Player: Kent Bazemore
Relevant stats: In 21 games for the Sacramento Kings, all off the bench, Bazemore averaged 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in 23.5 minutes per game. He shot 44.6% on 5.3 2-pointers and 38.6% on 2.7 3-pointers per game.
Contract status: Bazemore signed a four-year, $70 million deal during the halcyon summer of 2016. He will be a free agent this offseason, whenever that happens.
Recap: Kent Bazemore prides himself on the defensive end of the floor. He calls it his calling card for his basketball career, and when he got the Kings in January, he said it was important for him to get back to his roots on that end of the floor. As such, it makes sense to start an evaluation of Bazemore based on what he brings defensively.
On the surface, Bazemore brings a ton of energy on the defense. You can see him directing his younger teammates to their spots, being vocal on that end, and absolutely flying around at all times. A lot of Bazemore highlights from early in his career tend to feature chase-down blocks, and he’s historically been in the 90th percentile in block rate among wings, per Cleaning the Glass.
He also perennially has a high steal rate, though because of taking those risks, he is exceedingly foul-prone on defense. For instance, opponents turned the ball over on 16.7% of possessions when Bazemore was on the floor for the Kings, a rate only better than the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they earned free throws on 25.5% of field-goal attempts, which would have been the best rate in the league.
Sacramento had a 108.7 defensive rating when Bazemore played, ranking in the 69th percentile, and the Kings were 7.6 points per 100 possessions better with Bazemore. However, it can be hard to separate Bazemore’s defensive success and that of Alex Len. Len had the best defensive rating on Sacramento by a mile (though the sample size was quite small), and in the 235 possessions Len and Bazemore played together, the team had a defensive rating of 97.4. That’s like having Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor. When Bazemore played without Len, that defensive rating shot up to 110.1, essentially league average.
Without Len, Bazemore plays with Harry Giles at the five or small-ball units with Nemanja Bjelica playing center, so the drop-off is dramatic from a stout defensive center to significantly below average. Bazemore alone makes the Kings defense better, and he has his strongest impact on the glass and with takeaways. He can be an outright defensive stopper when paired with a defensive center. That makes logical sense, because Bazemore gambles and his perimeter defense often funnels players into the paint — that becomes a problem if Len, or someone like him, isn’t there.
Offensively, Bazemore doesn’t shoot well enough inside the arc to be an efficient scorer. Despite making 38.6% of this 3-pointers as a King (well above his career norm), he still had a below-average effective field-goal percentage. He’s a good cutter, as seen above, and runs hard in transition, so he gets to the rim frequently, but his finishing around the basket is lacking — he only makes half of his shots at the rim. Combine that with 33% shooting from the midrange, and it’s clear why Bazemore struggles to score.
There are obviously other ways to impact offense. Bazemore has nose for the offensive glass and does so without sacrificing transition defense. He also gets fouled often driving to the basket, which makes his career 72.6% free-throw percentage harder to stomach. Bazemore has also stumbled on to a new skill in his brief Sacramento tenure: the post-up. Bazemore had 10 post-ups with the Kings, compared to nine total from 2013 through the trade to Sacramento, per Zach Lowe; he looks pretty comfortable backing down smaller guards, like against Shabazz Napier here.
Nevertheless, the Kings were much worse on offense (8.3 points per 100 possessions) with Bazemore on the floor, negating his entire defensive impact. In sum, Sacramento was +0.1 per 100 possessions in Bazemore’s non-garbage time minutes, per Cleaning the Glass. The Kings were 13-8 in his 21 games.
Future with Kings: Since Bazemore is an unrestricted free agent, he can choose his next destination. Some objectively bad teams like the Knicks, Pistons, and Hornets will have cap space, as will the Hawks, Bazemore’s former team for five seasons. The Suns could also make room, and a defense-first guard with low usage makes a lot of sense in Phoenix.
The Kings have full Bird rights on Bazemore, meaning they can sign him to whatever contract he wants. He projects as a backup small forward for Sacramento going forward, and the going rate for that kind of player should be about $8 million annually, just south of the mid-level exception. If the Kings have that much money to spare after re-signing Bogdan Bogdanovic and potentially inking De’Aaron Fox’s extension, then they can bring back Bazemore, but the front office doesn’t appear to think of him as their highest priority, particularly because there are also frontcourt questions to resolve.
Bazemore has had a modest statistical impact, but Sacramento has had below-average role players for so long that Bazemore has been a real blessing. If he’s willing to take a pay cut, the Kings should pounce, especially given his locker room presence, but they can’t overpay a player who won’t be a starter.
The Kings’ record during this stretch bumps Bazemore up from a C, and the fact that he genuinely is a ton of fun to watch. I particularly enjoy when Doug Christie says, “He’s no Kent, that’s Superman!” Ideally, he gets more time in a Sacramento uniform to prove that this recent hot streak wasn’t a fluke.