The Sacramento Kings are currently sitting on a record of 30-45, 11th in the Western Conference despite DeMarcus Cousins making the All-Star team and being a virtual lock for one of the All-NBA teams (perhaps even first team) and Rajon Rondo’s perceived bounce-back season.
Internally, the Kings must have had higher expectations for the season. The trade to clear cap space to sign Rondo, going after veterans like Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli, and throwing out a reported max-offer sheet at Wesley Matthews coming of an Achilles tear all point to the fact that the Kings expected to compete for at least a playoff spot. From the start, however, that goal could have been considered relatively delusional. And different projection systems from ESPN’s preseason forecast to the Las Vegas over/unders projected the Kings to win between 30 to 34 games – a prediction that is going to hold true in all likelihood.
What’s missing in those projections is that the Kings season didn’t necessarily have to go this way once again. Perhaps you can assume that Sacramento will do crazy stuff and have weird problems that manifest themselves negatively on the court, but the most frustrating part is that the Kings had a clear roadmap to being better than those expectations.
It’s been a while since Rondo has been helpful to a team, perhaps dating back to his last All-Star season in 2012-13, but offensively he’s clearly been a part of the solution for this team. Rondo is shooting a career-high 35.8 percent on three-pointers on a significant number of attempts and he leads the league in assists at 11.7 per game. With both Rondo and Cousins on the court, the Kings have scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions, a Top 10 rate in the league.
Just having Cousins on the court creates problems for the defense that they won’t face on any other night. Cousins is on the verge of becoming the sixth player in NBA history to average 27-plus points, 11-plus rebounds, 3-plus assists and 1.4-plus blocks. The other names on that list: Bob McAdoo, Chris Webber, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon. Having a player like Cousins in a league trending towards small-ball is an incredible asset, and he’s quick enough to work at power forward defensively – a position where no one has a shot at guarding him.
One of Cousins’ superpowers is his ability to drive and handle the ball at his size. Cousins is averaging 8.0 drives per game, which ranks 25th in the league, and he’s the only big man along with Draymond Green in the Top 100, and Green is ranked exactly 100th. Going to the rim, Cousins is an unstoppable monster, and teams are unable to keep him from the foul line. Cousins’ 10.3 free throw attempts ranks second in the league just behind James Harden.
Rudy Gay is a solid wing, Darren Collison is having a very efficient season and is one of the best backup point guards in the NBA and Omri Casspi is a plus/minus star. Willie Cauley-Stein is having a very promising season, and projects as a high-level defender who has shown a surprising touch as a finisher. Cauley-Stein is making 49.4 percent of his shots between three and 10 feet, an elite mark and way above the league average of 39.4 percent.
There should be enough on the roster to compete for a playoff spot, and despite a quick stint in the eighth seed in mid-January, realistically the Kings never looked like a team that could challenge for a playoff seed.
The Kings have been hovering at just above average offensively for most of the season, and by their True Shooting Percentage of 54.1, they are among the Top 8 teams in scoring efficiency. The problem has been the turnovers, where Rondo and Cousins both rank in the Top 5 in the league at nearly eight combined per game. The Kings rank 28th in turnovers per game at 16.3 and 27th in opponent transition points at 18.6. The only teams below them are the Philadelphia 76ers the Phoenix Suns.
The turnover problems are the beginning of the first wave of problems defensively. Good teams don’t give up easy baskets like the Kings do, and Rondo in particular doesn’t care at all about playing defense. Nearly every game, the Kings will have a defensive possession where Rondo doesn’t make it into the frame in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.
For the season, the Kings rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions, and the problems are numerous. Ben McLemore is always lost on defense. Belinelli is terrible. Rondo hasn’t fought over a single pick the entire year. Cauley-Stein makes (understandable) rookie mistakes. Gay has never reached his potential defensively despite his great tools. Collison is small and gets bullied by physical guards all the time.
Cousins sometimes looks like a lazy defender, prone to not showing effort and running back defensively, but the advanced numbers have always been surprisingly high on his impact on that end. Cousins is huge, he’s smart and has great hands and moves well for his size. Along with Andre Drummond, Cousins is currently one of only two centers to average 1.5 steals per game. In Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Cousins ranks as 14th at +3.36 and he was ranked fourth the previous year. Cousins doesn’t protect the rim particularly well, allowing opponents to shoot 50.7 percent at the basket when he’s defending the play, but otherwise his advanced numbers are immaculate.
