The Sacramento Kings made a major change to their roster after being part of one of the biggest trade of the season, but fell short of the postseason for the eighth straight year. They have plenty of young talent, but can they keep them together, and will they ever learn to play defence?
Despite making one of the biggest trades of the season, the Kings failed to make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year, finishing with a 28-54 record – third worst in the Western Conference and seventh worst in the league.
New team owners often feel the pressure to turn their franchises fortunes around immediately, which often result in questionable trades being made in order to stimulate an instant change.
New Sacramento majority owner Vivek Ranadivé fell into this trap when he made a kneejerk move to acquire Rudy Gay from the Toronto Raptors in early December, and rolled the dice on former second overall pick Derrick Williams.
Neither move was enough to push the Kings into the Western Conference elite.
On the positive side, Gay’s season was revitalised by the move to California. The former Connecticut Huskie saw his points production improve from 19.4 in 18 games with Toronto to 20.1 through 55 games with the Kings. More impressively, Gay’s often criticised shot selection and efficiency improved out of sight in Sacramento – increasing his field goal percentage to 48.2% (up from 38.8% with the Raptors), shooting a superb 51.6% from two-point range (up from 39.1%) and even improving his free throw percentage to 83.6% (from 77.3%) on an increased number of attempts per night.
Even with the addition of the offensive-minded Gay, and the impressive play of DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, the Kings remained a middle-of-the-road team on the offensive end of the floor. They ranked 17th in the league for points per game (100.5) and were 20th overall for offensive rating (105.7), despite playing a reasonably fast-paced offence – 14th in the league (94.4).
Even more worrisome, Sacramento had a hard time stopping teams on the other side of the ball, leaking the seventh-most points (103.4) at the eighth-least efficient rate (108.8) in the league.
The play of rookie Ben McLemore, who was picked seventh overall in last year’s draft, was also disappointing. The former Kansas sharpshooter struggled in his first professional season, finishing the season averaging 8.8 points on just 37.6% from the field and 32.0% from beyond the arc – he also failed to make either All-Rookie teams.
Meanwhile, fellow former lottery picks Williams (8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds – second overall 2011) and Jason Thompson (7.1 points and 6.4 rebounds – 12th in 2008) also failed to provide much support and consistency throughout the season.
Most Valuable Player
Sacramento’s volatile big man Cousins has long been tagged as the future of the franchise, and he took a major step towards reaching his potential this season.
The man they call Boogie had the best season of his four-year career, averaging 22.7 points (ninth in the league), 11.7 rebounds (fifth), 2.9 assists (fifth amongst centres), 1.5 steals (19th) and 1.3 blocks (20th) per night.
Cousins also finished the season ranked fifth in Player Efficiency Rating – ahead of the likes of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Dirk Nowitzki – and was eighth in total free throws made in the league.
DMC also came the closest to shooting above 50.0% from the field in his career, knocking down 49.6% of his shot attempts (a notable improvement from his 44.8% average over his first three seasons), including a monster 67.3% success rate at the rim and a vastly improved 42.3% beyond 16 feet – an impressive accomplishment when you consider he trailed only Kevin Durant in usage percentage for the season at 32.7%.
However, there were still remnants of the negative play that haunted Cousins through his first three seasons.
He once again led the league in technical fouls, tied with Blake Griffin and Durant on 16 for the season. However, this was down from the 17 he received last season and he cut his ejections down to one from four a year before.
Cousins was also eighth in the league for total turnovers and third for fouls.
The former Kentucky Wildcat has evolved into the scoring and rebounding beast that many hoped he would be, but he still has a long way to go to become an effective defender.
Sacramento could not have asked for a better bargain when they drafted the diminutive point guard with the famous name 60th overall in 2011.
In his third season, Thomas gave the Kings a career-best 20.3 points (17th in the league), 6.3 assists (11th) and 1.3 steals while shooting 45.3% from the floor – all good enough to earn the 20th best PER in the league at 20.5.
The development of Thomas gave the Kings the much-needed boost at the point guard position they haven’t had since Mike Bibby ran the offence in purple and black.
Thomas’ improvement, along with the addition of Gay, also freed up room for Cousins to come into his own this season, as defences could no longer key in solely on the Kings mammoth centre.
Sacramento entered this year’s draft lottery with at 15% chance of landing a top-3 pick and the likelihood of drafting seventh overall, but thanks to the Cleveland Cavaliers’s endless luck they’ll be selecting eighth on June 26.
While they’ll missed out on the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid, Sacramento was able to grab Michigan marksman Nik Stauskas with their lone selection on draft night.
It was a move that perplexed many, as it was only last season that the Kings selected McLemore, also a sharpshooting off guard, with the seventh overall pick. Stauskas is an excellent shooter and scorer, averaging 17.5 points with a 44.2% three-point field goal percentage in his sophomore season with the Wolverines, but plays a very similar game to McLemore’s.
Whether or not this means McLemore is on the move remains to be seen. Perhaps Sacramento plan to start one of their shooters and use the other as an offensive injection for their second unit, or perhaps they were simply taking the best asset on the board. A move for Creighton scorer Doug McDermott or Indiana big man Noah Vonleh would have made more sense structurally, but Stauskas is still and excellent prospect, and if anything, his presence on the roster simply adds more intrigue to an already fascinating franchise.
Sacramento will need to hope their moves this offseason push them out of the lottery because they owe the Chicago Bulls a first round pick next season that is only top-10 protected.
Meanwhile, there are sure to be headaches in the Kings front office trying to negotiate deals with Gay and Thomas. Gay has a $19 million player option for next season, which could end any chance Sacramento has of re-signing Thomas, who is coming off the last year of his minimal rookie salary.
If Gay or Thomas do leave, Sacramento should target a defensive-minded player to compliment their offensive weapons – Avery Bradley would be an excellent mid-priced option, or they could go all out and chase after Luol Deng if he becomes available.
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