In Losing Chuck Hayes, Kings' Immediate Future In Flux

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 21: Samuel Dalembert #10 of the Sacramento Kings dunks the ball against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on March 21, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The priority right now for Chuck Hayes is to ensure he can remain healthy while plying his trade. Unlike the Jeff Green situation, no one has indicated whether a medical procedure can fix whatever is wrong with Hayes' ticker, or whether what is wrong is a serious, life-threatening issue or just a bug the Sacramento Kings determined to be too big a risk for their commitment. We know nothing about Hayes' situation other than the Kings were not willing or able to finalize that four-year, $21 million contract once the team doctors saw stress echo test results. Hayes could be done for the season, for his career or another team could decide that with monitoring, perhaps medication and insurance, they can take the risk that the Kings cannot.

While we'll all be cheering for Hayes no matter what happens -- a sentiment no doubt shared by the front office, coaching staff and roster -- the season will go on. Opening day in Monday. The final preseason game is tonight. The team has lost its starting power forward, its best defender and its starting-five "glue guy". Where does the team go from here? How will Sacramento's title chances be affected by the loss?

The fortunate part is that there are two more power forwards on the roster no team would be embarrassed to start in J.J. Hickson and Jason Thompson. Like Hayes, they will be asked to be supplemental weapons on offense, to go hard on the glass on both ends and to defend well. Thompson's the better defender (based on what I've seen of Hickson over the years), but is addicted to foul trouble. Hickson is the more excitable on offense, which can be good or bad.

The Kings can absolutely go into the regular season with a three-big rotation of DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson and Jason Thompson, with Travis Outlaw and potentially Donte Greene filling in as stretch fours. (With Hayes and Cousins out and Outlaw still at ye ol' auction on Saturday, Greene played quite a bit of power forward.) Remember: Thompson was actually pretty good as the third big last season once Carl Landry was traded. Hickson was solid as a starter for the LeBron era Cavaliers; he fell off the map last season when asked to be nearly the team's entire offense. (Turns out: he's not LeBron!)

Defensively, the Kings will be bad if that becomes the three-man big rotation for the Kings. Real bad -- worse than last year, considering that Cousins is a defensive drop-off from Samuel Dalembert at center and Hickson is likely a drop-off from Cousins at power forward due to size. But the Kings will also be bad defensively in the backcourt, so hey. Why not?

Of course, defense is the reason Dalembert's name has popped back into play. If the Kings add Dalembert, Cousins will likely shift back to power forward and both Hickson and Thompson would come off of the bench, as they would have if Hayes were with the team. That's a better defensive solution than the current set-up, but a downgrade on the Hayes-Cousins tandem the team thought it had. It's also a big offensive downgrade; all that Dalembert can do well on offense is rebound. Unfortunately, he believes that he can do much more. That takes precious possessions off the board, and I imagine that it (along with cost) is one of the major reasons the Kings and Dalembert don't already have a deal.

Andrei Kirilenko would be a better fit, in my estimation, if he's still considering Sacramento as an option. A truer power forward, Kirilenko could essentially slot into exactly the role Hayes would have played: defensive stopper and anchor, ball-mover, occasional scorer. Kirilenko's certainly a different defender than Hayes -- long and fast, vs. strong and unmovable -- but the effect is in the same in a macro sense: you relieve pressure on Cousins to guard the quicker power forwards in the game, and you slow down the pick-and-roll turnstile that will be open for business most nights.

For Dalembert, there's the sense that he could join the team in an hour if the Kings give him the salary he wants. Kirilenko is a big ol' question mark, and there's no question that Sacramento will have to shell out quite a bit of money to get him out here, and there's no sense at all that he'd be ready for opening day, or even within the first 10 games, as he seems quite content to keep playing in Russia until there's a deadline of some sort. (He reportedly has until January 9 to leave CSKA Moscow before he's locked in for the season. I would hope that the Kings, if they are still in the mix for him, would set some sort of deadline on an offer to him.)

But the middle path exists, and while it's the inferior option -- even with his offensive issues, I'd rather have Dalembert than not at this point -- it's tenable. Sacramento can go into the season with the roster (minus the camp invites) that suits up tonight at The Gymmer. Keep that in mind as a new round of rumors swirl.

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