Warning - Looooooooooooooooooooong read ahead.
Roughly six months ago, after the conclusion of Vegas Summer League but before the beginning of preseason camp, a voice came to me in my sleep and whispered the number 33-49. Now, this may have been the low/high of my IQ and or my IRA, but I chose to see it as a sign of the Kings 2012-13 season. We're exactly halfway into the season, so I thought this might be a good time to review my "work." Here's the link to my July 25th post for reference.
A few overall observations before delving into the individual players:
- The Kings sit at 16-25. That would make for a 32-50 season. If you factor in home/road records, the final record would be 31-51.
- After going 4-11 in November/December, the Kings posted a 7-8 December, and are 5-6 in January (Warning: four of their final six in January are on the road, and one of the home games is vs. Oklahoma City).
- After dropping their first six road games, the Kings have since been a more reasonable 4-9.
- I had noted in the July post that the veterans (Francisco Garcia, Chuck Hayes, Travis Outlaw and John Salmons) were all huge disappointments last year. Not only did these guys represent almost half of the payroll last year, they were supposed to be the veteran presence for this young roster. As a group they have not disappointed this year, at least not to reasonable expectations.
- I still don't see the back court rotation as being even nearly settled. While injuries and inconsistency have certainly played a role in this, the back court seems to be the place where Keith Smart really likes to get his mad scientist on.
Let's take a look at the players, starting up front.
DeMarcus Cousins Which Cousins do we want to talk about here? November/December DeMarcus Cousins? The DeMarcus Cousins that had been suspended by both the league and the team? The DeMarcus Cousins that is tied with public enemies Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes for the league lead in technical fouls? The DeMarcus Cousins that trails only Dwight Howard in flagrant fouls and is tied for the league lead for ejections with Larry Sanders (Hey now!)? The DeMarcus Cousins that was shooting below 42% from the field coming into January, which was about 5% below the team average?
Or do we want to talk about January DeMarcus Cousins? The DeMarcus Cousins that is shooting over 49% from the field and getting to the line almost 7 times per game, converting at better than 78%? The DeMarcus Cousins that is averaging three more rebounds per game than he did through the first two months of this season? The DeMarcus Cousins that is averaging 3.6 assists per game in January, which would place him only behind Joakim Noah and on a par with David Lee and Marc and Pau Gasol when it comes to big man benevolence? The DeMarcus Cousins that seems to be having (dare I say it) fun at times with the game and his teammates?
Cousins may be the biggest reason that this team got off to such a lousy start. His play early in the season was a huge disappointment, and the inconsistency of him being on the floor / off the floor did the team no favors. And make no mistake; he is the most important element to this team's success right now. DMC2013 possesses a skill set that cannot be replicated. Everything changes when Cousins is not on the floor. He is now playing how we had hoped he would come out of the gate this season. The next mission is to see if he can sustain it, both on and off the court.
And 1 - It is no coincidence that Cousins' game got better as the Kings' perimeter shooters found their range. The improved 3-point shooting of the Kings as the season has progressed has led to better floor spacing, which has resulted in a little less traffic around Cousins.
Jason Thompson Arguably the best player on the Kings throughout this season, though Cousins has certainly closed the gap and will overtake JT if he has not already (ditto Tyreke Evans if he can retain any level of health). Thompson and Hayes are the only Kings to have played in every game this year. JT leads the team in starts, minutes, field goal percentage and blocks(!). He has been a fair to good value to his 2012-13 contract.
I still think that he would be better as a 3rd big, or at the very least a starter on a team that is stacked at three other positions. His minutes are beginning to come down a bit as Thomas Robinson matures and James Johnson picks up occasional stretch-4 minutes (31mpg in November, 29mpg in December, and 27mpg in January). Ideally, I'd like to see him logging 24-26 minutes a game off the bench. But he's still the 2nd best big on this team, by margin, and he should remain in the starting lineup until Robinson can earn his way past him.
Chuck Hayes He's been...Chuck Hayes, Houston edition. He does all those little things. Sets great picks, finds the open man, plays the kind of defense that makes opponents cringe (he and Tyreke Evans are really the only Kings deserving of being credited for playing consistently good defense).
Thomas Robinson He's about two months behind schedule. His play over these past few weeks is what we had hoped to see by early into the season. Robinson still has a ways to go to earn more burn. He finds himself behind the uber-talented and (current) franchise cornerstone Cousins, as well as the dependable if not spectacular Thompson and Hayes. Offensively, he looks a lot like Thompson as a rookie: raw, and too hurried and not used to being surrounded by big(ger) players. Defensively, he's a bull in a china shop. Once he learns defensive rotations a little better, he could be a beast on that end. My main concern: his hands. This may just be a function of him needing to get a little stronger and more aware, but he does drop more than his share of balls, especially in traffic.
