In 1991, the ice machine on a commercial fishing boat in the northwest Atlantic Ocean broke down, forcing the crew to expedite their journey home to salvage their haul. They pushed through a combination of two separate weather systems and a violent hurricane, defying the odds with every conquered wave and overcoming countless obstacles before succumbing to an untimely death at the hands of Mother Nature.
Some of you may recognize this as the plot of the 2000 movie The Perfect Storm, but it also mirrors the story arc of the 2014-2015 Sacramento Kings.
It started with hope, which subsequently gave way to triumph over obstacles and defiance against odds—surprising the NBA with quality play and a 10-10 record until DeMarcus Cousins went out with viral meningitis—before ultimately jettisoning their captain, firing Coach Mike Malone, resulting in a sunken ship. The resemblance to the film is uncanny actually.
This got me thinking though. If such a confluence of unlikely events, a perfect storm if you will, could conspire against the Kings, is there an opposite convergence of events that might push them into playoff contention?
Let’s take a closer look and see how the changes they’ve made over the summer may well have addressed their needs, while propelling them into relevance.
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H-h-h-hooold me back
Last season the Kings were bad in many ways, but none were more impactful than the reluctance they showed to share the ball and their inability to take care of it in the process of being so stingy. It turns out that’s not such a great combination.
The Kings had the 26th fewest assists last season (20.3 per game), while turning the ball over 16.3 times per game, making them fourth worst in that category. While there were some indicators that bold well for a promising offensive attack (namely an insane rate of free throws), if you look at the distribution of the ways in which they scored relative to league averages, it’s easy to identify what’s dragging down their efficiency:
DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay are capable of putting immense pressure on a defense, as you can see by their enormous free throw rates (1st in the NBA). They’re able to get inside on drives, and of course via tradition post-ups with Cousins. None of that, however, is generating the sort of open catch-and-shoot opportunities that are a sign of a healthy offense.
Add to the mix one of the poorer defenses in the league — third fewest blocks (4.0), fifth fewest steals (6.7), third most points allowed per game (105.0), fourth worst in defensive efficiency (1.054) — sprinkle in some organizational chaos, and you have yourself a 29-win team.
Spread the love
It’s fair to criticize the Kings offseason. After all, they were on the wrong end of a Sam Hinkie special, potentially putting together their worst trade since the one that brought them Jimmer Fredette in the 2011 NBA Draft.
However, I think once you get past the fact they mortgaged parts of their future—2018 top-10 protected first-rounder and the rights to swap picks in two others—for the ability to pursue Rajon Rondo and potentially Wes Matthews or Monta Ellis, you may actually see that they addressed their most glaring needs in some very important ways.
As stated above, the Kings were one of the worst in the league in terms of ball-distribution. Well, if there is one thing Rondo has done better than almost anyone around for the better part of a decade it’s passing the ball.
There are plenty of valid criticisms to go around about the state of Rondo’s game, but if there’s one thing we know about him it’s that he’ll get the ball moving (even if it takes him half the shot clock to get into an offensive set).
And with the litany of legitimate shooters they can now put alongside Rondo, i.e. Darren Collison, Ben McLemore and Marco Belinelli, the Kings’ spacing and ball movement should improve because of Rondo’s willingness to pass to them. By adding shooters (they converted on only 34.1 percent of their 3-pointers last year, 20th in the NBA) Cousins can trust, the Kings catch-and-shoot attempts should increase, improving their assist numbers as well.
Another underrated aspect could very well be the willingness of Gay to spend a large amount of time at the four this season, a situation that seemingly allowed him to flourish at the end of the year under George Karl. In the landscape of small ball and pace and space, Rudy Gay fits the profile of a “playmaker four” as well as anyone in the league.
He’s long, athletic, versatile, can knock down 3-pointers (36 percent last season), and can be difficult for defenses to handle on drives. His presence in that role should create many more assist opportunities for the Kings, whether it be from him converting on them, or from the attention he draws on offense, creating better passing lanes.
Don’t drop the baby
That said, there should still be some significant concerns about their ability to take care of the basketball, and bringing in Rondo does little to improve that given his penchant for turnovers. Only 11 players turned the ball over more per game than Rondo did last season (3.1), and out of the 13 players with the most total turnovers, only Rondo played fewer than 30 minutes per game. He’s a guy who takes risks, and his turnover numbers reflect that.
