Sunday Musings: Time for optimism in Sacramento

DeMarcus_Cousins_LC5

Optimism is a scary thing. Outside of Sacramento, the Kings have been roasted all summer long for a string of decisions or situations that they have found themselves in.  But in the capital of California, there is a buzz.  

How good can the Sacramento Kings be?  That is a confusing and perhaps loaded question.  Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?  Are Kings fans viewing their team through rose-colored, or in this situation, purple-colored lenses?

It’s a solid question.  When predictions come out from most national media outlets in the coming weeks, the guess will likely be that the Kings will win between 30 and 35 games this season.  

After collecting 28, 28 and 29 wins over the past three seasons, respectively, 30-35 wins is a fair assessment.  The Kings didn’t land a superstar in free agency, and no one is racing to the bank on Rajon Rondo, despite his status as a four-time All-Star.  

The fact that Vlade Divac added solid role players means very little to basketball pundits.  This team is still much more interesting as a comedic punchline than it is as an up-and-coming squad with two Olympic hopefuls and a stack of players ready to prove their worth.

Jason Thompson is gone, and Rondo may steal away Darren Collison’s starting position, but this team had a solid starting five last season that held its own against almost every team in the league.  Where the failure came, beyond the insistence on switching coaches every five minutes, was from the bench.

This team is more than just DeMarcus Cousins, although he is incredible.  When you have an elite NBA player, you have to build around him, and that is what the Kings have done.  After making the All-Star team for the first time last February, Cousins is set up for even bigger things this season.  At 25 years old, he is entering his prime, and he finally has a roster that complements his enormous talent.

Ray McCallum and Andre Miller did their best to hold down the fort in Collison’s injury absence, but their production was not up to NBA standards.  Now Collison will battle Rondo for a starting gig, and the loser instantly becomes the team’s first option off the bench.  Improvement at the position isn’t even a question.

The shooting guard position was dicey at best last season.  Ben McLemore made incredible strides in season two, but he struggled for long stretches, especially on the defensive end.  Kings coaches have been working with the 22-year-old all summer long.  He has star potential, but the lack of support system in the past hurt his development.  

Not only did McLemore lose Michael Malone last season, but the former Kansas star relied heavily on assistant Chris Jent, who left in the coaching upheaval in December.  The Kings staff is deep and focused on developing a player with a tremendous upside.

Instead of rookie Nik Stauskas backing up McLemore, Marco Belinelli was brought in to provide shooting and depth.  A career 39.2 percent shooter from long range, Belinelli will help open the floor for a team desperate for shooting.  If he can’t hold down the reserve minutes at the two, Collison is ready to shift over and take time like he did with the Clippers a few years back.

The Kings’ backcourt is solid.  They have four players with true NBA experience, and then Seth Curry, a wild card of epic proportions.  If the Kings need scoring off the bench, the former Duke star is ready to let it fly.  

Whether Gay starts at the three or the four, he is an elite second option behind Cousins.   After his second summer with Team USA, he is back in the good graces of the NBA.  

A season ago, Omri Casspi was the Kings’ entire bench.  He was the only reliable player who Malone, Ty Corbin or even George Karl could count on with the second unit.  When Karl took over the team, Casspi exploded, especially as a starter.  Depending on how Karl runs his lineup, the Israeli-born wing will either resume his role as top-flight reserve or start in the frontcourt alongside Cousins and Gay.  Either way, Casspi is a major rotational player.

The Kings are solid at the three, and if they have injury woes, Caron Butler is ready for short stints off the bench.  McLemore and Belinelli can also slide over and play the position, making Sacramento’s wing position deeper than it has been in a decade.

At the power forward position, Karl has options of all shapes and sizes.  Gay will play minutes at the position when the team goes small.  Casspi can slide over as well when it’s time to run.  Cousins may scoop up 10-15 minutes a game at the position against bigger teams, and rookie Willie Cauley-Stein is either a starter on day one or in the rotation.

Gay is the scorer, Casspi the shooter, Cousins the beast and Cauley-Stein the defender.  The Kings can throw the kitchen sink at you up front, and we haven’t even mentioned Quincy Acy or Kosta Koufos.  

Acy is a hustle reserve who will bring energy, shooting and attitude.  He may not play much, but he will give Karl everything he has in his limited minutes.  Koufos is the best reserve big man the Kings have had in years.  A brute in the post, he will rebound, defend, block shots and he can even score a bit.

At 26 years old, the 7-foot, 265-pound Koufos gives the team options it has never had during Cousins’ five seasons in Sacramento, and he’s locked up for four years.  A reliable big that allows Cousins to shift around and play other positions is intriguing to say the least.

The Kings’ core is deep and talented, and we have yet to mention Karl’s track record of success.  Karl wins.  He wins at an alarming rate, and there is no reason to doubt that he will do it again in Sacramento if he and Cousins are truly on the same page.

A sure-fire Hall of Famer, Karl’s 1,142 regular-season wins rank sixth all-time.  He needs just 15 more wins to surpass Phil Jackson for fifth place and fewer than 200 to pass Don Nelson as the winningest NBA coach ever.

Kings fans have every reason for optimism.  This isn’t a championship roster, but it doesn’t look like a lottery team either.  If everything falls into place the Kings could be a legitimate playoff team.  A .500 or better record is far from a pipe dream. In fact, it is expected as the team builds toward a new arena in 2016.

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James Ham

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