We'll touch on Johnson and Outlaw in the wings section. Overall, the bigs are playing to form, though it took Cousins and Robinson two months to get there. And Cousins and Robinson will need to continue to improve (with a quantum leap for Robinson) if this front line is to ever be considered playoff contender material, as Thompson and Hayes are pretty much who they are and who they will continue to be.
Let's head to (guh!) small forward.
James Johnson Color me disappointed. I thought that Johnson would provide at least some consistency at small forward, but it is his inconsistency that has been so infuriating. He is 2nd on the team in blocked shots, and after Hayes and Evans, he is probably the best defender on the team, especially at small forward or against quicker power forwards. But I don't recall him stringing even three good games in a row (he had nice back-to-back games against the Knicks and Celtics). He possesses the lowest points per shot on the team, even lower than Chuck Hayes. He has shown brief glimpses of being formidable, but James Johnson has failed to even but a bandage on the sucking chest wound that is small forward for the Sacramento Kings.
Travis Outlaw Speaking of disappointments. I will give this to Outlaw. He is always ready to play, a consummate pro. Outlaw has played in 15 games this year. Six of those games could be described as anywhere from fair to good, with the other nine games falling in a range of poor to "Fire Smart!" He's the kind of guy that you don't mind having on the end of your bench, earning less than $1m a year, and you only see him when there are injuries or blowouts.
Tyler Honeycutt The kid's a 2nd round pick, and less than two years into his career, so it's hard to put a knock on him. But given this team's need for a solution at small forward, it sure would be nice if he could find his way to the floor for some meaningful minutes here and there.
John Salmons The best of a bad situation. Simply, John Salmons should not be logging serious minutes at small forward. And yes, Salmons has been much better recently (I'm still not sold on him being "good," but he has been better), but a good deal of that came while he was playing the 2-guard in Evans' absence. Salmons has (finally!) become a guy that does not have to have the ball to be plugged into the game, and he is a better option at small forward than anyone else currently on the Kings roster. He is a willing defender...perhaps even a plus defender at the two, but not at small forward. He doesn't really kill you anywhere offensively, and he is a guy that can hit a clutch shot for you. He's still grossly overpaid, and in a perfect world you would only see him on the floor when Evans is resting and you want a little back court size to go next to Fredette or Thomas. But (and this is painful to say), the Kings are probably better right now when John Salmons is on the floor.
Francisco Garcia: Whether you want to call him a small forward or a shooting guard, Garcia will likely close out his career with the Kings this year as a pro's pro. Like Outlaw, he's one of those vets that most good teams would like at the end of their bench at nominal pay. He will make no one's all-time greatest Kings player list, but he could be #3 in games played as a Sacramento King (behind Peja Stojakovic and Mitch Richmond) by the end of the season. Fun fact: Cisco's 3.4/1 assist/turnover ratio is the best on the team, followed by John Salmons and Chuck Hayes.
Small forward: A Sacramento Kings glaring need since 2008.
Time for the guards, AKA Keith Smart pisses off a fan base over and over and over again.
Tyreke Evans OK, if we set aside his health issues, there is a ton to like about Evans this year. He is the most willing and capable defender on the roster, whether he is defending the point or the 2-guard. James Johnson is probably the only better defender than Evans at the three, and even then Evans is probably better against smaller, quicker small forwards. He is 2nd on the team in steals per game (behind Cousins!). He has always been a guy capable of being an in-your-jersey defender, but he has been much more consistent with it this year. He would rank 3rd in the NBA in rebounding at either point guard or 2-guard.
On the offensive end, he is one of three Kings shooting above the team's field goal percentage - the team is at 44%, while Evans is 47% (Aaron Brooks is at 46%, Thompson at 51%). He is 6-1000th of a point behind Jimmer Fredette for the team lead in points per shot. He is behind only Cousins in PER. His 2-point FG% is a respectable 49% (behind Brooks, Thomas, Thompson), and his 3-point percentage of 34% is on a par with Marcus Thornton and ahead of Isaiah Thomas (granted, Thornton and Thomas have been big disappointments from beyond the arc this year). All of this while shooting about five fewer shots per game than his first two years, and about three fewer shots than last year. He's even finishing on occasion with the left hand(!!!).
Evans has accomplished all of this while being asked to play three different positions. That is no small feat. If not for the injuries, the conversation surrounding Evans would be whether his next four year contract should be for $40m, $44m or $48m. Evans has the 2nd half of this season to prove his value. If he sticks to his current mindset of playing within the framework of the team and trying to hang wins on the board, he could be in for a healthy payday.
Isaiah Thomas Isaiah may be a Pizza Guy, but if their pizza is as inconsistent as Thomas has been, I'll pass. Now, if we use the perspective of Thomas being a #60 pick, he is still outperforming his draft slot and contract by your choice of continent. But there are parts of his game that have left me incontinent. His 3-point shooting, which was a huge part of his game last year, has fallen off a cliff. 38% last year, below 33% this year. His assists being down may be a function of the changes in the offense (no one player on this team racks the assists, even on good team assist nights), but his turnovers are about the same as last year, in slightly fewer minutes. That said, Thomas has been playing much better in almost all aspects of his game other than his shooting. He is an eager defender (with limitations), and he is the one guy on the Kings that seems the most intent on getting the ball inside to the bigs. I still see Thomas as more of a sparkplug off the bench than a starting guard, but his basic skill set does work well next to Evans. And he's still a very nice value when you factor in his contract.
