Kings Mid-Season Report: Halfway There; Living On a Prayer

Record: 15-26
Honestly, I never understood that Bon Jovi song. I didn’t know what they were halfway to and I didn’t know what that prayer was about.

But when it comes to the Kings season, we can definitively say we’re halfway there. You might even say at this point Kings fans are living on a prayer. A prayer for what, you ask? Well, some are praying for a playoff run. Some are praying for a Kevin Martin trade. Some are praying Kevin Martin ISN’T traded. Some are just praying for a road win. Whatever the case, we can all agree on one prayer that was answered for Kings fans – the Kings are not terrible anymore.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of these Daily Dime Live chats on ESPN and the two biggest things that come across (aside from constant questions of Kevin Martin’s standing with the team and Tyreke Evans’ ability to be a point guard) are people remarking how surprised they are that the Kings are this good and pseudo-people (Lakers fans) incorrectly jabbing at the Kings because that’s what fans on NBA champs do – they pick on below .500 teams when they should be busy sticking pins into their Kevin Garnett voodoo dolls.

Not only are they not terrible anymore but they are full of fight as evident with hanging against far superior Cavs and Lakers teams, the comeback in Chicago and the near comeback in Charlotte. How many times did the Kings fight last year? The extra time against the Warriors stands out but that’s about it. And other than the home games to Philly and Chicago and the road losses to OKC, San Antonio and Minnesota, I can’t think of games in which you didn’t think the Kings could come back and win that game.

So let’s take a mid-point of the season look at this team and take stock of where Kings fans should be with this lived-on prayer.

Things That Are Good

The Young Guys
There’s gold in them hills! And by hills I mean the 2009 draft class of the Sacramento Kings. Seriously, the Kings dropping to fourth in the draft could not have worked out better. The best-case scenario is something teams always hope for and rarely get but with the work the Kings did on June 25th, it was truly THE best-case scenario for them. When I saw Tyreke Evans in the Vegas Summer League, I knew he’d be a star in the NBA. I didn’t think it would be this fast but it was obvious it was going to happen. When I saw Omri Casspi in the summer, I could tell he had the potential to be a really good player in this league. I never would have thought he would be this competent and good within four years of being in the NBA, let alone after 41 games of play. And with Jon Brockman, he’s a 6’7” second round power forward who you hoped would decently fill out the roster. Instead, the Kings have discovered a galvanizing, rebounding machine off the bench who the fans love and the other team doesn’t want to play against.

This was definitely the best-case scenario for the Kings. And now they get something that many teams take years to figure out or even never truly end up understanding to the detriment of their organization – they know what they have with their rookies in the first year. This is a boon for them. It helps them to continue to rebuild the team. They know Tyreke Evans is the best player on the team already and they’re 99.9% sure he’s a franchise guy. So they can dedicate the next couple of off-seasons to building around his talent and strengths. They know that Omri Casspi is a borderline sure-fire starter. They can confidently throw him into that plan. This is an advantage they have over most rebuilding teams (see: what the Thunder did to the rest of the rebuilding teams this past summer).

The Coaching Staff
I’m not sure how many fans would admit to it at this point but there was a time in which Rick Adelman was looked at as a guy who had served his purpose and probably should be released from his duties with the Kings. He eventually was fired and the Kings no longer had to put up with his inability to get the Kings over the hump in the playoffs or get his team to beat the Lakers or not look like a cast member of The Deadliest Catch when he had his beard. Whatever the reason was for dissent with Adelman’s coaching of the Kings, there was a time in which it was more than a murmur.

Four coaches later, it’s nice for the Kings to have a competent coach once again. Musselman was atrocious. Theus was unprepared and Natt was incompetent. But Paul Westphal and the exceptional staff that was put together under him is as big a reason for the turn around of this franchise as Tyreke Evans and his bulldozing ability. Truck Robinson can help the kids learn how to rebound (and look at the improvement in rebounding from last season to this one). Paul Westphal was one of the greatest shooters of his generation. That’s not bad for a team that needs Tyreke Evans to become a dangerous threat with the jump shot. And Mario Elie is there to show guys like Martin, Casspi and Donté how to defend on the perimeter. Throw in really good strategists and scouts with guys like Jim Eyen and Bryan Gates and you have a very strong and trustworthy brain trust shaping this roster. That’s a big leap from the previous three years.

