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Your Sacramento Kings: The mid-season autopsy

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I’ve got the scalpel. Suture self.

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
“We need slogan.” “How about ‘Nice arena, though’?”
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Back at the beginning of the season, I earmarked yesterday’s Clippers game as the official halfway point of the season. 41 played, 41 to go. It’s probably a pretty good bet that what we have seen up to this point is what we will see for the rest of the season, roster-altering trades notwithstanding. Let’s check the fluids and gauge levels and see how this rig is holding up.

The team, by the numbers: Your Sacramento Kings are sporting a record of 13-28. This is a bit better than the 11.5-29.5 record that I would have projected for them to this point (23-59 or bust!). But oy vey, that point differential (a whopping and league-worst -8.6) and those offensive and defensive rankings (if you want to research it, start at the bottom of the respective lists and…well, that’s about it). All in all, this team has played better at times than one might have guessed, but when they have been bad, they have been really, really bad. Eighteen losses of 10 points or more, eight of those by more than 20 points, including the 46 point embarrassment at Atlanta.

The team, by the eyeballs: It is amazing to see a roster with ten players 25 years of age or younger play at such a slow pace. I think that some of this is the Zach Randolph effect, but that a large part of it is Dave Joerger (despite his lip service) implementing a slower rhythm for this team. This team is just so inefficient offensively (30th in points per shot, 28th in adjusted field goal percentage) and incapable defensively (29th in points per shot, 30th in defensive field goal percentage, 28th in rebounding and rebounding differential), that I could easily understand why Joerger would prefer as few offensive and defensive possessions per game as possible. Were it not for the shot clock, he’d probably be tempted to break out the old four corners. As a team, this team provides long periods of eye-bleeding ineptitude, broken up by small, glorious moments of NBA-level basketball. It is definitely a team that is better watched for the individual, rather than the team performance.

The players, in order of minutes played:

