Here is some food for thought as we trudge our way through the dog days of summer amid this unrelenting lockout where much is still to be determined including if there will even be a season. Charles Barkley's prediction aside, let's assume there will be a season next year and start evaluating the Kings and what we should expect from them. I'm also going under the assumption that Marcus Thornton will be re-signed based on his success at the end of last year and his preference to remain here as well as the cap space the Kings have to match any offer he receives elsewhere. Samuel Dalembert ,however, is as good as gone after the Kings acquired J.J. Hickson via trade from Cleveland on June 30th for Omri Casspi. Dalembert will be missed mostly for his interior defense and rebounding even though Hickson is anything but a liability on that end of the floor and he will add a much more athletic presence to the frontcourt that should help pull defenders off of Tyreke and DeMarcus Cousins.
Notable Arrivals so far: J.J. Hickson, John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette, Tyler Honeycutt, Isaiah Thomas
*Jackson is in the same boat as Dalembert as far as staying with the Kings. He was a useful big off the bench for Westphal last season but with Hickson coming over, Thompson moves to the backup 4/5 role. Hassan Whiteside is another wild card coming off of his disappointing rookie year that was marred by a knee injury and part-time duty with the Reno Bighorns. He would still only be a college junior had he stayed in school and at 22 years of age nobody really knows where he will end up this season. Udrih's efficiency will be missed at the PG spot with the Kings opting to deal his rights along with a conditional 2nd-rounder to Milwaukee for their presumed starting SF in John Salmons. Jimmer Fredette looks to be the first guard off the bench after the Kings made him the 10th overall pick in this year's draft. Of course if the Kings don't re-sign Thornton, Fredette would be the consensus choice to start and he may still do that even if Thornton is retained. Pooh Jeter is another wild card but I'm assuming he will return in the same backup role he fulfilled last year which he did admirably. Isaiah Thomas most likely will spend a year in the D-League based on the case Jeter made for himself last year and the fact that there is no need to rush his development by playing him as a rookie, I may be completely off base on that btw. Honeycutt would appear to be ready for some backup duty as a rookie considering that he could've been a first round pick and that Donte Greene really hasn't solidified himself in the nightly rotation with multiple DNP's last season. Of course it is entirely possible that Honeycutt will see exclusive time in the D-League this season as Whiteside did last season.
The rest of the Western Conference is where the real intrigue lies however. These next few years present a nice window of opportunity for the Kings to cement themselves as legitimate playoff contenders. Let's start from the top of the West and work our way down. This is last year's playoff seeds in order of their regular season finish:
1. San Antonio- This team is the model of consistency year in and year out. Even as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tony Parker etc. continue to age, the Spurs remain competitive and will be as long as those players remain with the team. However, San Antonio has dropped a couple of notches as far as how beatable they are in the past couple of years. Exhibit A was this year's playoffs when they were ousted in 6 games by the young and fiesty Zach Randolph-led Memphis Grizzlies. That series loss can be attributed partly to Randolph and company but it also shows that the Spurs aren't the mighty Titans they once were when they routinely steamrolled any team in the West without a problem. The Kings have a nice age advantage on the Spurs and it's very likely that San Antonio will begin to deal pieces from that championship squad in an effort to get younger in the coming years.
2. LA Lakers- The Lakers are in a similar situation that the Spurs are in with regards to their closing window of opportunity to win titles. Yes they have already gotten plenty but enough is enough. It all starts with Kobe Bryant and the ageless wonder is not quite the youthful, game-changer he once was as he approaches his 33rd birthday. Yes, he can still light you up for 40 on a given night but with multiple knee surgeries and age not on his side, it's pretty safe to say the best years of his career are behind him. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and company are also into their 30s and don't have a huge number of years left in the league at a productive level. The Lakers still remain a threat to win a title this year and in years to come but they don't have age on their side like the Kings do and therefore their window of opportunity is significantly less.
