I’m pretty sure this is not how coach Michael Malone drew up his preseason plans. Carl Landry was lost for three to four months with a torn hip flexor. Greivis Vasquez is still playing himself back into game shape and Luc Mbah a Moute has played a total of 17 minutes due to the same knee soreness that has plagued him the last two seasons. Basically, the Kings’ three big trade/free agent acquisitions of the summer have left new general manager Pete D’Alessandro holding the bag.
Malone has said that he plans to get his rotations in order in the final two preseason games before the start of the regular season next Wednesday against the Denver Nuggets. We came into training camp with a lot of questions and three weeks later, many of those questions still remain.
Knowing that tonight’s starting lineup is likely the same one we’ll see on opening night, here is a rundown on the position battles as they sit now and a prediction on the starters for game one.
Vasquez has started the last three games for the Kings, but that may have more to do with his recovery from offseason ankle surgery than a sign that he has won the position. The veteran point guard is averaging 5.3 points and 3.0 assists in 15.3 minutes per game, but he is starting to show a solid chemistry with DeMarcus Cousins, especially in the two-man game. Vasquez has struggled with his offense, shooting just 31.3 percent from the field, but he has hit 60 percent (3-for-5) of his shots from behind the arc. Three games is a very small sample size to measure any shooting stats, but it’s safe to say that the Venezuelan-born pro is better than his overall shooting percentage and not quite as good as his early 3-point shooting would suggest.
While Vasquez sat, the incumbent solidified his position with the Kings. Isaiah Thomas has looked every bit the part of an NBA starter during the preseason, averaging 12 points and 6.2 assists in 26.2 minutes. Thomas is pacing for roughly 16.5 points and 8.5 assists per game, which Malone would be more than happy with.
Thomas has looked really good next to rookie Ben McLemore, which may hurt his chances as a starter. There is no question that IT has outplayed Vasquez in the preseason, but he isn’t coming off summer ankle surgery.
Prediction: Vasquez gets the start, but Thomas plays more minutes.
Could there be a more difficult decision? McLemore is clearly the future at this position. He is more athletic and a better defender than either Marcus Thornton or Jimmer Fredette, but he is also extremely young. The rookie is averaging 12.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 23.8 minutes per contest during the preseason. And he is shooting a stellar 49 percent from the field and 41 percent from behind the arc. McLemore has never seen a regular season NBA game before, so putting him out there for game no. 1 would be a risky proposal.
Thornton came in as the starter and hasn’t done anything wrong through his four preseason games. The former LSU Tiger is averaging 8.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 18.8 minutes, but beyond scoring, he’s providing very little. The Kings still owe Thornton $16.6 million over the next two seasons, so it’s doubtful that they’ll kill his value by benching him, but either way he looks like a placeholder for McLemore.
Last, but not least is Jimmer. After sitting two of the Kings first three preseason games, the former BYU star has stolen the show. It’s a small sample size, but Jimmer is averaging 13 points on 57.7 percent shooting from the field and 61.5 percent shooting from behind the arc. It’s no surprise that the kid can shoot, but he has also added 3.2 assists and 1.67 steals in 22.3 minutes per game. This is the player the Kings thought they were getting in the 2011 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, these aren’t the same Kings. Jimmer was supposed to play the role of Mike Bibby, while Tyreke Evans was supposed to pick up the defensive slack a la Doug Christie. Evans is gone and there is no one left to take that role.
Prediction: Jimmer has made this race a tough one. He is a better pure shooter than Thornton and proven to be more versatile. Whether it takes weeks or months, this position is probably going to McLemore anyway. My money is on Thornton to start game one, but the leash will be a short one.
This position was a mess coming into camp, and it’s an even bigger one today. Mbah a Moute’s injury has taken him out of the equation early. The defensive-minded stopper might find his way back into the rotation soon enough, but after missing almost all of training camp and preseason, it’s hard to see him getting a seriously look as a starter.
John Salmons does what John Salmons does. The veteran comes into camp every season in great shape and makes a solid impact. As he’s aged, he has become extremely streaky as both a shooter and an offensive weapon as a whole. There will be games when he plays incredibly and other games when you won’t even remember him being on the floor. Salmons averaged 6.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 23.8 minutes per game in preseason, but his shooting numbers were atrocious. He provides defense and has developed into a solid baseline 3-point shooter, but Malone will probably experiment with this position a lot throughout the early season.
Mbah a Moute’s injury really opened up an opportunity for veteran Travis Outlaw and for the most part, he took advantage. The former Trail Blazer, Clipper and Net forward averaged 7.8 points in 19.4 minutes per game, while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor and 54.5 percent from long range. Outlaw will get an opportunity at both forward positions, which is more than what we could have said last season.
Prediction: The Kings wanted this job to go to Mbah a Moute, but his knee didn’t cooperate. Salmons will probably get the nod on opening night, but this position will be played by committee and I expect a lot of three-guard sets that skip this group completely.
Every year, the Kings bring in someone to replace to Jason Thompson and every year the sixth-year big man out of Rider wins the job. I’m not sure if that will be the case this year. Patrick Patterson has received a long look in preseason, leading all Kings players at 30.4 minutes per game. His perimeter shooting is a natural fit next to center DeMarcus Cousins, but his rebounding numbers are still lackluster. Through five games and three starts, Patterson is averaging 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. With Landry out for much of the season, the fourth-year forward out of Kentucky is going to get a chance to earn a solid payday as a restricted free agent this summer.
Thompson came into camp in great shape and with his ears open. There is no question that he has improved as a defensive player under Malone and that he is a superior rebounder to Patterson. The question is: does Thompson fit better next to the franchise cornerstone? With Cousins anchored in the post, Thompson has had a difficult time getting touches, which led to inconsistent numbers on the offensive end. Thompson averaged 5.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game, which equates to 9.5 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.
Prediction: Malone has a tough call at this position. Thompson can play both power forward and center, which may hurt him in this battle, but Patterson doesn’t rebound like a starter. The minute distribution would lead you to believe that Patterson will get the starting job, but I see Malone sticking with Thompson and using Patterson in the role he earmarked for Landry, as the scoring big off the bench.
There is no battle here, nor will there be for the next five seasons. Cousins has been a monster in preseason, averaging 29.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 3.5 assists per 36 minutes. On the defensive end, Cousins looks like a different player in coach Malone’s system. If DMC can keep his head on straight and fight through the losing streaks, he can be an All-Star this season.
Malone will use a combination of Thompson and veteran Chuck Hayes off the bench to back up Cousins. Don’t be shocked if Hamady Ndaiye is on the opening-night roster as a defensive goalie with six hard fouls to give.