It’s roughly the halfway point of the off season for lottery-entrenched teams, as the Kings played their last regular season game on April 26 and will play their next regular season game sometime around November 1 (the official schedule is due to be announced tomorrow). It appears that the Kings may be finished with their off season transactions, so this seems like a fitting time to make a completely premature and butt-pulled assessment of the upcoming season.
The Kings finished last season at 22-44, which would prorate to a 27-55 record over an 82 game season. This would match up almost exactly with the Kings average record over their prolonged absence from the playoffs, as their .334 “winning” percentage over that period would also equate to a 27-55 record.
The Kings did manage an “improved” .339 winning percentage under Keith Smart, going 20-39 under Smart’s direction. Over an 82 game season, that would translate to a 28-54 record. The difference under Smart was a more fluid offense, and a more exposed defense. Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins flourished under Smart, Jason Thompson was steady, Tyreke Evans languished, Jimmer Fredette was underwhelming, and none of the veterans played to what was conservatively expected of them.
I had not thought about that last bit before, but it bears repeating: Chuck Hayes, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, and Francisco Garcia – the veteran “leaders” of this team – all underperformed, and badly. These guys made up 48% of the player payroll. For a young team looking for leadership (and especially one on a tight budget), that’s a death blow.
So a little housecleaning was definitely in order, and a little housecleaning is exactly what we got. Gone are Donté Greene (10th in minutes played), Terrence Williams (13th), and Hassan Whiteside (14th). J.J. Hickson (11th) was released during the season.
The top nine minutes "earners" remain, along with Outlaw (12th) and Honeycutt (15th). Added to the list are Thomas Robinson, Aaron Brooks, and James Johnson. Given that there are currently only four bigs on the roster, one might assume that Darnell Jackson will make the roster as well.
The result is that the front line basically loses Hickson and Whiteside and adds Robinson. Given Hickson’s performance and Robinson’s potential, this is definitely a good thing. But it probably won’t translate into many more wins for this year. Robinson is likely to enter camp as the 4th big, behind Cousins, Thompson, and Hayes. If Robinson is faced with competing with Chuck Hayes circa 2010-11, he may be entrenched in that 4th slot for much of the season. If Robinson is faced with Chuck Hayes 2011-12, it will take him far less time to move up the depth chart. I envision Robinson playing far more minutes later in the season and fewer minutes earlier. He will have a better chance of making the all rookie team (though not first team) than the rookie all star team.
Jason Thompson is likely to be Jason Thompson. He’s going to give you solidly unspectacular minutes, and he will log somewhere around 9 points and 7 boards over his 24-26 minutes per night. He will contribute a very good 3rd big performance, but he will unfortunately do this while occupying a starting job. This is not Thompson’s fault, as he is merely miscast as a starter for a bad team instead of an uber-capable bench big for a good team.
Chuck Hayes is the wild card. Now, you will never be able to justify/castigate Hayes’ performance by a simple look at the stat sheet. Like Scot Pollard or Shane Battier, most of the good stuff that Hayes can do (setting picks, playing defensive pick and roll, playing solid man defense, creating good offensive spacing, etc.) do not show up in a box score. Conversely, if Hayes is not doing these good things, he’s virtually useless. Hayes got off to a solid start last year before injuring his shoulder (SSSI approved, as he hurt his shoulder in the 8th game of the season). But he never got back on track after the injury, and his conditioning was certainly a huge question mark over the last three months of the season. Simply, if the Chuck Hayes that ended the season is the one that begins this season, the Kings front line depth will be ironically thin.
The key to the front line is, of course, DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins exceeded all expectations (at least my expectations) for his second season, and he seems to be on the verge of a breakout season. For this to happen, however, his front line partners are going to have to play to at least their respective potential, or poor Cuz is going to have multiple bigs hanging all over him. Also, the perimeter shooters are going to have to improve, and the ball movement will need to get better. Cousins himself needs to become a much more efficient shooter. There were 22 bigs that scored more than 15 points per game last year. Cousins ranked 21st in adjusted field goal percentage (44.9%) while scoring 18.1ppg, ahead of only Antawn Jamison. For comparison, Dwight Howard (20.6 ppg) came in at 57.3%, Andrew Bynum (18.7ppg) at 55.8%, Greg Monroe (15.4ppg) at 52.1%, Al Jefferson (19.2ppg) at 49.3%, and Amare Stoudemire (17.5ppg) at 48.7%. Cousins was 8th among bigs in field goal attempts at 15.6 per game. If he is going to continue to chuck shots up at that pace (even given that many of those shots were the result of rebounding and putting back his own misses), he has got to become more accurate.
Outlaw will also see a little time up front as a stretch 4, and I’m hoping that Jackson is included on the final roster as the emergency big. Given Cousins’ and even Thompson’s penchant for fouls, I see a 5th big as being vital to the roster.
On to the wing, where Greene and Williams have been replaced with James Johnson. I like James Johnson. I like him as much as Jared Dudley or Chase Budinger. I like him more than Terrence Williams or Greene. I am not convinced that he will provide the paradigm shift that we were looking for at the small forward position. Yes, the Kings will be better at small forward. But that’s a lot like saying that Charlotte will be a better basketball team this year – there’s really no place to go but up.
The hope is that Johnson focuses primarily on making his contribution on the defensive side of the ball. In a starting lineup of Thomas, Evans, Cousins and Thompson, Johnson would be the 4th or 5th option offensively, with most of his opportunities hopefully occurring at or near the rim. He’s definitely not a guy that’s going to stretch the defense with his perimeter shooting.
