but the team decided to let him stick around. Forward Caron Butler later called the decision "deflating."
It was a disaster. It was also Sacramento's best season since 2008.
A full decade of disappointment and dysfunction means that it's hard to take the Kings seriously. Next year, coach Dave Joerger will try to change the culture, which is the same thing that Karl, Michael Malone and Keith Smart said they would do. Malone had the most success in that regard, but he was fired before he was allowed to see things through. If you're a Joerger fan, you might worry that this will go similarly.
But let's pretend that history doesn't matter. Let's imagine a world in which you don't doubt Vivek Ranadive's ability to stay out of the way. If you buy what Joerger and Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac have said about them being on the same page -- or if you just pretend that its roster belonged to a baggage-less franchise called the Vancouver Villains -- then maybe this team isn't so bad. Here are four reasons why the Kings could be better than you think:
The Kings do not have one of the best starting units in the NBA. What they do have, however, is a lot of average to above-average talent coming off the bench. One of Joerger's challenges this season is going to be finding minutes for everybody, as there are 13 players who can credibly say they should be a part of the rotation.
Since it's Sacramento, part of me wants to say that this is a bad thing. Players could be unhappy with their roles and Joerger could have trouble figuring out his best lineups. An optimist, though, would see it differently. There's value in being able to experiment with putting players in different places.
Compared to last season, Sacramento has more shooting and defensive versatility. Gay, Casspi, Barnes, Cauley-Stein, Tolliver and Labissiere can all play power forward. The Kings could start big with Cousins and Cauley-Stein if defense is the priority, or they could start Casspi at the 4 to maximize spacing. They are more equipped than most teams to handle injuries. If Lawson approximates his productivity from a couple of years ago and McLemore finally finds consistency, they won't have to put an actively harmful player on the court.
Point guard is the obvious weak spot here. Lawson is coming off by far the worst season of his career. Collison took a plea deal in his domestic violence case and will likely be suspended to start the season. Temple is a solid defensive combo guard, but not much of a playmaker. This doesn't have to be a big deal, though, if Cousins is the team's primary option out of the high post. Which brings us to...
2. The year of Boogie
Cousins is entering his seventh season in Sacramento, and he's hoping this one won't be described as "tumultuous" or "chaotic." With Team USA this summer, he looked like he was in the best shape of his life. That is significant -- his critics often point to him jogging back on defense. Being a little more mobile will help him on both ends of the floor. Hooray for hot yoga.
It's reasonable to expect Cousins to play better under a coach with whom he hasn't openly clashed. It's also worth noting that Cousins had the highest usage rate of his career last year and he was about as efficient as usual. Joerger will probably not place the same emphasis on 3-point shooting as Karl did, allowing Cousins to be where he is most comfortable and dominate the offensive glass.
Most rebuilding teams don't have a legitimate franchise player, but the Kings do. Everything should revolve around him, the same way Joerger's Memphis Grizzlies revolved around Marc Gasol when he was healthy. Don't be shocked if you're reading stories about Cousins' leadership and commitment to defense in a month or two.
3. New coach bump
In May, Cauley-Stein told SiriusXM NBA Radio that everybody in the locker room knew the Karl-Cousins relationship was not going to get better last year. Do you think that's conducive to winning? You could argue that, if everything about last season was the same except it was a fun working environment, Sacramento would have had three or four more wins. And that's before even getting into the style of play.
Under Karl, especially toward the end of the season, the Kings appeared indifferent to defense. They allowed 106.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 23rd in the league. They were also the fastest team in the league, in keeping with Karl's philosophy and the stated desire of Ranadive. This is not a coincidence.
Until the Golden State Warriors came along, no team had ever led the league in defensive rating and pace. It took a special team to master the art of pushing the ball, taking quick shots and getting back in transition. It helped that they were one of the most dangerous offensive teams in NBA history, which allowed them to set their defense. Sacramento is not Golden State. Under Joerger, it will likely be a bit slower, take advantage of Cousins bullying people, play better defense and be happier. That should be the goal, anyway.
4. The trade that hasn't been made yet
It appears that Gay and the Kings are headed for a divorce. His name has been in trade rumors for months, and he has expressed displeasure with the way the organization has handled it. While he has since talked with Divac, he does not appear to be in the front office's long-term plans. If Sacramento does trade him, it will almost certainly be best for both sides.
Gay is probably under-appreciated at this point in his career, as he has spent his prime missing the playoffs and shooting the least popular shot in basketball: the mid-range jumper. In the right situation, he can still be effective, but it does not appear that is going to happen here. He and Cousins could work well together if they were surrounded by great shooters and passers, but the Kings don't have marksmen at the point guard position and don't have great playmakers on the wing.
If and when Gay is traded, Sacramento's pieces will fit better together. That will be especially true if it can acquire a floor-spacing point guard at the same time.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Kings. The Gay situation is unresolved, and it's too early to know if things will really be different under Joerger. I'm not about to predict that they'll make the playoffs, but it's possible that they'll be in the mix. With so many Western Conference teams improving, Sacramento could show real development and still finish in 10th or 11th place. If they do that without drama, consider it a massive step in the right direction.
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