Sunday Musings: The Sacramento Kings guards and a complex game of musical chairs

Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore and Isaiah Thomas (Photos: Jason Wise and Steven Chea)

On Thursday, news filtered out early that the Sacramento Kings were trying to move up in the draft to select Ben McLemore.  There were no guarantees that Pete D’Alessandro and his growing front office would land the former Kansas Jayhawk.  But make no mistake, the rest of the Kings guards were put on notice.

When McLemore fell to the seventh pick, the Kings war room almost assuredly blew up with cheers and high fives.

“It was just pure joy,” new owner Vivek Ranadivé said.  “When we saw the sixth pick and we knew we were going to get him, we just started to celebrate.”

Ranadivé even mentioned the word “destiny” in the post-draft press conference.  D’Alessandro, Ranadivé and head coach Michael Malone, all with less than a month on the job, had survived the process and came out victorious.

“We got the guy we were all dreaming about,” Ranadivé added.

Quietly, the Kings drafted Ray McCallum, a point guard out of Detroit.  I say quietly because the Kings were so high on him that they didn’t bring him in for a pre-draft workout.  D’Alessandro recounted a story of sitting next to his mentor, former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca while scouting McCallum.  Knowing that the hall of fame coach thought highly of the Kings’ second round pick, there is no doubt that McCallum was also D’Alessandro’s guy.

“We just added two talented young men who will make this team better from a personal standpoint and also from a coaching standpoint,” Malone said following the draft.

Priority No. 1 is to add talent to the Kings roster, but at the same time, a culture change is needed.  However, by adding two talented guards to the mix, the Kings have also created a glut in the backcourt that needs to be addressed quickly.

We will continue to hear a line out of the new management team and it shouldn’t be ignored.

“There was a 28-win season,” D’Alessandro said.  “Where were our needs?  Our needs were in the best players we can get.”

Twenty-eight wins.  And over the last five seasons, the Kings hold a 116-278 record, a .294 winning percentage.  Horrific by any standard.

This team has holes and on Thursday night, some of those holes were filled by McLemore and McCallum.  But what does that mean for the rest of the roster?  What does it mean for the impending free agency of Tyreke Evans?  Who will go and who will stay?

It is an expensive game of musical chairs.  On draft night, the music stopped and now there are five chairs and six players rushing to fill them.

“We wouldn’t have gone in this direction if we felt it was a cluttersome thing,” D’Alessandro explained to the media.

But as of today, it is “a cluttersome thing”.  Moves must be made to rectify this situation and some fans are not going to be happy with the outcome.

So who goes and who stays in the Kings backcourt?

Ben McLemore

McLemore is the new centerpiece of the Kings.  He may not be the No. 1 option or even a starter on opening night, but he is the first pick that D’Alessandro has ever made as Kings general manager.  He is going to get every opportunity to succeed and for good reason.  He is an incredible athlete with a sweet perimeter stroke.  He has some holes in his game as a ball handler, but at 20-years-old and only one season of collegiate ball under his belt, Malone will have a huge influence on how this kid is developed.

The Kings have been looking for the perfect player to fit next to Evans in the backcourt for some time and he might be it.  McLemore can stretch the defense with his shooting and has the athleticism to keep up with Evans in transition.  On the defensive end, McLemore has the size and ability to guard one of the league’s toughest positions.  He will have some struggles as a rookie, but don’t be surprised if he plays 24-28 minutes a game right off the bat.

Prediction: Staying

Ray McCallum

McCallum is clearly a D’Alessandro favorite.  The junior out of Detroit played for his father in college instead of chasing the bright lights of bigger programs.  And don’t fool yourself, the big campuses were calling.  The former McDonalds All-American stands 6-foot-2 with a 40-inch vertical and plenty of intangibles.  He is good decision-maker and an exceptional rebounder for his position.  He may take some time to transition to the next level.  But at worse, he projects as a solid reserve point guard.

Prediction: Staying

Tyreke Evans

The former rookie of the year is a restricted free agent who will shop his abilities around the league.  Before Thursday night, he was convinced enough that he was sticking around in Sacramento that he scheduled to appear at the Kings draft party.  Sure, he was a late scratch, but that has the smell of agent play.  You don’t weaken your position as a free agent by showing up to a team event days before  you enter the market.

Plenty of folks are writing Evans off now that McLemore is in town, but that is very presumptuous.  If you asked Tyreke where he would like to start on the basketball court, the clear answer is point guard.  It is the position that he is most comfortable and after a year of playing off the ball, he might have a better appreciation for it.  He will need to improve his assist numbers to make the transition work, but Evans is bigger and stronger than almost any point guard in the league and he is quick enough to guard the position as well.

Prediction: Can Evans and McLemore fit into the backcourt together?  I say yes.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas is a coach’s dream.  The undersized point guard out of Washington has gone from the last player taken in the 2011 NBA Draft to starter, with a career PER (player efficiency rating) of 17.6.  You could make the argument that Thomas was the Kings’ most solid performer last season after Keith Smart got out of the way and let him play.  He is a leader, a shooter and a rotational player on almost any team in the league.

He is also undersized and might be better served playing against second units for a playoff contending team.  If Evans is moved back to the point, Thomas would be the perfect compliment off the Kings bench.  If Evans isn’t retained, expect Thomas back in the Kings’ starting line-up next season.  At less than $900,000 per year, he is one of the best deals in the league, something that D’Alessandro is sure to appreciate.

Prediction: Staying

Marcus Thornton

This is where it starts to get interesting.  Thornton is an electric perimeter scorer and if utilized correctly will flourish.  Thornton led the 2011-12 Kings in scoring at 18.7 points per game, but was asked to transition to the bench for the 2012-13 season.  Perhaps no player was subject to the rotational yo-yoing of Smart more than Thornton.  And in response, Smart got very inconsistent results.  Per 36 minutes, Thornton was the exact same player statistically, but the stats don’t always tell the whole story.

If Evans is moved back to the point, Thornton might be the short-term solution for the Kings at  shooting guard  if Malone doesn’t feel like McLemore is ready to play substantial minutes.  The Kings owe Thornton $16.6 million over the next two years, making him an expensive long-term reserve.  Malone coached Thornton in New Orleans and the word around Kingsland is that the team likes the idea of him coming off the bench to provide a jolt, but you can also see a scenario where Thornton finds a new home in exchange for a small forward.

Prediction: Whether Evans is retained or not, Thornton is no longer the shooting guard of the future.  If the Kings find a taker, Thornton is gone.

Jimmer Fredette

There are a lot of Kings fans that will be very upset if this guy is traded away, but I’m not sure that Jimmer or his camp would be.  Jimmer played well early on for the Kings last season, but like Thornton, he was lost in the wake of Smart’s rotational madness.  He finished the season with a PER of 14.6, a huge improvement from his rookie year, but he still has glaring weaknesses to his game that have to be worked out.

Malone is the perfect coach for Jimmer, but on a guard-heavy team, there may not be room for the former college player of the year.  If the Kings can find a home for Thornton, Jimmer is a cheaper option.  Fans are still waiting to see what Jimmer can do next to Evans, but that ship may have sailed in Sacramento.

Prediction: Jimmer reboots his career on another NBA roster next season, unless the Kings find a taker for Thornton’s contract.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that the Kings won’t walk into next year with six guards.  Someone has to go and while the easy decision would be to allow Tyreke Evans walk away in free agency, the 23-year-old out of Memphis is still one of the most talented players on the roster.

The decision will most likely come down to Thornton or Jimmer, depending on what value the Kings can get in return.  The music is about to stop.  Someone is about to left without a chair.

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James Ham

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