I’m guessing that Johnson logs about a half a game per night, with the other half going mostly to a small ball lineup that will feature any combination of Evans/Thomas/Thornton/Brooks/Fredette/Salmons. Garcia is to this rotation what Darnell Jackson would be to the front line rotation, and that is nothing more than disaster relief. Outlaw or Honeycutt could also log nominal minutes here.
Moving on to the backcourt, it would seem that this would be a good place to remind everyone that the following (like the preceding) is 100% butt-pulled. Your guess as to what is going to happen with the backcourt is as good (if not better) than mine, but I have front page access and you don’t, so n’yah.
I’m calling a starting backcourt of Evans and Thomas. The last time that Isaiah Thomas played in the NBA, he turned in a month where he averaged 14.7ppg and 5.4apg (with a nifty 3.1/1 assist/turnover ratio). Thomas also shot 44% from beyond the arc in that month, helping him achieve an adjusted field goal percentage of better than 54%. Aaron Brooks has not seen numbers anywhere near this since the 2009-10 season. Brooks is a solid addition, and he’ll make Thomas work (as though Thomas needs any help in that area). But Isaiah Thomas will be your starting point guard on opening night.
Tyreke Evans will get the nod at shooting guard. Yes, this provides a bit of a challenge offensively if his perimeter shot has not improved. But Evans brings so much versatility to the lineup as a guy that can indeed (and in spite of what his detractors would say) make his teammates better. In fact, from the two guard position, there will be a small handful of players that can be as beneficial to his teammates as Evans. Being the hybrid that he is, he can indeed still facilitate the half court offense. Honestly, the difference between him and Thomas when it comes to running half court sets is not all that great, as it is in transition where Thomas really excels over Evans. The fact that Evans can trigger the offense will enable Thomas to spot up from 3. The fact that both Evans and Thomas can trigger the offense will make the offensive sets all that much more difficult to defend. Evans and Thomas provide the best combination of passing of any PG/SG duo that the Kings can put on the floor, and they are the best defensive duo as well. And this is a contract year for Evans. The Kings need to see what has is at this point, and Evans needs to show the Kings.
This makes Marcus Thornton your super 6th man. He comes in when Evans needs a blow or when the team goes small. While Thornton is not a one-trick pony (8th among 2 guards in steals, 11th in rebounds), he is above all other things a scorer. He is exactly what you need off the bench, and my bet is that he will be on the floor at the end of most games, especially if the game is being determined on the offensive side of the floor.
Aaron Brooks will get minutes behind Isaiah Thomas. In Thomas’ biggest month he averaged about 32 minutes per game. That number may not climb much with Brooks on the roster, as his presence will allow both players to go pedal to the metal whenever they are on the floor. Brooks is supposedly a little bit more of a playmaker due to his year in China. We’ll see. But he is certainly an improvement over last year’s "point guard" performances of Fredette, Salmons and Williams.
Yes, I know that Salmons was better once he was moved from starting small forward to backup guard. I once again reference you to my Charlotte Bobcats comparison. John Salmons is on a downward arc. His best years as a basketball player are squarely behind him, and he does not strike me as that veteran player that inspires his teammates. I don’t think that Salmons is a trouble maker, either. He just…is. He probably is your best defensive wing player on the bench, so there is a role for him and an opportunity to make a contribution.
Fredette really needs to have the mindset that his job when he comes into the game is to light it up. And it is the job of the coaching staff to drive this home to Fredette. I really feel that Fredette is the biggest current victim of the franchises’ inability to institute a system over the past several years. Given that Thomas, Brooks, Evans and perhaps even Salmons can better initiate the offense at this point in time, Fredette should be given the marching orders to find a spot on the floor and fire away when he comes into the game. That’s it. That’s his job for this year. Do what you do best, gain some confidence, and then work on expanding your game.
If this all occurs (and wouldn’t that be something!), your starting lineup would be Cousins, Thompson, Johnson, Evans and Thomas. Thornton, Hayes and Brooks would round out your top 8. Robinson would probably log enough minutes to make the rotation look like a 9 man rotation. Salmons and Fredette battle for the 10 spot, with the other landing at #12. Outlaw has the #11 spot. Garcia and Jackson (if he makes the squad) log the least minutes.
A quick word about minutes. While it’s true that there are 96 backcourt minutes a night or 96 frontcourt minutes a night or 48 wing minutes a night, it is also true that injuries are a way of life in the NBA. I have not done exhaustive studies, but I will throw a dart and say that the average NBA roster loses about 15% of its available work force to injury. So when you calculate who is going to get how many minutes, remember to add a little sumpin’-sumpin’ for the injury bug.
33-49. 33 up, 49 down. 33 dance threads, 49 rants threads. This would represent a 22.5% improvement over last year and the sum of the run of non-playoff years. 33-49.
Yes, I know that last year’s team had no camp. The same can be said for all of the other teams. And while that would have less of an impact on the best teams, it would have had a similar impact on the middling and poor teams. And one would have thought that the aggressive schedule might have benefited a young and
deep wide team like the Kings, or that at least they would have been no more adversely affected than any other team. And yes, this will be the first camp that Smart runs as Kings head coach, and it will be the first full camp where the last three years of draft picks (Cousins, Thomas, Robinson, Fredette and Honeycutt) are all together. Of the nine core rotation players that I listed, only Cousins, Thompson and Evans have had a full training camp together. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. So it could certainly be argued that I am underselling this squad.
OK, your turn. How do you see it right now? Do you foresee any other roster changes before the start of the season (I don’t)? And if so, what? It’s easy to do, really. Just spread those cheeks and pull!