Jimmer Fredette While we're on the topic of guys that might have a complementary skill set to Tyreke Evans, let's spend some time on this Fredette kid (I know that most of you have little to no opinion regarding Fredette, but humor me).
Coming out of summer league, Jimmer Fredette looked like a complete disaster (note to self: never trust what you see in summer league). I believe that his play was at least a contributing factor in the Kings signing Aaron Brooks. And Fredette did not look much better in preseason. But he has done some nice things this year. Leads the team in points per shot, 3-point percentage (43%, good for 9th in the league), as well as free throw percentage (I have not looked it up, but I'm guessing that his 91% mark would be the first King since Peja Stojakovic to eclipse the 90% for a season). Fun fact: At 43%, Fredette is shooting better from beyond the arc than inside it (42%).
Fredette is not as bad a defender as his detractors proclaim, but he is right there with Aaron Brooks and Marcus Thornton if you want to have a worst defender conversation. Right now he seems to be a victim of the numbers and Smart's desire to "go with the hot hand." Fredette, Thornton and Brooks are all, to some extent, redundant They all have differences, but their main feature is their ability to score in volume. The perfect world for Fredette would be one with no Thornton or Brooks, enabling him to log consistent time with either Evans or even Salmons next to him in the back court, or even during those "small ball" sets with Evans/Salmons and Thomas.
Bottom line, I'm relieved and encouraged with what I have seen from Jimmer Fredette this year. And I'll bet a quarter that he gets invited to participate in the 3-point shootout on all-star weekend.
Marcus Thornton It will be interesting to see how the 2nd half of this season plays out for Thornton. The 1st half has been a disaster. Injuries and personal issues have derailed his play. He has the same field goal percentage (41%) as James Johnson(!), and his 3-point percentage is below the team average. He ranks 8th on the team in points per shot, but 3rd in shots taken per game. Yuck. And Thornton is not a guy that makes up for poor shooting in other ways, at least not this year. His 2.6 rebounds per game is better than Thomas, Fredette or Brooks, but he is behind all of those guys in assists (on a par with Jason Thompson). This is a guy whose value is determined by his ability to shoot the basketball, and Marcus Thornton has simply not been there so far this year.
Aaron Brooks Frankly, Brooks has exceeded my expectations. He leads the team with an adjusted field goal percentage of 55% (Jason Thompson is next at 51%). He's 2nd on the team in both 2-point and 3-point FG%. And if it were not for the somewhat redundant presence of Thornton, Thomas and Fredette, we'd be lauding Geoff Petrie for such a solid and economical pick up. But the problem is that Brooks is probably best suited to be a sparkplug off the bench, and we already have at least two of those guys at the guard position. It's not Brooks' fault, but he's clock blocking the guys that most of us would rather see play. He's been fair to good at what he does, and he's relatively cheap, but I'm betting that most Kings fans would like to see him moved.
Recapping the guards, while there have been ups and downs for all of these guys, the play throughout the first half of the season has been sporadic and inconsistent. The supposed depth at this position has not yielded that much of a positive result.
Keith Smart I'll try to keep this short. His rotations baffle me, and his rationalizations usually have me shaking my head. That said, I don't know that any non-elite coach really turns out many more wins during this first half, especially if that coach had to deal with early season Cousins and often-injured Evans and Thornton. Smart is an average to slightly below average NBA coach, and his roster is definitely a below average roster. It's hard to argue that this team would be substantially better under any other bargain basement coach, which is the bin where this franchise currently rummages for its coaches. On the other hand, you'd think that we'd have a better feel for what his rotations are at the halfway point in the season, and what it is that he's trying to accomplish with his substitution patterns.
A 17-24 second half will bring home a 33-49 season. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this would basically represent a 20% improvement in win-loss record over last year, and would likely place the Kings in the lottery with roughly the 9th or 10th pick (they are currently 9th). The 2013 1st round draft pick is protected through the top 13 picks. I would anticipate that the rookie selected in 2013 would be less ready to contribute than Fredette or Robinson in their respective rookie years, but that (like most of my commentary) is pure conjecture. I don't see this team doing much at the trade deadline, as it really has few pieces of outstanding value outside of Cousins and Evans. But again, there is a 50% chance that I am 100% wrong here.
One thing's for sure, and that is that the Kings have been a little more fun and interesting to watch over these past few weeks, especially when compared to the first month of the season. My hope for the 2nd half is physical health for Evans, and emotional health for Cousins. Those two things alone would make for a compelling close to this season.