We have reached the halfway point of the season. Forty one of eighty two have been played. Your Sacramento Kings are 15-26. The simple projection would place them at 30-52 at the end of the season. The Kings would also finish 30-52 if you factored in current home and road winning percentages, with seventeen wins at home and thirteen on the road. However, the Kings are 9-12 since Rudy Gay put on a Kings uniform and Isaiah Thomas became the starting point guard (5-3 home, 4-9 road). Plug that in and you would have a team that would go 12-7 at home and 7-15 road the rest of the way, for a finishing record of 34-48. 34-48 would likely mean the 11th slot in the 2014 draft (30-52 would probably mean 9th or 10th).
How you view the first half really comes down to your expectations coming into the season. The team is at least incrementally better after wholesale changes to the front office, coaching staff and roster. The team's point differential is improved over last year, currently at a -2.4 compared to -4.9 for last season. The rank 19th in point differential this season after finishing last season 27th. On the other hand, the record has not really improved. Some of us are just happy that there is basketball in Sacramento this year, others see some positives and some areas that need improvement, and others want to see this team compete for a playoff spot before they are even somewhat satisfied. These are all viable and respectable viewpoints.
I fall into the "some positives and some areas that need improvement" category, even though I have loved watching the team throughout the season. This team has been more fun to watch than any Kings team since 2007-08, and if they keep up their recent play you can dial that back to 2005-06. That said, this team still has a long way to go. The Kings have seen great production at the center and point guard position (albeit on only one side of the ball), and small forward went from being a sucking chest wound to an area of strength. Power forward and shooting guard have both been big problems this year, and the bench took a turn for the worse when Thomas moved into the starting lineup. Let's look at some of the shakers and movers.
DeMarcus Cousins - First and foremost, I could not be happier with 2013-14 DeMarcus Cousins. He has far exceeded my expectations for the first half of this year
I was in the camp that would not have extended Cousins before the season started. While I understood and respected the rationale of the front office, I was simply not convinced that Cousins was worth the long-term investment for a team that was in a position to prize roster and payroll flexibility. I also mentioned that if Cousins would just string ninety days of elite-level play, I would buy in. Well, it's been eighty six days, but I'll pull the trigger four days early and buy in now. In fact, the argument could eventually become whether or not the Kings should have locked Cuz up for the fifth year. I did not consider Cousins to be a top fifty player before the season began. He may be a top twenty five player right now.
Here are the guys that are averaging a double-double this year while scoring at least 20 points per game: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins. That is some pretty rare air right there. This list also does a good job of (a) fortifying the opinion that Cousins deserves to be an all star, and (b) showing why he might not get the call this year - the West is stacked with all star-caliber bigs.
The fact that Cousins is even in the all star conversation - and that it is a serious conversation - speaks volumes to his accomplishments and growth as a player this year. Cousins has improved his true shooting from 50% two years ago and 52% last year to 55%. His effective field goal percentage has climbed from 45% to 47% to 49% during that same period. His rebounding percentage is at an all time high, in spite of the fact that he is not fetching as many of his own missed shots. Assist percentage is up, and turnover percentage is down. Block and steals percentage are their highest ever.
Of course, there are still areas to address. The Kings still stink up the joint on defense. And while this is not solely the fault of DeMarcus Cousins, he must shoulder his portion of the blame. And his portion, as a big man that gets more minutes than any other big man on this team, is ample. This isn't about what his man is or is not scoring. This is about what the opposing team is scoring, and what Cousins, as the centerpiece of the franchise, is going to do about it. This is not solely a Cuz issue. It is a team issue that can only be cured with desire and selflessness and communication and...for loss of a better word...brotherhood. The Kings need to become a band of brothers on defense, and that is either going to start with Cousins or it is not going to start at all. Is it fair to shoulder Cousins with this responsibility? Absolutely. He is the cornerstone of the franchise. It has to come from Coach Malone, through Cousins, to the rest of the team.
A lesser concern (though still a concern) is that Cousins is fouling slightly more than last year, and he was fouling too much last year...and the year before...and the year before. His career average is 3.9, 4.7 if you adjust per 36 minutes. We have all seen Cousins having to come out of games that he is dominating due to foul trouble. When you're as good as Cousins you have to figure out a way to stay on the floor.
The technical fouls are also ridiculous, though something that ranks somewhere between annoyance and nuisance right now. He is picking up technical fouls at a more rapid rate than ever before, and he is on a pace to pick up his suspension (16th) technical by the end of February (provided that he does not miss a lot of games due to his injured ankle). If you count up the technical fouls and multiply by a free throw conversion rate of 80%, Cousins costs his team about .25 points per game over the course of a season. For a team mired in the lottery this is probably not a big deal. But there will come a time where every point given up will be precious, and eventually Cousins will get t'd up at a time where it will cost his team dearly. He really needs to figure out a way to curb these antics. And I will agree with anyone that says that Cousins has picked up a few technical fouls that he perhaps did not deserve. But a great way to avoid those is to not pick up the onslaught of technical fouls that you do deserve.