The Tempo of the Game
I don’t know about you but I love watching fast basketball. It’s really the only way to watch it. I was able to appreciate the Pistons-Spurs Finals in 2005 for what it was but I’d much rather watch two teams push the tempo and move the ball up the floor quickly. The Kings are currently playing the sixth fastest pace in the NBA (94.4 possessions per game). And that’s with two big guys in the post (kind of) and a 6’6” rookie point guard imposter that must be moved to the shooting guard position because that’s what taller guards play!

The Kings aren’t a good defensive team. In fact, they’re the fifth worst team in the NBA at defense. So for them to be successful, they have to push the tempo, try to get as many scoring opportunities as possible and hope for the best. And that’s the way all young teams should play until they figure out how to defend the basket. Thank god Geoff Petrie and Paul Westphal share that understanding of a fast-paced tempo being the way to go right now. It makes the games much more entertaining while this team grows.

Things That Are Bad

Need an Interior Defender Not Decorator
The Kings allow the fifth most attempts around the rim (28.2 per game), give up the third most makes around the rim (18.0) and have the fourth worst opponent’s field goal percentage around the rim (63.9%). The big part of the problem with this is the Kings inability to protect the rim. Over playing the wings and perimeter is not a bad defensive strategy unless you have Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes as your stopgaps inside. Jason Thompson has the ability and foundation to be a good interior defender but picks up terrible fouls, makes poor decisions on the timing of a shot block and plays matador defense when he is in foul trouble (as many players are apt to do).

Spencer Hawes on the other hand just shows poor fundamental defensive positioning. He bites on pump fakes too often. He does a bad job of shifting his weight in the post to beat the offensive player to the next drop step or reverse pivot. And he always seems to be a step slow in reacting to the play before him. He’s a really bad defender inside and it doesn’t even seem to be that he doesn’t get it. I don’t think he has the physical gifts to be a good post defender. This is manageable if he’s your guy off the bench but he’s not. He’s the starting center. Throw those two out there together and the decent-to-good defensive efforts outside the key get negated by two young big men who just aren’t able to be the safety valves at this time.

Closing Out Quarters
Occasionally, you will get a Beno Udrih three, Jason Thompson alley-oop or a Tyreke Evans layup to end the quarter on a high note. But those are very rare for this Sacramento Kings team. Instead, you find the youth and inexperience of a rebuilding franchise with a rookie lead/point guard not being able to close out periods with quality possessions. How many times this season have you been frustrated because the Kings completely botch a play with time running out on the game clock? How many times do the Kings not even get a shot off or turn the ball over? This is a sign of a young team that still doesn’t fully understand valuing the clock and final possession. It’s not a horrific thing that needs to be changed in order to breed some success (like the interior defense) but it is something the Kings keep shooting themselves in the foot by doing this poorly.

Winning on the Road
The Kings are 3-17 on the road this season. 3-17!!! Only four NBA teams have fewer than four road wins at this point in the season with one of them being the Charlotte Bobcats (who have been the exact opposite at home), one of them being the Minnesota Timberwolves who barely pass for a professional team most nights and the other being a New Jersey Nets team that is going to battle it down to the wire in attempting to avoid historic regular season futility (they’re on pace for six wins, the all-time record for lowest wins is nine). It’s not just that the Kings have been losing on the road, it’s that they’ve been really bad.

They had a euphoric win right after the Kevin Martin injury in Utah. They had a buzzer-beating effort against the Bucks in a showdown between the top rookie guards in Milwaukee and then needed to come back from 35 down against the Bulls in order to eek out their third road win on the season. They’ll have the occasional great showing against New Orleans (twice), the Lakers or the Bobcats. But for the most part, they struggle to put together a good half on the road, let alone 48 minutes. They’re a couple of fortunate bounces away from having just one road victory this season.

Roster Situation
Here’s the breakdown of the positions:

Point Guard: Evans, Udrih, Rodriguez
Shooting Guard: Martin, Garcia
Small Forward: Nocioni, Casspi, Greene, Udoka
Power Forward: Thompson, Brockman, Thomas, May
Center: Hawes, Armstrong

Clearly there is a dearth of interior presences and a bevy of wing players on this team. With Kenny Thomas’ expiring contract ($8.7 million), they have a valuable trade piece to bring in another player if they want. They’ll have roughly $10 million in cap space this summer depending on where the salary cap ends up. If they feel like being impatient and incompetent, they can explore trading Kevin Martin before the trade deadline and before figuring out if Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans are truly made for each other or not.

