With only a few games left for the Sacramento Kings, the NBA season is slowly drawing to a close. Sitting at 31-47, it’s already a foregone conclusion that the Kings will once again miss the playoffs and head off into the summer contemplating about how a season that held so much promise could have gone so wrong.
I remember back in January when the Kings were sitting at a record slightly below 0.500, 20-23. They looked like a real playoff team. One that would be breaking out of its mold of mediocrity and finally make the NBA post-season for the first time in nine years. Everyone seemed to be clicking on all cylinders, and George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins were finally getting along (culminating in a high-five between them when Karl received a technical foul for defending Cousins back in January).
Instead, they’ve gone 11-23 since then, with the feud between Karl and Cousins becoming worse than ever. Regardless of the rumors that Cousins might be traded over the summer or that Karl is in the hot seat and a new coach may be in place for next season, changes will indeed need to be made.
Here are three ways in which the Kings can change over the summer in order to become a better team for the 2016-2017 NBA season:
Defense, Defense, and More Defense
It has always been said that a team’s defense is the defining factor of winning a championship, no matter how good a team’s offense is. Defense wins championships, and clearly that is an issue for the Kings. Allowing opponents to score, on average, 109 points per game, the Kings are ranked dead last in points allowed in the NBA.
Offense, on the other hand, is something that the Kings have great potential in excelling. Rated first in pace, the Kings average 107 points per game. That’sthird behind only the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. And it’s no surprise that the Kings are pretty well-off offensively with dynamic center DeMarcus Cousins and floor general Rajon Rondo.
One of the encouraging sights the Kings have is the continued development of Willie Cauley-Stein, the sixth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. The 7’0″ center’s numbers are pretty modest for the season (20.2 mpg, 6.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg), but in more recent games Cauley-Stein has showed why he was made the sixth overall pick in the first place, scoring 26 and 21 points against the Suns and Mavericks, respectively. Cauley-Stein is sure to get more minutes next season, maybe even breaking into the starting lineup, which will only help the Kings and their defensive woes.
In any case, the Kings’ defense has to shape up if they want to stand even a shred of a chance at becoming a playoff team. With their current roster, however, they might not be able to do that.
Addressing Positions of Need
This connects with the point about defense made earlier: the Kings, with the players they currently have, are not equipped to become a playoff team. No one on the team can be considered a true two-way player, with only Rajon Rondo (offensive deficiencies aside), DeMarcus Cousins (bad defensive habits aside), and, if he’s allowed to develop and improve over time, Willie Cauley-Stein coming close to fitting this mold.
Really, the two positions in which the Kings desperately need an upgrade are the small forward and shooting guard positions, with shooting guard perhaps the most in need.
Rudy Gay, although admittedly scoring at a more efficient rate than in previous seasons, has been known as an NBA analytics nightmare, oftentimes taking too many contested jump-shots in what the NBA considers the least efficient area of the floor: the mid-range area. Ball movement and fluidity seems to stagnate whenever the ball is in Gay’s hands.
His length and athleticism should allow him to not only drive to the basket more, but also make him a good defender. However, he’s only a somewhat decent one: there is a reason why Gay was seen as expendable on his previous two teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors, both of which have become perennial playoff teams in his absence.
Ben McLemore, a starter for the majority of the season, has recently lost his starting job to Seth Curry due to injury and now is only sparingly coming off the bench. McLemore is averaging the least points of his young career and has regressed in his role on the team this season. Still, McLemore provides size that probably makes him the team’s best defensive player at his position.
Seth Curry has looked promising as a starter, shooting 44% at 3-point range in 13.4 minutes per game. However, it seems that much of his support and backing comes from the fact that he’s Stephen Curry’s brother, as he’s become a fan-favorite due to his family name–instead of his individual skills. Because of this, it’s too early to tell whether or not Seth Curry can become a true difference maker on this Kings roster.
The bench is also filled with one-way, offensive players (Casspi, Belinelli, Collison, etc.) that can provide scoring bursts, but otherwise struggle greatly on the defensive end. Diversifying the bench by adding defensive players would keep the Kings’ defense from languishing whenever their starters rest during games.
The Kings could really use improvements at both of these positions; maybe adding players of the “3 and D” archetype would help them spread the floor and defend. The Kings could also use a veteran presence in the locker room who can bring a team together or reign in other players when things get out of control, which leads into the next point.
Public Image and Media Issues
At the center of the Kings’ persona of dysfunction and instability is the ongoing feud between DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl.
Cousins has constantly lashed out at Karl through social media and other means. From cursing out Karl in front of the team to tweeting an image of a snake in between grass, Cousins has made no effort to hide his disdain for his coach. Cousins has also made public jabs at Karl, including a contradictory response to Karl’s statement that Seth Curry will only last “a couple of years” in the NBA.
Although Cousins has been more publicly vocal about his frustration with Karl, we really don’t know what Karl has done behind the scenes: rumors swirled that Karl tried to talk the Kings into trading their star center, which is what Cousins was responding to with his snake tweet. Cousins just makes it easy for people to put the blame on him for the team’s dysfunction not only because of his statements, but also because of his reputation as an immature player.
Although a lot of the Sacramento Kings’ dysfunction can be placed on its star player and their coach not getting along, a lot of the blame has to go to the Kings’ organization as well.
The Kings have gone through five different head coaches since Cousins was drafted back in 2010. With no head coach lasting more than a season or two in recent years, it’s no wonder that Cousins hasn’t been able to form any kind of chemistry with any of his head coaches (except Mike Malone). This dysfunction, especially in the years after the Chris Webber era, has contributed to the Kings’ inability to sign any star or worthwhile free agents.
Cousins’ image as an immature player not only comes from his actions off the floor, but also is affected by his play on the court. For the past five seasons, Cousins finished among the leaders in technical fouls accumulated across an NBA season. Cousins also has a tendency to complain to officials and to lag on the defensive end, oftentimes being slow to get up off the floor to make it back on defense if he thinks that the referee missed a foul call after an offensive possession.
If Cousins can shed his immature image and play like the superstar player he was meant to be, the Kings will be in a good place going forward and will likely see improvements in both their defense and public image. Adding more defensive minded players, along with throwing minutes Willie Cauley-Stein’s way as he continues to develop, will surely help the Kings become a playoff team.
Once the NBA post-season begins and the Kings again find themselves on the outside looking in, the real question the Kings have to ask themselves is this: are they going to dwell on the failure of the 2015-2016 season or can they look forward to the future and try to improve for2016-2017?
Photo by Steve Martarano