  • Garrett Temple (998) – OK, I get the minutes. His top eight lineup combinations have him at small forward, there aren’t better options at that position, and he tries on defense. But his game has reached that tipping point of what happens when you ask a complementary player to take on more of a primary role. To be fair, Temple is 10th in shot frequency, so it’s not as though he’s chucking. And he’s 7th overall in total shots, which is not egregious. But he’s on a pace – at age 31 – to play more minutes than he ever has in any season, anywhere. Temple can help any team as a core bench piece. But if he is leading your team in minutes…
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic (995) – Amazing to see Bogs at second on the minutes list (and climbing!), given that he was inactive for the first three games of the season and did not crack the 30 minute mark in a game until 12/1, the Kings’ 22nd game of the season. He has had some ups and downs that seem appropriate for a rookie and a little more weird for a 25 year old on a 3/$27m contract, but if you’re talking about the best of the youngsters for the Kings during the first half of the season, it comes down to Bogs and Hield. Bogdan would probably be a 2nd team rookie at present (tough field with the likes of Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, John Collins, Lauri Markkanen and Kyle Kuzma), but if he keeps playing as he has over his last ten games (14 ppg on 9.3 shots per game, 4.1 assists per game), he could possibly crack the first team. The best thing about watching Bogdanovic over the past few weeks? He seems to be gaining a better and better feel for the NBA game. He might – just might – wind up becoming the best thing to come out of the 2017-18 season.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein (990) – WCS is on a pace to increase his minutes over last year by roughly 40%, and I would say that he has earned it. But what’s up with that rebounding? After posting back-to-back double doubles to open the season, WCS has grabbed 10 rebounds in two games and 11 in another, and…that’s it. The block rate is nothing to write home about, either. Where he has improved is on the offensive end, which is nice, but in the long run if WCS does not become a bigger force on the defensive end, his offense, even with the improvement, does not offset the lack of rebounding and rim protection. Fun to watch the highlight dunks, but he has one more year after this to show that he is worth the baseline-to-baseline investment.
  • Zach Randolph (943) – OK, there have been times that I have actually enjoyed watching Randolph ply his craft this year. And it’s not his fault that he is here, and it’s not his fault that Joerger has opted to give him a steady diet of minutes over giving Skal Labissiere more minutes or Georgios Papagiannis any minutes. And Randolph is really the best player that this roster has had over the first half of the season. His usage has been reasonable (27.5), he has a nice assist rate for a big man, and he rebounds reasonably well for his position. His shooting has been more efficient than what I would have guessed it would be. But I still can’t figure out why he is playing so many minutes for this team at this time. And it could at least be argued that if Zach Randolph was not on this roster, the Kings would have little choice but to open it up and free-wheel it a little more. Yes, the play would likely be even more ragged (hard to believe that this would even be possible), but it would also be like extra class credit time for the kids. As I stated, I don’t mind watching Zach Randolph play – I just don’t get it. Even with him here, I would have preferred that at least 150 of his minutes so far this year wind up with Skal or PapaG.
  • Buddy Hield (931) – 45% from beyond the arc. Forty…Five…Percent. Wowsers. Hield is currently second on the team in scoring (behind only Randolph), and he does this with very reasonable usage (24.0%). Not a bad rebounder for his position. Hield is also a youngster that at least gives you a vision of what he could become, perhaps a sniper off the bench that would be on the short list of top 6th men, and the kind of guy that would be on the floor at the finish of games, especially when you need some offense. It’s been awhile since we have watched a guy tee it up from three with expectations of a positive outcome, but Hield gives me that. And when he gets on one of his mini-streaks, well, it makes the game worth watching.
  • George Hill (928) – A lot has already been written about Hill, so I won’t belabor it here. But it is fair to say that no player on the Kings’ roster has been more disappointing than Hill, and that is a roster that includes Skal Labissiere. Here’s hoping that Hill finds himself in the second half.
  • De’Aaron Fox (889) – Five of the first six picks in this year’s draft do not earn first (or perhaps even second) team rookie honors right now: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac and Fox. So, small sample size and all of that. Fox has given us glimpses, and he has been a bit better since coming back from his quad injury (13.8ppg, 6apg). But the turnovers have been too high and the shooting percentage a bit too low. Consistency, control, and making his teammates better will be the keys to his second half…as well as a key as to how the Kings approach the 2018 off-season and draft. He’s probably right there for me with Bogdanovic and Hield when it comes to my favorite Kings to watch, but he also carries the most volatility.
  • Kosta Koufos (738) – You want a candidate for the guy that has best delivered to his ability night-in and night-out? Here’s your man. Best rebounding rate on the team, and the only regular that would crack double-digit rebounds over a 36 minute period (11.7). Best FG% of any of the regulars (granted, he only takes 4.7 shots per game). Just a pro’s pro. Kosta Koufos, pro’s pro. Thanks, Kosta!
  • Skal Labissiere (606) – And he’d probably be below Frank Mason in minutes right now had Mason not gotten hurt. So disappointing. Understanding that this is the big time, and the successful player find a way through, there sure has appeared to be a disconnect between Joerger, Labissiere, and the end result throughout the first half of the season. Change of scenery needed? Lack of BBIQ, Youth in need of a little more maturity? Square peg meets round hole? Whatever the reason(s), Skal came into this season as one of the great hopes of the fan base, and if it were not for George Hill, he would be the runaway winner for most disappointing player of the first half.
  • Frank Mason (539) – I saw a little more of Frank in the first half than I would have guessed, and I liked what I saw. The 40%+ from beyond the arc was nice, but the percentage at the rim was horrific, leading to an effective FG% (.430) that only Malachi Richardson could envy. Sadly, Mason will miss at least the next 1-2 months with a partial tear to his right plantar fascia tendon (Youngman!).
  • Justin Jackson (467) – I was hoping to have seen a little more of Jackson by now, and for this team, I’m not sure that I see the harm in giving him a few of Temple’s minutes. Jackson will especially have to improve on his deep shooting if he is to carve out a core rotation role for himself in today’s NBA.
  • Vince Carter (387) – Sure, that seems about right, and what we saw seemed about right: a 41 year old version of Vince Carter.
  • Malachi Richardson (282) – Props to Richardson for having a couple of decent defensive runs in his limited minutes, but I still think that he is a dribble-drive player in a non-dribble drive offense. His shooting has been Douby-esque, and if the Kings could move him for anything, it would probably slightly increase his chances for NBA success.
  • JaKarr Sampson (102) – The poor man’s Quincy Acy. That said, he was fun to watch in his limited minutes.
  • Georgios Papagiannis (70) – OK, I didn’t figure that PapaG would be ready for core rotation minutes this season, but I though that he’d at least pick up a couple of hundred garbage minutes by now…and this team generates garbage minutes like no other team in the NBA! If Papagiannis doesn’t find the floor a lot more in the second half, the Kings will be left with two more years of a reasonable rookie deal to figure out what they have in him.
  • Jack Cooley (2) – The poor man’s Jon Brockman.

