A couple of weeks ago I posed a solution for slaying our small forward hydra, intimating that the most pressing concern for our squad, as currently constructed, was what to do with the logjam at that position. Well, the Kings brass responded to that question (in large part) by jettisoning fan favorite Omri Casspi to Cleveland for the young and equally-or-more promising big man J.J. Hickson. I complained in my previous post about Omri's passive-aggressive trade request. And while I don't take back anything I said, I will say that I was sad to see him go. I thought it was the right move to ship him out, but I truly wish that he had been able to bloom into our SFOTF (small forward of the future). Good luck, Omri, you were fun to root for.
In a vacuum, i think the swap was brilliant, we netted a cheaper, younger and currently more productive player at a position of need for one that was likely to see his already-erratic minutes slip more in 11'-12'. Radical. But what do we do now? Does this spell the end for Samuel Dalembert? Is that a good thing? Let's see....
To make my eventual argument, I need to establish (or at least argue) a couple points. Bear with me.
1. JJ Hickson & Jason Thompson are similar players. At least to the Kings.
I see both players as fringe starters that would probably excel as high-minute bench guys on good teams. JJ's usage rate was out of control last season and should settle down significantly on this team. So that makes them difficult to compare, but let's try anyway. Jason is taller at 6-11 to JJ's 6-9, but only has 8-10 pounds over him. Both guys have played center AND power forward. Both would probably prefer PF but can be flexible. I think JT has more ability to play the center position, but JJ has done OK there before as well. So JT's got weight and height over JJ, but JJ is younger, (nearly) 23 to JT's (nearly) 25.
JJ has a better total rebound percentage (TRB%) at 17.7% (up from 14.1% the year before) than JT, who was at 14.8%. However, JT played with Cousins (17.2%) and Dalembert (19.3%) last year while JJ lined up with Andy Varejao (17.4%) for only 31 games, Antawn Jamison (11.7%), and Ryan Hollins (9.0%), who is worth mentioning even though he only played 17 minutes per game. True, JT's TRB% was not great the year before either, when he lined up next to Spencer Hawes (only 13.1%), but either way, I don't think the gap is huge. Advantage JJ, but not by a large margin.
JT posted a respectable .507 FG% last year, improving over the previous year. JJ sunk badly in this department, shooting only .458. Although, as it has been documented, his usage rate soared last year with a lack of offensive options. But still, .458?!? That's not "Demarcus Cousins bad", but it's bad. Both are crappy foul shooters (in the 60-70% range), and neither shoot threes, so FG% is a decent way to compare them. I'm with everyone else here that feels they've seen JT miss a kajillion easy bunny shots around the rim, which can be infuriating. But did anybody notice him just crank it up towards the end of the season? He attempted more shots (8.6) over his last 10 games than at any other point in the season and converted 64% of them. Yes, it's a small sample size, but I think that's more the real JT than the guy who started the season shooting 33% from the floor. JJ also picked up steam towards the end of the season, hitting 53.1% of his shots over the last ten games and shooting more than at any other point in the season. But overall, both have been somewhat erratic in this area. I believe that JJ has more of an ability to create his own shot, but paired with Tyreke and Demarcus (and Marcus and Jimmer)... will he even get a chance to do that? They both take between 55% and 60% jumpers, so are similar in where they like to shoot the ball. JT shoots a higher percentage on jumpers, but while being assisted more. I think that ultimately both players will be utilized the same way (finishing plays, knocking down open jumpers, etc.), allowing DeMarcus to handle the ball more in the post. So I think that it is very reasonable to expect that, used in this way, they will be somewhat similar shooters and finishers.
JJ posted a PER two points higher than JT last year (15.6 to 13.6), but in the advanced stats field, only really rates better as a rebounder. Their turnover and block rates are nearly identical, JT's shooting percentages were better but with far fewer shots.
So, in my estimation, similar players. Or, at least, similar role on the team. J.J. could explode into a "20 & 10 guy". But we just don't know at this point. Currently, as they are TODAY, they flesh out pretty similarly. JJ has shown more improvement over his three years than Jason (becoming a better passer, rebounder, and less turnover-prone), but as the team stands now I wouldn't bet the farm on either player outperforming the other next year. The point here is, who knows?
2. We need defense in our front court.
Does anybody really want to see us play against the Dwight Howards, Bynums/Gasols, Randolph/Gasols, Nenes, Dirks, and Lamarcus Aldridges of the world with a combination of DMC and JT or JJ? Really? Now that might, MIGHT be a potent and effective (and God-willing, efficient) big man tandem on offense, but on defense? Please... Stats don't tell us nearly enough about our players as defenders, but we do know a few things: JT, JJ and DMC are not prolific shot-blockers. DMC posted a 2.1 block percentage, JT and JJ both at 1.8%. Dalembert, a proficient blocker, is at 4.3%, for comparison. None are prolific ball hawks either, posting 1.9% steal rate (DMC), 1.1% (JJ), 0.8% (JT), last year. For comparison, Tony Allen led the league with 4.51% last season.