The biggest coup for them would be getting rid of Andres Nocioni’s contract for something more expiring. Before the season, he looked to be a valuable veteran. But with the emergence and growth of Casspi and Donté, he is more and more expendable with each bounce of the ball. While the Kings have a few options on ways to go, they’d probably be best served staying calm and waiting for the off-season before they do anything significant. They brought in Hilton Armstrong in order to catch lightening in a bottle with their size issues. If they can get rid of Nocioni to a contender for expirings then they should absolutely do it. If not, play the market this summer and see what’s available.

Player Grades

Tyreke Evans: There are a few things Evans doesn’t do well. He doesn’t fight over screens, he doesn’t close out well on perimeter shooters and you never really want him taking three-pointers. But those are petty things that can easily be corrected. This guy isn’t a bull in a china shop. He’s the bulldozer that tore down the china shop so that they could put in a strip mall with a Jamba Juice. Grade: A+

Kevin Martin: The first five games were pretty incredible. He was scoring at the best rate of his career and near the top of the NBA’s scoring leaders. He was also playing inspired defense that made him look more like Anthony Peeler and less like Troy Hudson. But then he missed a couple of months with a wrist injury that required surgery and is working his way back with the team. Nine games are not enough to give him a fair grade assessment. Grade: Incomplete

Omri Casspi: At the beginning of the season, people just wanted him to have a similar impact as the rookie version of Gerald Wallace. Now? People are picking apart his defense, he’s having heated discussions with the coach about his starting role and he’s knocking down lots of big shots. Kings once again found gold in the draft with a late selection in the first round. He’s been arguably the second best rookie in the entire NBA this season. That’s good bang for your buck at #23. Grade: B+

Jason Thompson: After the first month of the season, I was wondering if he could sneak his way into All-Star discussion. After the last three weeks, we’re trying to figure out what is wrong with him and when he’s going to snap out of this funk he’s in. Thompson has shown great improvements from his rookie season. He’s a top offensive rebounder and a good offensive weapon. But the foul trouble and disappearing on offense have been ongoing issues. Grade: B

Spencer Hawes: You can probably guess the direction I’m going with his grade. Spencer Hawes has been a huge disappointment this year. He’s regressed from his promising sophomore showing and his consistent play has caused starts from Sean May and Jon Brockman at center this season. He’ll tease you with the occasional showing like what he did in Los Angeles against the Lakers. That’s why he’s so frustrating. Grade: D+

Donté Greene: He’s been a little confusing. The shooting percentages from the field and three are very passable. He isn’t scoring that consistently. His rebounding is subpar and he can’t shoot free throws (61%). However, his defense has kept him on the court and in the rotation. He’s quietly been a leader and motivator on the court and he definitely belongs in the foundation of this rebuilding process. Grade: C+

Beno Udrih: Last year, he was the horrible contract that nobody wanted anymore. This year, he’s been the steadiest offensive weapon the Kings have. He’s shooting over 50% from the field and almost 40% from three. He’s fourth on the team in scoring, second in assists and second in threes made. He’s still overpaid but with him playing like this, you don’t mind living with it for now. Grade: A-

Jon Brockman: He’s eighth in the NBA in rebounding rate (20.4%). He has THE HIGHEST offensive rebounding rate in the NBA (20.8%). I’d say that’s a pretty good for the 38th pick in the draft. Grade: A-

Ime Udoka: He replaced Desmond Mason as the defensive wingman off the bench who is supposed to provide some veteran guidance. And he couldn’t have played better than what he’s given the Kings. He plays really solid defense and has been better on offense than advertised. Grade: B+

Andres Nocioni: There have been a lot of times in which you’re amazed at how well he’s shooting the ball. There are also a lot of times in which you’re wondering why he’s taking so many shots when he’s clearly not shooting well. And in between, he plays inconsistent defense. He’s a nice role player to have if you’re a building team. But not when he’s owed $14 million over the two years after this season. Grade: C

Kenny Thomas: Kenny Thomas was actually pretty decent when he played. His defense was solid and his rebounding was good. You don’t want to watch him make a decision with a basketball but still he played some quality minutes for the Kings. Unfortunately, Brockman does it better. Grade: D+

Sergio Rodriguez: Sergio is essentially the third point guard on this team. Third point guards get inconsistent minutes and very few chances to prove what they can do for the team. He’s been a game-changer at times but he’s also never shown that he DESERVES minutes. Grade: C