As for the front office and coaching staff?

I sure liked the George Hill signing when it happened, bringing in a guy with an impeccable NBA resumé that held the promise of making all of his teammates better, on both ends of the floor. What the hell happened? I mean, how can you shell out that kind of coin only to have the player be an absolutely miserable fit for what you’re trying to accomplish on the floor? Did no one communicate what Joerger intended to run on both ends of the floor? Did no one look at Hill’s game and determine that, at the very least, adjustments (by the coaching staff and/or Hill) might need to be made? Are there other organizations that mishandle their single biggest free agent signing in such a manner? How does a consummate pro and viable player such as George Hill fall so far, so fast? And can it be righted?

I still don’t understand two years of Zach Randolph at $24m plus a $2m buyout of Anthony Tolliver when you could have simply retained Tolliver for $8m. It seems like a no-brainer for this roster at this time.

Vince Carter? Sure, why not? Then again, why?

Through the lens of 41 games, it appears that the Kings could have done better in the draft at #5 and #10, but it is way, way too early to call that one. Bogdanovic is, right now, the only chance of the Kings turning the prior year’s #8 pick into something positive, but again, there is still time for Labissiere and Papagiannis (tick-tick-tick). Cauley-Stein is looking like someone that will be in the range of a fair value pick, give or take.

Overall, I don’t have a huge issue with Joerger’s allocation of minutes, with Labissiere being the lone question/disappointment. I would like to see more of Jackson in the second half, and I sure hope that we see a lot of Randolph’s minutes down the stretch of this season bequeathed to Skal and PapaG. I hold out no hope that we are going to see this team push any tempo this season – I just don’t know how they would incorporate it at this point. But if the future of this team is Fox, Bogs and Hield, it sure would seem to make sense to begin working in the direction of a faster pace next season.

Last, but certainly not least, the fan experience: I have to think that every Kings fan can find levels of disappointment in this season. The record, the lack of consistent play, the presence of veterans that do not seem to serve the future and the impact that their presence has on the playing time of the young bucks, the roster that does not presently make a lot of sense, the head coach that exudes snarkiness instead of the youthful energy that one would hope would accompany this team. I get it, respect the takes, and agree with a lot of it.

But I will add this: I have gone to two losses this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself each time. I’m taking the family to a game in a few weeks, and will probably catch another game or two before the season is over. What a place to see a game (or a concert). Great venue, tremendous staff, getting in and out has been a breeze. As a native Sacramentan, it thrills me to attend events at Golden 1 Center.

I have missed perhaps 2-3 games on TV. From a purely personal standpoint, I can’t tell you how enjoyable it is not to see DeMarcus Cousins and Matt Barnes suiting up for the Kings this year (side conversation: Can someone explain to me why the Kings decided to stretch Barnes’ $6.4m contract over this and the next two seasons instead of just eating the whole thing this year? /Grumble). I like Bogdan Bogdanovic. I like De’Aaron Fox. I like Buddy Hield. I like Kosta Koufos. I like all of these guys. I like that the roster has a total of 5 technical fouls (led by Randolph with 2) while Cousins has nine. I don’t know that any of this translates into hope as it pertains to the future, but I am enjoying this season overall for what it is, and if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll see a couple of these guys develop into playoff performers right here in Sacramento (but buy the greenest bananas that you can find – this may take a while).