As I've written previews for the various teams throughout the league, I noticed a recurring trend amongst the bad teams. Bad teams tend to have a lot of interesting pieces, but it's tough to tell how those pieces will work together. I've criticized teams that lacked a clear vision. This may seem hypocritical, since this is the criticism most often lobbed at the Sacramento Kings. After all, the Kings are a team full of guys who tend to shoot a lot. But I think that overlooks the nuances of the team. And, in fairness, there's a good chance I've missed some nuances with other teams.
But the Kings may be flawed. The criticisms might be correct. We could easily be in for another season of frustrating games, juggled rotations, and stalled growth. Tyreke Evans is an unknown right now. At his worst he's still pretty good, but knowing that he's capable of more makes him incredibly frustrating. We're hearing, yet again, that Tyreke has worked to fix his jumper. Based on the preseason, the results seem mixed. It's too early to judge, honestly. No matter how much a player practices, it still takes time for those new motions to become instinct in game situations. If Tyreke fixes his jumper he could be amazing, but we've been saying the same thing for a couple seasons now.
With Evans, there's also the question of his future. Will the organization give him an extension? Will the team let him test restricted free agency? Will he be traded? There are so many questions. Personally, I don't think he'll be traded. Then again, last week I didn't expect James Harden to be traded. Tyreke remains the wild card for this season. A trade, and what he could bring in return, dramatically changes this season. His growth would dramatically change this season. Stagnation or regression harm this season considerably.
That isn't to say that Tyreke is the only question mark. We assume DeMarcus Cousins will continue to grow and improve. He's entering the season in the best shape of his career. The Team USA experience, painful as it must have been, appears to have been a great motivator. We hope Cousins can improve his shooting percentage, we hope he can improve his foul rate, we hope, we hope, we hope. But we don't know. There's no guarantee. Cousins has shown himself to be mercurial. Coach Smart seems to have built a good relationship with Cousins, and I don't expect it to suddenly sour. But how will Cousins react if the season starts off poorly? Cousins, and many other members of this team, are tired of losing. If improvement doesn't come, I worry about how those frustrations will boil over.
Another question looming over the season are the positional battles. As I write this, with opening tip less than 12 hours away, Coach Smart has yet to announce the starting line-up. The team knows, but we don't. This is an odd choice, more weird than bad. But where will Tyreke play? Who will be the small forward? Will Marcus Thornton or Tyreke transition to the role of super sixth man? How long can Jason Thompson hold off Thomas Robinson for the starting power forward position? Does JT help more as the third big? Will Isaiah Thomas hold the starting point guard position all season? Will Aaron Brooks challenge and usurp him? Is James Johnson the answer at small forward? There are so many questions. So many unknowns. And even once we get answers to these questions, they'll remain. Smart has shown an affinity for juggling line-ups and trying different combinations. And honestly he should. Until this team clicks and improves, there's no reason he shouldn't be trying new things. That experimentation is what gave us Isaiah Thomas, starting point guard. But it also gave us Tyreke Evans, small forward. It'll be good and bad until the team's ideal line-up is figured out.
More than anything, that's what I'd love to see out of this season. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see this team challenge for a playoff spot, but I don't think that's a realistic goal yet. I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility, but it would mean a lot of things clicking into place early. I just want things to click at some point. I want to watch this team and feel like the Kings know what they're doing. So often it has seemed that we're a piece short, or that someone is lost on offense, or that there isn't an offense. I'm tired of that. I really, really want to see the team's ideal rotation figured out. I want to see a clear system in place. I'd love to see Smart figure out a line-up that says "You know, this is it. This is the ideal rotation. These are the roles for everyone." Because that's what this team has lacked for years now. Players are constantly juggled, nobody knows what role they'll play or be asked to play. I have an idea of what that rotation looks like, and that's nice in itself. For the first time in a while an ideal rotation seems imaginable. But even if it doesn't look the way I imagine it will, I just want that rotation figured out. That more than anything will set up our players for real growth.
I like what this team has done. Sure, the Kings haven't made the marquee free agent signing. But as we've commented regularly in the preseason, this team is as deep as it's been in years. I'm excited about it. I love that Chuck Hayes is healthy and in shape and can remind us why we were so excited about his signing last year. I love that the team acquired James Johnson for such a low cost, and the idea that he could provide a legitimate defensive presence on the wing. I love that Thomas Robinson fell to us in the draft, and I love how hard he plays and how he prides himself on hustle and defense and toughness. I love it.
But those initial fears still remain. Mostly because I've felt this excitement before. I love this team, and I so desperately want it to succeed. And I'm afraid that means overlooking obvious issues. But I want to believe in this team. We have a roster of likeable guys. Even DeMarcus, who whines to refs too much and is an a-hole to opposing players. He's likeable to us, just like Kevin Garnett is likeable to Celtics fans. So I like this team. And that's why predicting them is so difficult.
Nonetheless, I am predicting a 34-win season. I expect significant improvement. I am hoping for this. Looking back at my past season previews, I'm always overly optimistic about the Kings record. But I don't care. I still want to believe in this team's ability to shock people. For once, I want my prediction to be too low.