Hells to the jingle bells, yeah.
I am beyond friggin’ psyched and uber-stoked the NBA is back. :) I am as blisteringly pumped as Beavis and Butthead with front row tickets to an AC/DC and Metallica metal-palooza. We went from the possibility of no team in Sacramento, and to no NBA season, to a sounds-right total of 66 games played where the team belongs, beginning on a day when gifts are given. Seems appropriate, huh? My feeling can be summed by the opening salvo from front man of a no-name band I saw at a dark and drunken club with amazing acoustics two weekends ago.
Rock n roll, bitches.
This Kings season shapes up as potentially thrilling, frustrating and ultimately satisfying with a legitimate playoff run likely to occur. Star led teams prepared to play, able to avoid protracted losing streaks and injuries, and possessing of young legs will be formidable contenders for post season admission. Whether our young Kings can qualify depends on affirmative answers to the following questions, which I loosely consider to be the 6 most important queries leading up to holiday tipoff.
The NBA is back.
Where the reformation of a 450 member player union for express purpose of ratification of compromised agreement, err, settlement of lawsuit, along with hard line owner hard-balling, commissioner bullying, and reclamation of sanity and belated cooperation in the spirit of four billion split in revenue pie happens.
Question #1: Can Tyreke and DeMarcus improve their efficiency?
It is not an exaggeration to say the Kings have one of the Top 5 backcourt and frontcourt talents in the NBA. Based on pure size, agility and skill, DeMarcus and Tyreke compare favorably with the best in the world.
Harnessing all that oozing talent is the next step in each players developmental curve. Statistical and intangible efficiency by the Kings two likely highest usage players will correspond to team win total more than any other team performance variable.
As a fan, there is reason to welcome this inescapable fact. Tyreke’s foot is no longer bothersome. DeMarcus is no longer bothered by a second portion at the dinner table. Tyreke is healthy. Cousins looks downright lean and mean. Summer pick-up game clips reveal a level of quickness and lift that recall the spryness of his All-American prep days.
Newfound health and fitness equates to agility. Agility equates to an ability to finish at the rim. Agility allows defending without fouling. Agility added to aforementioned size and skill equates to individual and team success.
As we all know, DeMarcus has the size of a center and the agility of a power forward. He is too big for ‘4’s and too quick for ‘5’s. He is unstoppable on most nights, and he knows it. His late season stretch of 20/10 games opened his eyes to what he can do, and inspired him into a productive summer.
In terms of a franchise tag, DeMarcus gets the edge over Tyreke.
This is not to slight Tyreke. He is a freakish talent, and my favorite player not named Jimmer. Yet based on relative strength of position and natural style of play, DeMarcus can do more to impact team success. Tyreke is still deciding if he is a full-time PG, seeking balance between distributing and scoring, and reconciling his introverted personality with leadership traits required of a lead guard. This slight ill-fit between skill and responsibility does not weigh upon Cousins.
DeMarcus has slightly better instincts for the game of basketball than Tyreke. That won’t change regardless of their respective growth and maturity. I am reminded of a quote by a sage Yoda figure, aka Pete Carill, who claims Cousins is the most talented player in Kings history, at the tender age of 20. And this is a coach who witnessed Chris Webber in his prime.
Regardless, teammate comparison is less significant than player efficiency. And both DeMarcus and Tyreke need to do much better.
What to look for: DeMarcus averaged 14 points and 8.5 rebounds and dished out 2.5 dimes last season. But he turned the ball over at alarming rate of 3.3 times per game, led the NBA in fouls at 4.1 per game, and shot only 43%. His point and rebound numbers will increase to neighborhood of 16 and 10+ with ease if he can stay on the court and show improved shot selection and decision-making.
Improved efficiency will be demonstrated with a TO rate of 2.5 per game or less, a shooting percentage of 47% or higher, and a foul rate of 3.5 per game or less. Also look for Cousins assist to turnover rate to be better than 1:1 (last year it was 0.75:1).
With new weapons at his disposal, namely (and presuming) MT23 for a full season, a legitimate finisher in the paint in JJ Hickson, and a lights out shooter named Jimmer, Tyreke should average 7.0 assists or more per game. If Tyreke plays 35+ minutes, has the ball in his hands as much as we expect, and draws the attention he does, his assist total must rise from his career average of 5.7.
Otherwise, he is not doing his job.
No more did we see statistical regression from year one to year two than Tyreke’s plummeting field goal percentage. His lack of confidence in teammates and lack of elevation around the rim, due to injury, resulted in too many long jumpers and a 41% FG rate, following a 46% FG rate in his 20-5-5 rookie campaign. It is worth note that he did boost his 3 point FG% rate from an anemic 26% to a paltry 29% last year.
Let’s look for Tyreke to reestablish himself as a 46% shooter or better, ideally 48 to 50% (based on his dominant ability to get to the rim), and 33% success from beyond the arc, to go with 7+ dimes per game.