More importantly (in this department, at least), what do our eyes tell us? We know that DeMarcus can be a lazy defender (foul monster, often frustrated). He draws a large number of charges, but doesn't often lock his man down in position. We know that JT is an OK defender (still a foul monster and whiny-pants himself), and we've heard from all of our Cavs friends that JJ can be somewhat non-committal on defense (wheeeee!). My gut tells me that we'll be in bad bad shape with our roster as currently constructed without bringing back Dalembert. Dalembert handled the other team's best big man, letting DMC be DMC on the defensive end and handle the rock more on the offensive end. With DMC-JJ? How do you choose who to put on Dwight Howard? Do you just forfeit? and the fouling (OH, the fouling!), JJ racks up 3.5 fouls per 36 minutes, JT does one better at 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes. DeMarcus takes the friggin' cake though, at a monstrous 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes, good for most in the league last year. I don't want to have to put him on all of the bigger players in the league defensively.
Quickly let's look at a few teams that are a step or two ahead us in the front-court department: Chandler allows Dirk to be Dirk. Camby allowed LMA to be the LMA we saw last season in Portland. Bynum allows Pau to be Pau. Perkins allowed KG to do his thing. Noah allows Boozer to be the offensive threat he should be (at least on paper this works). Emeka takes weight off of David West's shoulders. In a bizarro fashion Kenyon Martin takes pressure off of Nene by defending the best big man on the floor even though he's the smaller of the two. I just listed 6 playoff teams that share this basic philosophy. They are all balanced in their front-court. Even Joel Anthony (while pretty sucky taken alone) does a decent job balancing the Miami roster because he plays defense and doesn't take shots. I think this sort of combination works much better, in general, than two offensive or two defensive players. The teams that lack adequate defensive big men to compliment their star offensive big men? Toronto with Bargnani (bottom feeder), New York with Stoudemire (can't guard anybody while also wearing their star down), and Atlanta with Horford (good playoff team, but this is constantly their achilles heel). Obviously there are big exceptions to this "rule" (hi, Tim Duncan!), but generally I think it is easier to build a winning team with this philosophy. Talented offensive bigs are more common than talented defensive bigs. They come at a premium, and rightfully so.
We made a lateral move defensively in our back-court (Jimmer for Beno) by all accounts. Unless Jimmer really surprises us, we won't be improved defensively in that area. We should be improved at the SF position defensively with Salmons, but he's no all-NBA talent. I hope that we can agree by moving from Dalembert-Cousins to Cousins-Hickson (or Thompson), we slide back defensively even more. We had the 12th worst defensive efficiency last year and the 6th worst opponent eFG%. Of the top 15 teams in defensive efficiency last year, 14 of them were playoff teams. I can't take it any more. We NEED to get better defensively, dammit.
What I hope (and pray) the mindset of the Kings will be is to go hard after a couple of top tier free agent centers for next season. Number one on that list is Tyson Chandler. I loved what he did for the Mavs long before they made their crazy championship run. It's almost too bad that it went that way because it probably drove up his price and put him out of our range. But at 28, he's worth at least 10 million a season for the next several years (in my opinion). We often hope that guys will bring "veteran leadership" simply because they've been around for a while. But I don't think that Salmons does that (quiet, reserved), or any number of other players. Chandler really has this quality, in spades.
Dalembert is a close second option. Hopefully he's more affordable and still wants to play here. He knows the guys and is fun to root for. I really liked what he brought to the team and wouldn't mind seeing him stick around. I would not be upset about giving Nene a hefty paycheck either, although I think the first two guys are a better fit for the reasons I listed above (primarily defensive players).
(EDIT - Duh, I left out Marc Gasol in the first edition of this post. I'm a moron for doing so, because Marc is very, very good. Talent-wise, I think the list goes Chandler, Nene, Gasol in some order, then Dalembert. Fit-wise (for estimated salary) I'd take Chandler first, Dalembert second)
If the Kings strike out on those three, I seriously wouldn't be upset to see them rooting around for Andrei Kirilenko, Kris Kardashian, or even (gulp) Greg Oden. But neither of those three will be worth a big paycheck (maybe AK47).
The counterpoint to this argument will be that we are repeating the situation we had with Carl. Mandry needed minutes just as much as our other bigs and eventually had to be moved. Logically we don't want 4 guys that should all be playing. I understand this point and totally sympathize with it. But now I'll refer back to my "JT and JJ are relatively similar players that very well might play similar roles on this team" argument. Both players will be restricted free agents after next season. If they lock up a center for an extended contract, and assume that they'll lock up DMC when the time comes, then next season they just decide which player (JT or JJ) they like better and sign him up to be your third big for the foreseeable future. Yes, we may create a logjam in the interim, but both players will get a chance to shine and the cream will hopefully rise to the top. It is similar to the Carl experience but would have a much more obvious solution. The season may very well be shortened anyway, so if there is a logjam, it will be short-lived.
I won't be angry with the Kings for not getting any of the four highly-valuable targets at the top of my list for next season. But I WILL be upset if I hear that they didn't even try. Sitting on your hands and being OK with swapping Jimmer, Salmons, and JJ (and two second round guys) for Dalembert, Beno and Omri is NOT a successful offseason in my eyes. It's lateral. and it sure ain't what I call "spending".
So George, Gavin, Joe and Geoff, and Slamson, please lock down our center of the future now. Please. Make your decision on JJ or JT after what very well may be a shortened season.
God bless you Basketball-reference.com, Hoopdata.com, and Shamsports.com for supplying my research. You guys sure are groovy.