If I were handing out grades, Cousins would get a "B+" from me (no one gets an "A" while this team plays defense as it does right now).
Isaiah Thomas - Here is another guy that has really exceeded every reasonable expectation. At the beginning of the season, we viewed Vasquez and Thomas as being different but comparably ranked point guards. Vasquez was the facilitator, while Thomas was the scorer. Neither were adequate defenders, and they both probably ranked out somewhere between 18-23 in the pantheon of NBA point guards.
Whether injuries played a role, Vasquez never got completely comfortable here, though one could argue that he was playing like a point guard that would be ranked somewhere around 23 on that point guard list. Thomas, meanwhile, became an elite 6th man. Early in the season he was really the best player on the Kings, until Cousins caught fire. In spite of his play being far superior to Vasquez, I stumped for Thomas to remain a 6th man, feeling that he was elite in that position but would be average at best as a starter.
Well, I'm here to tell you that Isaiah Thomas has been anything but average as a starter. Thomas has added 10 minutes per game as a starter. He is taking three more shots per game (two from deep), and has seen no real drop in his percentages (46% to 45% from two, pinned at 40% from three). He's picking up 2.5 more assists per game off of only 0.3 more turnovers.
Thomas' starting numbers would give him the following ranks among NBA starting point guards: 20.9ppg (4th), 7.4apg (t-8th), 2.6 ast/to ratio (13th), 1.4 steals (12th), 3.2 rebounds (t-13th). His assist percentage is up to 32.8% (his career best had been 25.6%), which is on a par with guys like Mike Conley and Tony Parker.
Simply, Thomas is one of the three best things about the Kings offense, and the Kings offense is in the top half of the NBA for performance. The Kings rank out of the top half in three-point conversion, but they would be near the bottom of the league if you backed out Thomas's shooting. From an offensive standpoint he would be very difficult to replace. In that regard, Thomas is an upper level point guard. And the thought that the Kings need a "pass-first" point guard seems to be becoming ice-age thinking. The top five point guards in assists per game right now (Paul, Curry, Lawson, Wall and Jennings) average almost 20ppg to go with their 9apg. Today's best point guards pass and score or score and pass. While Thomas' shooting is probably ahead of his passing from a developmental standpoint, his growth as a ball handler and facilitator since becoming a starter under Malone is evident. There will always be nits to pick at when you are discussing the guy that handles the ball the most, but Isaiah Thomas on offense has been a huge, huge plus for the Kings this year.
Ah, the defensive end of the ball. A disaster. And again, this isn't about what the opposing point guard is just scoring. This is about what the opposing point guard is doing when it comes to breaking down the defense as well as scoring, not to mention Thomas' role in transition defense (this is not 100% his fault, as often times it is the failure of others to rotate when he drives to the rim). And the fact that Thomas is no worse than other options on the team is no excuse. Sometimes bad is bad.
I remember when Tony Parker came into the league, he was known as a poor defender. As the years went by he graduated to capable. A lot of this had to do with Parker doing his part in San Antonio's system, which was to funnel his guy towards the middle of the court and away from the baseline. This enabled the defense to help Parker if his man got by him. I see none of this with Thomas or the Kings. Again, this seems like more of a team thing than an individual player thing. I don't see Thomas' defensive shortcomings being a function of his 5-9 frame, as it is not as though (a) guys are posting him up or (b) the majority of other NBA point guards contest a lot of jump shots. Again, band of brothers. But after Cousins, Thomas has to be the most responsible for improvements on the defensive end of the ball. His ability/inability to become better defensively will be the difference between him being a good offensive player and a very, very, very good NBA point guard.
Rudy Gay - It's been a short run, but Gay has been the missing link for the Kings. He has completed the "big three" offensively, and he has reminded the fan base what a big shot taker/maker that can create on his own looks like. And yes, he can play small forward. The question as it pertains to Gay will come this off season, when we will find out whether he will opt in or opt out or opt out and re-sign or relocate to the Himalayas where he will become the Gali Lama. But for now? Averaging over 20ppg on 61% true shooting since becoming a King? Only Durant, James, Anthony and George have been better at the small forward position since Gay began rocking the purple.
Gay gets a little less heat than the others for the defensive end, given that he has not been here as long. But he too needs to be a key component in improving the defense.
Jason Thompson - January Jason is what we were hoping for since the beginning of the season. 9ppg on 58% shooting, 8 boards, and occasions of stout defensive effort. He is still not the best fit next to Cousins, but he has at least been a contributor and a positive lately.