Numbers like these will help the Kings win a lot of games in 2011-2012.
Question #2: Can Jimmer play point guard?
Geoff Petrie will tell you the answer to this question is ‘yes’ or else they would not have spent the 10th pick of the draft on him. The question is pertinent because Jimmer is forecast as the first guard off the bench. He will be subbing in for either one of two players who are not natural playmakers. If your three guard rotation is composed of players whose primary instinct is to score, offensive stagnation and isolation play can manifest over selfless ball movement too often.
It remains to be seen if Isiah Thomas can secure spot minutes as tempo changing water bug, a la Pooh Jeter of last season. Isiah’s play in summer pick-up has been encouraging. He gives off the distinct impression of a player who belongs in the NBA.
What to look for: One of the reasons Tyreke is better suited as a PG (or lead guard) than SG is his ability to patiently keep his dribble in traffic, breakdown his defender, and seek to create opportunity within the teeth of the defense.
Will Jimmer show the same amount of poise and skill when faced with similar on-the-ball pressure? Or will he treat the basketball like a hot potato, eager to make a relief pass, and then move weak side, looking for a screen-and-catch for quick release jumper?
Players with so-so handles are hesitant to maintain dribble, even when better judgment dictates. Jimmer has the size and strength to ward off defenders and protect his dribble. His college coach has praised his playmaking skill as underrated. He seems to have an innate instinct as to when to shoot or pass. Jimmer is battle tested as a college player can be, having faced countless defenses designed to stop him. Do not count on him wilting when Derek Fisher tries to get up in his grill.
Yet there is an unknown at play. We know Jimmer can shoot. And arguably shoot like nobody else entering the league in years. But can he make plays for others? Can he facilitate an NBA offense as a rookie? An intriguing question to which we’ll soon have an answer.
Question #3: Can JJ Hickson own the starting PF spot from Day 1?
The last time the Kings had a legitimate power forward who could go for 20/10 on any night, demand a double team, and finish with brute force down low was when Chris Webber had two good knees.
It has been awhile.
Apologies to the Shareef Abdur Rahim Fan Club (membership = URL not found) and the Jason Thompson Fairy, Unicorn and Yeti Research Foundation (membership = SactownRoyalty.com; j/k sort of).
One thing that will be apparent from Day One is the relative fluidity with which JJ plays the game as compared to incumbent placeholders who have logged minutes there.
It is going to be fun, guys. Get ready for Arco Thunder Dunks, er, Power Balance Pavilion Power Plays, er, Bankruptcy Protection Put Backs. Er, just slam it home dammit!
If you are not yet excited by JJ Hickson as a Sacramento King, here’s your chance:
JJ enters into a team dynamic that should allow him to play complementary yet substantial role. I have always contended that the PF position is one that makes for a relatively easy transition, whether from college to the pros, or one pro team to the other. Catch and finish, rebound and defend. Responsibilities are clearly defined. Monitor and control the post on both ends of the court. Stay out of trouble and play within your limits. JJ’s emergence while playing out the string last year demonstrated his ability to excel in this role (19.5 points and 12.3 rebounds on 52% shooting in last month of season!)
With emerging talent at tender age of 23, and bevy of positive signs, why is this a question worth pondering?
Coach Paul Westphal has a recent history of squandering talent, misusing players, ill-defining positions, and generally failing to maximize the potential of his roster.
See dubious disciplinary treatment of Cousins, arbitrary rules for Omri Casppi, coddling of veterans like Carl Landry, experimenting of Jason Thompson as a ‘3’, among other ingenious machinations.
What to look for: With anti-Adelman track record of player development, will PW incorporate JJ into the offense in timely manner? Or will PW discover an illogical basis to exclude him?
Coincidently, will JJ be able to adapt to new conditions and teammates, develop chemistry and teamwork? Or will it take half of a season to unite by which time post season aspirations wane?
Will Tyreke and Co. help to make JJ’s transition smooth? Last season, Tyreke did little to pro-actively involve Cousins in the offense.
Most recently, JJ was booted off the foreign team with whom he signed during the ongoing lockout. Allegedly he was late for practice on consecutive days, although there were reports he experienced home sickness and did not feel comfortable in foreign culture. Regardless, this experience speaks to maturity issues and ability to adapt quickly.
Will he average a modest 8.8 points and 6.1 boards a la JT? Or will he build upon the impressive end to last season, double these numbers and contribute significantly to team wide revival and the broader tangential hopes for new arena to call home?
I am betting on the latter. One month away and we will have The Answer.
No, not Allen Iverson. That’s one answer all Kings fans don't need to hear.
COMING SOON (Part 2): The Heart Pumping, Spine-Tingling Mind-Expanding Conclusion of Blob’s Kings Season Preview:
Question #4 of 6: Can Paul Westphal get this team ready in two weeks?
Question #5 of 6: Can Hassan Whiteside become a rotational player?
Question #6 of 6: Can the Kings add an impact player with their cap space?