Team defense is one of the areas of the NBA game where good coaching can shine and, without elite personnel, the team as a unit can thrive. The Atlanta Hawks are third, and the Boston Celtics are fourth in defensive efficiency this season, and neither has obviously great rim protection. The Charlotte Hornets, under the wizardry of Steve Clifford, are somehow ranked 8th in defensive efficiency. Teams that buy into the team concept, make smart plays and show great effort and intensity can be great defensively.
Offense is typically more reliant on personnel, but the first markers where great coaching can make an impact is defense, in particular by limiting easy points in transition. Cauley-Stein, Koufos and Cousins should provide a frontline good enough to build a top-tier defense around. But for the Kings bigs to succeed, the perimeter players have to put them in position to do so. Sacramento has now allowed opponents to score over 100 points in 29 of their last 32 games. For comparison, the Spurs allowed teams to score 100 or more in just six of their first 40 games.
In games where the Kings have played league-average defense or better in terms of points allowed per possession, they have won 21 of 33, a 63.6 percent win rate and a 52-win pace extrapolated over the full season. In games where they’ve been below average, Sacramento is just 8-33. The offense would be slightly improved by not turning the ball over as much also, and if the Kings had just a league-average defense, they would statistically be on pace to win 45-games.
Cumulatively over the past eight seasons, Sacramento has won just 32.0 percent of their games at a 203-430 record, the second-worst mark during that time, just ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Unlike the Wolves with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio and (most notably) Karl-Anthony Towns – who’s having a rookie season for the ages – there’s a big chance that the Kings are going to continue being bad long-term going forward.
Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent during the summer of 2018, meaning the Kings only have two seasons of him under contract. The Kings are out a 2016 Top 10 protected pick to the Chicago Bulls, with the seventh-worst record right now they’ll likely keep the pick, but the Magic, Knicks and Bucks are just a game ahead, meaning the Kings have enormous incentive to tank.
The biggest mistake Sacramento made was turning over two first-rounders to dump Nik Stauskas after one season to the 76ers. The second one of those picks becomes unprotected in 2019. That is a mess, since if Cousins leaves, the Kings may easily be the worst team in the NBA and Philly will likely end up with one of the Top 3 picks in the draft. Trading away your team’s future assets to fill up cap space with Rondo on a one-year deal is a disaster. Leveraging the future to unsuccessfully chase 45-wins is the worst thing a management team can do, and the Kings walked right into the trap. The Nets did virtually the same thing, only they had some hope of actually competing short-term at the time, and now they are in an unstoppable downward spiral. Two years from now, Sacramento could very well be in a similar situation.
After the season ends, the clock will start ticking on Cousins’ contract status. Superstar players tend to be only tradeable in the second to last year of their contract. Teams that are wary of their ability to retain a superstar won’t trade for a player in the last year of their contract. With Kevin Love and the Wolves, Dwight Howard and the Magic, Deron Williams and the Jazz, we’ve seen similar situations played out before. The Wolves fell ass backwards into a Love-Wiggins trade after the Cavaliers won the first pick with astounding lottery luck. The Jazz traded Deron Williams a year early and are now reaping the benefits. Losing a superstar is tough, and in many cases – such as Chris Bosh in Toronto – trading a player who is likely to leave anyway is too tough a pill to swallow. Restarting the rebuild after 10 consecutive seasons of being under .500 isn’t great, but for non-contenders with a superstar player like the Kings it may be a necessary evil.
Whether or not Cousins decides to leave is an unknown, but with the turmoil, constant coaching changes and lack of team success, he would seem to have every reason to do so. Sacramento has to turn the ship around as soon as possible if they hope to retain him, but the road to doing so seems unclear. Matthews declined a reported max offer from the Kings, and if they can’t lure anyone even by overpaying, their chances at improving through free agency seems relatively low. And the Kings have run out of draft picks to trade for the foreseeable future.
Multiple bad trades, instability and lack of vision from the front office have left the Kings in a bad place, and that future will begin to realize itself soon unless the team can turn its fortunes around soon.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found atNylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.