3. Dallas- First of all I want to congratulate Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Mark Cuban and company for bringing home the NBA title that the Mavericks and their fans so richly deserved and the Miami Heat didn't. That team was a model of team play and production from everyone in the lineup and they were led by a Hall of Famer in Dirk Nowitzki who wasn't deterred by any team in the West or the Big 3 from South Beach on his way to the trophy. I'm not going to restate the age factor for Dallas because it is essentially the same issue that the Lakers and San Antonio face. Dirk Nowitzki is a huge part of that team much like Kobe is for the Lakers and they both have limited prime years remaining in their careers. Hence, the Kings hold the age advantage yet again.
4. Oklahoma City- This is where the problem starts and ends for the rest of the teams in the West. It is flat out not fair to have a team that is this young and already this good. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are each just 22 and should still be in college but instead they are tormenting us and competing for NBA titles already. One positive is that the trade for Kendrick Perkins doesn't look to have worked at as well as it was intended to and therefore the Thunder's frontcourt concerns remain. However, there is also the argument that OKC made it to the West Finals without a legit big which is very scary. Either way, watch out for this team for the next decade or so as they will probably win multiple titles before it is all said and done.
5. Denver- This is a team that no longer scares anyone because they no longer have a superstar in his prime like they once did in Carmelo Anthony. They do have some nice young players though in Galinari, Chandler, Smith, Nene, Lawson, Afflalo etc. I don't look for them to be title contenders just because of the fact that they lack that go-to- guy but at the very least they do have a solid corps of players to remain in the playoffs annually for the foreseeable future. The Kings can surpass this team in a few years with the development of their young superstars though.
6. Portland- The Trail Blazers are a bit of a dangerous/risky/confusing team to follow. They have young star caliber players in Roy and Aldridge. There is also a nice supporting cast in Matthews, Felton and Wallace. Then there are talented bigs like Camby and Oden who are very solid when healthy. That is the key term for this team... health. All of the pieces are there but it's hard to be good consistently when there are always lingering concerns about the health of star players and their abilities to remain on the court all season. This is a team to watch out for but they must shed the injury prone label to be taken seriously.
7. New Orleans- CP3 Wooh! That's about all there is in Nawlins' besides top hat, Ariza, West and Okafor. I don't see CP3 staying there long term with options to win titles in bigger markets like New York. West might be out of there as a free agent too so there are rampant concerns in Louisiana next season about the state of the Hornets, I'm assuming. This team doesn't worry me in the least to say to least.
8. Memphis- This is a team much like OKC that is equipped to make a run like they did last year. Zach Randolph is an animal in the post and capable of putting up 20 pts 20 rebs on any given night. Conley, Gay, Mayo and company are a nice young supporting cast that takes the pressure off of Randolph to be the main guy every night. A positive is that Randolph is 30 but that's about the only thing to take away from this solid young squad.
Now for the non-playoff teams:
1 sentence summaries for the lack of concern.
9. Houston- K-Mart and Scola, no Yao no title.
10. Phoenix- Steve Nash, Steve Nash and did I mention 37-year old Steve Nash?
11. Utah- Talent and big names but they finished 11th?
12. Golden State- No defense.
14. Sacramento- You can infer what you want here.
15. Minnesota- Lol
In summary, hopes are up for this upcoming season whenever it may be. The Kings have added pieces that will make them a harder team to play against. They still have a very young corps of players that have loads of potential. It's arguable that the Western Conference is easier to compete in than the Eastern Conference with all the marquee players who have headed east. With age on their side, the Kings have plenty of room to grow in the coming years. I'm not going to get overly optimistic and say the Kings will make the playoffs THIS year but I will say that there is no reason to believe that they can't be a playoff team in 2 or 3 years. LIke Oklahoma City proved, all you have to do is get in and from there anything is possible. Much is still to be determined with the lockout and possibly the latter half of free agency. Things are looking up in Sactown that's for sure. Keep up the spirit people! I know it hasn't always been easy but this team is much like the arena situation. It has loads of potential with just a few things that need to go right. SACRAMENTO Kings 2011-12!