Playoffs. That's a word that hasn't seriously been thrown around Sacramento in a long time, and yet that was the goal coming into this season. The Kings went out and spent more money in free agency than they ever have before, bringing in a bevy of free agents that were supposed to carry the Kings from the bottom of the Western Conference cellar to chase that elusive playoff spot.
Right now, the Kings are 4-9 and the playoffs once again look like a laughable aspiration. Still, it's early enough that the Kings definitely still have a chance if they can figure things out. They're currently just a few games out of the final spot, but the competition is tough. Almost every team in the West aside from the Lakers and injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans appears to have a shot.
The Kings have a few things going for them.
1. DeMarcus Cousins is a legitimate game-changer as a player, and the Kings have already played five games without him, all losses. With Cousins, the Kings are a very respectable 4-3, and they have a positive net rating with him on the floor. That's why decisions like elbowing Horford and getting suspended are so baffling. This team needs him, and he can't be taking himself out of games because of his own frustration.
2. The depth is real. The Kings' bench has been one of the highest scoring in the NBA so far, with guys like Darren Collison, Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi providing big boosts.
3. Ben McLemore seems to be coming around. After a rough start to the season, Ben McLemore is playing much better ever since his initial benching by George Karl. McLemore is now up to 44.3% shooting from the field and 50% shooting from three. He probably deserves to be playing more but we've seen McLemore have nice stretches before. We've also seen him become a disappearing act, and hopefully that doesn't happen again and we finally get some consistency.
4. The Kings are pretty good at the long ball. While they're just 15th in total attempts, the Kings are currently shooting the second highest percentage from three. If anything, the Kings should start shooting the three ball more, which will probably result in a lower percentage but a better effective Field Goal percentage if they cut out some of the long twos.
5. Rajon Rondo is looking like the Rondo of old (at least on offense). Rondo is racking up the assists in a way we've never seen a Sacramento King do before. He's also showcasing some of that old flash in takes to the rim and his jump shot has shown some improvement. Best of all, he's been a complete professional despite some of the tough times the Kings have had early this season, particularly during the 1-7 stretch to start the year.
On the other side of the coin, there are several major issues the Kings need to correct if they want to string some wins together and get back to .500 or above.
1. Turnovers are absolutely killing the Kings. They're 29th in turnover rate, and I'm honestly surprised they're not dead last but thank the 0-12 76ers. The Kings are not a good enough team to be giving so many extra opportunities to opposing teams, most of which end up in fastbreak points. Many of Sacramento's errors are unforced as they try to throw passes in traffic or get too fancy. In Rondo's case, sometimes guys simply aren't ready or he's passing to where he thinks somebody is going to be and then nobody shows up.
2. Lineup inconsistency. This one's partly due to injury but also partly due to some questionable decisions by head coach George Karl. The Kings have had 10 different starting lineups already in just 14 games. To make matters worse, we have such inconsistencies as Karl saying that he likes what Willie Cauley-Stein is doing and that he should be playing more and then moving him to the bench in favor of little-used rotation player Quincy Acy despite the Kings coming off a three-game win streak with Willie in the starting lineup. These players need some semblance of stability and constant tinkering isn't going to help.
3. Defense. The Kings have stretches where they look like a legitimately good defensive team. The end of the game against Toronto for example, the Kings tightened up in crunch time and didn't allow the Raptors to score for the final few minutes. They also, despite what your eyes might say, are doing a decent job of defending the three-point line. They're allowing the third-least makes from three in the NBA and that's even better considering they play at the league's second highest pace. It does seem that some Kings lineups are better at Karl's switching system than others though, and that leads to times when the Kings give up a lot of points in a short stretch. This is also a result of the team's turnovers, as the Kings are one of the worst in the league in opponent's points off turnovers and fastbreak points.
4. Free Throw shooting. Sacramento's giving up free points at the line this year. They're currently shooting just 69.8% from the stripe, one of the worst percentages in the league. Part of that is the fact that the Kings added several rotation players that are bad free throw shooters this summer, particularly Rajon Rondo. Omri Casspi is also seeing a backslide in his percentages, as he's at just 52% this year, down from 73.3% last year and well below his 67.8% career average.
In any other crappy Kings year, we might have called yesterday's loss to Miami a moral victory. The Kings were without their best player, hung tough with a good team and had a chance to win at the end. But this Kings team can't afford moral victories. This is a team that needs to be at least in the conversation for the playoffs past the All-Star break to justify the moves they made this summer. It's still early, but just like the Kings can't afford to constantly be playing catchup in games, they can't afford to do so in the standings, especially in the West. The final three games on this road trip are huge for this team, with Sacramento probably needing to win two of three. Coming back home with just one win or even none would be a disaster. It's time to see what this team is made of and if they can battle through the adversity.