Sean May: You can’t blame the Kings for taking a flyer on an often-injured recent lottery pick. It was an $800,000 gamble that turned out not to work. He was given a chance at the beginning of the season and couldn’t matter enough to stay off the bench. Grade: F

Hilton Armstrong: In his two games with the Kings, he hasn’t shown a whole lot. He runs/moves like a high school kid. I don’t necessarily mean that in a disparaging way. It’s just something I’ve noticed since he joined the Kings. He might end up helping inside defensively but it will be in a limited role. Grade: Incomplete

Francisco Garcia: He’ll be back in a couple weeks for his season debut. Grade: Incomplete

Five Things to Figure Out
1. Can Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans play together?
From what I’ve seen in the four games since Martin returned, this backcourt can definitely work. I’m not going to just watch one game in the middle of the road trip and make an uneducated guess like some former NBATV fantasy host that now gets paid to flirt with an overweight Dennis Scott on air. So I feel confident in saying that the chemistry between Evans and Martin isn’t the issue at hand right now. What this backcourt has to be careful of is getting the rest of the team involved. It’s been a two-man show the last four games and that’s not a good thing.

2. Is Spencer Hawes worth waiting on?
No, I’m not in favor of Spencer Hawes as a player. I love the theory of Spencer Hawes. When he applies himself, he scores effectively in the post, hits the boards, plays decent post defense and blocks shots on the weak side. He also does his Vlade Divac impression passing out of the mid and high post. People are so quick to make the “he’d only be a junior in college” excuse for him when it isn’t a matter of skill up for debate. It’s whether he has the mental makeup to realize his potential. In this day and age of AAU ball since you were in grade school, national coverage of high school sophomores and a greater wealth of knowledge and training for young players, I don’t really buy into the excuse of “this guy is still so young.” I also don’t believe in giving out trophies to everyone who participates. Spencer, grow a pair and get in the post. Quit playing on the perimeter and hoping to knock down a random three.

3. Donté Greene, Francisco Garcia or Omri Casspi?
In this order, I’d go with Casspi then Greene then Garcia and that’s without factoring in contract situations at all. Garcia can probably be a really good weapon/asset for a playoff team. I always imagined he’d end up playing for a Jerry Sloan-led Jazz team and I don’t know why. But he hasn’t shown me enough in his time in Sacramento to think he should step in and potentially stunt the growth of Donté and Omri. Garcia’s contract makes him nearly impossible to trade right now. But the versatility of these three players makes juggling the lineups to find them all time a little easier.

4. Is it Time for the Ménage à Guard?
With Kevin Martin’s return, Tyreke Evans’ early greatness and the way Beno Udrih has played in the first half of this season, you start to wonder if you can play all three of them together for extended periods of time. I think it’s stupid to consider moving Tyreke Evans to be your small forward of the future as has been suggested. Part of the impossibility of guarding Tyreke is that he’s far superior to the physical prowess of shooting guards and point guards. By playing him with two other guards, you allow the other team to match up more traditionally. At the same time, they have three guards deserving of playing time and lots of it. So I ask you, “is it time for the Ménage à Guard?”

5. Time to Groom Jason Thompson at center?
I’ve been contending for a few weeks now that Jason Thompson’s future in this league is at the center position. He has the height and with a little more muscle, he has the size. There are far more good power forwards in this league than good centers. Is it crazy to think a power forward with good defensive abilities is your answer as you slide JT to the 5 and Spencer to the Brad Miller role off the bench?

Outlook for the Rest of the Season
As of right now, the Kings are on pace for a 30-52 record. 30-52 is not a successful season unless you’re coming off a 17-win debacle. The Kings are already three wins away from eclipsing last season’s mark. With a little road resistance thrown at their opponents, more meshing of Kevin Martin back with his teammates and a better job closing out close games, the Kings could easily run that total up to 35 wins and maybe even a couple more. After the way last season ended, that seems like a rousing success.

This is a fun team to watch when they’re fighting and they’re fighting most nights. Tyreke Evans is the star of this team. Actually, he’s more than that. He’s a soon-to-be great player that is feeding off the energy of one of those stars in Super Mario Bros that makes Mario blink like a Simon Says and bounce opponents off his barreling body. They have a clearer picture one hundred times over than what they thought they had 41 games ago. The path has been cleared for them to return to the cream of the crop.

They just need a little health, a little help and the continued Bob Villa building expertise of Geoff Petrie.

You’re halfway there, Kings fans.


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