This is JT's sixth season with the Kings. Here's a look at his primary front court partners during that span: Spencer Hawes & Brad Miller (08-09), Hawes, Omri Casspi / Donté Greene / Andres Nocioni (09-10...it was a weird year), Cousins & Samuel Dalembert (10-11), Cousins & Chuck Hayes (11-12 & 12-13). So early in his career he was paired with bigs that played more around the perimeter offensively, and later he was paired with guys that hung out closer to the basket. Dalembert was really the only rim protector in the group, and Hayes was the only one of the bunch that hung his hat on man defense.
While one can see why Thompson might become frustrated, such is the life of the lunchbox NBA big. As a guy that will never be built around, it is incumbent on Thompson to mold his game around the "franchise" guys (see Battier, Shane). Ultimately, Thompson just may not be a great fit for this ever-changing roster. That's not necessarily Thompson's fault. But it is difficult to map out a future for JT in Sacramento that would see him both successful and bringing the interior defense that the Kings so desperately need to the table.
Marcus Thornton - Whatever the reason(s), Thornton has perhaps been the biggest disappointment this year. He has just not figured out a way to consistently contribute, whether it's off the bench or especially as a starter. 31% shooting as a starter (24% from three), and 40% shooting off the bench (33% from three).
Thornton's struggles could probably be attributed to his changing role, but one would hope that any pro could make some of those adjustments, and a pro in the midst of a $31m contract could make even more of those adjustments.
Ben McLemore - Wow, is he having a rough go of it lately. Had his November been his January and his January been his November we'd all be encouraged right now. But he seems to be heading southbound on a northbound train lately. Is it fatigue? Changing role? Odd man out? Here's hoping that McLemore can pull out of his current tailspin and finish the season in a way that helps him build on next season.
Derrick Williams - Williams has been a pleasant surprise since coming over from Minnesota. I didn't mind the acquisition of Williams, though I thought that the Kings bought a little high...I thought fair value would have been Thornton or at the very least, Salmons. But Williams has been a good value-to-trade asset so far.
Here's the challenge with Williams, who has played 28 games as a King: consistency. He has scored 30+ once, 20+ once, 10+ twelve times and -10 fourteen times. He has grabbed 5+ boards thirteen times and -5 boards fifteen times. And this is not really due to his role as a starter or bench piece or his minutes, as the inconsistent play permeates throughout. Much of this inconsistency could be dismissed to new team, new role, and changing personnel. But the Kings need Williams to become more consistent as a member of a bench group that is short on overall productivity.
Jimmer Fredette - Jimmer Fredette is currently 12th on the team in minutes played this season, behind Thomas, Cousins, Thompson, McLemore, Thornton, Williams, Gay, Vasquez, Travis Outlaw, John Salmons, and Patrick Patterson. All while being fairly productive offensively, and really being not considerably worse defensively than anyone else on this defense-optional ballclub. I think that Thornton's 828 minutes to Fredette's 328 minutes bothers me more than anything else that has come out of Coach Malone's rotations. Fredette has no more than a half season left in a Kings uniform. I am really rooting for him to find a team that will be able to utilize his shooting skills, most likely in a bench capacity, hopefully with at least consistent minutes.
The Rest - Travis Outlaw is Travis Outlaw, Quincy Acy is a very nice bench piece at under $1m for next year, Aaron Gray knows how to set a pick and is tall so he will probably have a job somewhere in the NBA next year, I look forward to seeing more of Carl Landry and in the second half of the season, and I wouldn't mind seeing a little more of Ray McCallum if/when he's ready.
Coaching - Overall, I'm very pleased with the efforts of first-year Coach Michael Malone and staff. Not close to perfection, but heading in the right direction, in my opinion. I don't really sweat the rotations (my comment regarding Fredette/Thornton notwithstanding). The defense is actually (amazingly) slightly better than last year, though there was really no place to go but up. Given the short time-span and the massive turnover in player personnel, I'm OK with where this team is right now. At some point, however, we will need to see massive growth on the defensive end of the court.
Front Office - I think that the Rudy Gay trade was the only deal that I flat-out liked when it was made, but Pete D'Alessandro and company have certainly executed a lot of changes in a very short period of time. The one thing that I have not been able to reconcile is the desire of the coach to improve the defense while the front office has shipped out its best defensive players (Tyreke Evans, Robin Lopez, Mbah a Moute). I think this is a short-term function of asset building and focusing more on talent acquisition and value than performance. It's like watching the very beginning of a puzzle being put together, and I don't know that we even have the edges assembled. And I don't know whether we are seeing the foundation of the next great Kings team taking place or if we are seeing changes that won't come to fruition, but every Kings fan has to be thrilled that we are at least seeing activity and an attempt to improve the team.
Ownership - Hail Vivek and the entire ownership group...even Shaq.