In a vacuum, turning the ball over often isn’t causally related to losing. Golden State, Washington, and Houston were all in the top half of the league in terms of turnovers per game, but all three also happen to be in the top-10 in assists.
That tells me that turning the ball over isn’t a deal-breaker as long as it’s being done within the context of a balanced offense. Ball movement is important, and between their addition of a pass-first point guard, their collectively improved shooting, and the possibility of Rudy Gay evolving into a “playmaking 4” through which the offense will run through more frequently, the Kings should have all the pieces in place to develop a much more fluid offense.
Form a f%$!ing wall
It’s one thing to be good on offense. Even if they finish well outside of the playoffs, I think they’ll be solid on that end of the court and their starting lineup was formidable when together. If they can button down and focus on getting the ball moving, they have the potential to be a top 10 offense.
Defense, however, is what playoff teams are made of, and they would certainly have to improve over their performance last year to become anything viable in the west. Only the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves gave up more points on a nightly basis, and only they and the New York Knicks had a lower defensive efficiency.
Something had to be done to sure up their defense, especially in rim protection (only six teams gave up more points in the paint) and they’re hoping they’ve found that in Willie Cauley-Stein.
Any scenario in which the Kings are in a fight for a playoff spot places more on the rookie’s shoulders than rightfully should be, but he has the tools to become one of the best defenders in the league for the next decade. With other capable weapons, nothing will be expected from the Cauley-Stein offensively, so all he will need to focus his energy on is becoming a disruptive force on the defensive end.
And it’s not like the Kings are completely helpless in their defensive frontcourt.
When properly motivated, Cousins is no slouch. Out of all players who had more than four shots attempted against them at the rim, only Tim Duncan (46.9 percent) and Nerlens Noel (45.4 percent) held their opponents to a lower percentage than Cousins (47 percent) last season.
Add in newly acquired, workhorse veteran Kosta Koufos to that mix, and I think you could see the Kings make exponential gains in their ability to protect the paint.
On the perimeter, Rondo could be a wildcard on defense. He’s proven to be a disruptive defender when he puts his mind to it, which he’s publicly admitted to not always doing. Casspi is willing, McLemore has the physical tools to make a jump defensively, and Gay ‘s length and athleticism can be useful when motivated.
Of course, in order for any playoff scenario to become a reality, it all starts and ends with Cousins putting together an MVP caliber season. Cousins solidified his position as one of the three best centers in the NBA last season with yet another monstrous performance. Offensively, he’s the second most dominant big man in the league behind Anthony Davis, and the Kings sent him a lot of possessions which he spun into points around the rim and a massive quantity of free throws:
His turnover rate did increase to its highest point (16.3) since his his rookie year (18.4), but that shouldn’t be surprising considering his usage rate was also at its highest point ever (34.1). However, with Rondo now acting the team’s primary ball-handler, and better shooters, we may actually see Cousins usage percentage dip this season while his efficiency spikes.
Birds and the bees
But the most important thing will wind up being team chemistry, as it always is, something that has been justifiably speculated over for some time when it comes to this team.
Can Cousins and Karl set aside their differences and coexist in some sort of mutually beneficial relationship? Can Rondo coexist with, well, anyone? And can the fact that he is playing for perhaps his final contract motivate him to return to pre-ACL tear type of levels? Will the front office do their part to calm the waters a bit, and prevent the discord of last season from happening again?
There are a lot of questions here, but more options to explore in pursuit of answers. After all, team building is just one giant chemistry experiment, and it’s hard to know what might transform a volatile mix into something stable. Weirder things have happened, as Gay witnessed when a similar collections of mismatched, disregarded parts transformed into the current version of the Memphis Grizzlies.
So you’re saying there’s a chance
Maybe Rondo more closely resemble his pre-injury self, while bringing his game into 2015 and getting along gloriously with George Karl. Maybe McLemore makes that jump entering his third season, and enters that next echelon of shooting guards. Maybe Casspi and Belinelli help an improves. Maybe Cauley-Stein does make an immediate impact in a DeAndre Jordan-type role. Maybe Cousins does have an MVP-type of season. Maybe the entire team stays healthy this year and gels together seamlessly.
That’s a lot of things that have to break just right. There are so many variables it’s easy to dismiss the viability of the consideration at all. But with a higher talent level comes a higher margin of error. And while gauging the climate of the league is easy, if we’ve learned anything it’s that accounting for everything in an 82-game season is as chaotic as predicting the weather; especially a perfect storm.