Mar 15, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) looks down after he fouled Chicago Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy (not pictured) as Kings guard Isaiah Thomas (22) reacts in the second half of their game against the Bulls at the United Center. The Bulls won 94-87. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Another Sacramento Kings season is coming to a close, and with it comes another boatload of losses. The results may be the same, but this year was full of changes, changes that have Kings fans hopeful for the future. Bryant wrote a strong piece about the upcoming offseason and what the next few years could look like in Sacramento.
But what did we learn in 2013-14? A hungry fanbase finally at ease, a young roster being constantly turned over, a fresh coach and management — it was definitely a season of change. Here are 10 things we gleaned about the Kings.
Mar 31, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Sacramento Kings head coach Michael Malone hugs guard Ray McCallum (3) after the Kings defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 102-97 at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
1. The players respect and play hard for Coach Michael Malone.
Is Michael Malone the right man for the job? I think so, but I could certainly respect the opinion of those who disagree. After all, the Kings fell short of 30 wins again, their offensive efficiency (assists, 3P%, eFG%, turnover rate) was down from a year ago and it’s hard to make the case that the Kings improved much throughout the year (10-18 record after the All-Star Break). One thing that’s hard to question is the players’ respect for Malone, and that’s something that couldn’t be said over the past few seasons. The Kings effort level was noticeably high, even as another losing season neared its conclusion. Malone deserves credit for that — he demanded effort from his players and rewarded those who delivered. His work with DeMarcus Cousins, the McRookies and an evolving roster shows that he can be a great leader. He’ll need to show his basketball prowess as the roster improves.
2. You can have too many power forwards.
The signing of Carl Landry was completely unnecessary. We all love Carl, and it’s hard to judge him during an injury-ravaged season. But one thing Pete D’Alessandro proved this season is that quality reserve power forwards can be acquired. Landry was added despite the presence of two backup-quality PF’s, Jason Thompson and Patrick Patterson. During the year, Sacramento would add three more intriguing options — Derrick Williams, Quincy Acy, Reggie Evans — all of whom had moments of strong production. Unfortunately, the Kings are on the hook for Landry’s $6.5 yearly salary, and fans can only hope that money doesn’t preclude the team from re-signing Isaiah Thomas and/or Rudy Gay. The glut of power forwards likely means Quincy Acy will be let go and Reggie Evans will be shopped, and that’s a shame because both players proved to be fan favorites with their hard-nosed style of play.
3. Ray McCallum should be the backup point guard going forward.
Management made a great decision, letting Jimmer Fredette go so that the team could get a legitimate look at rookie Ray McCallum. McCallum ran with the opportunity. The rookie has opened eyes with his command of the offense and strong defensive effort. Those ready to crown him starter if Isaiah should leave should slow down — maybe someday, not yet. But at the very least, McCallum has proven he can handle the backup role. This Kings team is not ready to compete, so bringing in a veteran will only stunt McCallum’s growth. His play this season deserves the reward of a set role next year.
Mar 21, 2014; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay (8) calls out to his teammates against the San Antonio Spurs during the first quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
4. Rudy Gay can be an upstanding member of a team.
While Kings fans celebrated the acquisition of an actual small forward, all we heard from Toronto were jeers and sarcastic wishes of “good luck.” Gay has proven that his time with the Raptors should not define his career. Since coming to Sacramento, Gay has been a positive in every aspect of the team. His professionalism and leadership has been a huge boon for the Kings young roster. On the court, Gay brought a steady, reliable hand to the offense, coming through countless times when the Kings offense hit the skids. All that said, there is no guarantee the free agent Gay returns, and a long-term deal still makes me nervous — Gay could command a four-year deal around $10-15 mill a season. But we at least know what we’re getting if Rudy returns — a quality small forward who can help the team move forward.
5. Ben McLemore deserves more time to prove himself.
Let’s be honest: the doubt had to creep in for fans regarding Ben McLemore’s rough start. Sacramento thought it had gotten a steal when McLemore slipped to No. 7, but through the season’s first half, there were legitimate concerns about whether Ben could be the Kings shooting guard of the future. It’s a tough business, and if the Kings want to compete, they need a shooting guard who can knock down shots and defend his position. McLemore wasn’t showing that. Thankfully, the rookie has looked much better toward the end of the year. The game has slowed down, he’s aggressively attacking the basket more frequently and his defensive motor is always running. At the very least, McLemore has earned more time to show his skills. It will be a crucial offseason for the rookie, who will likely be pushed by an outside acquisition.
Mar 28, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Travis Outlaw (25) handles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
6. Maybe Travis Outlaw isn’t useless after all.
I foolishly enjoyed the amnesty addition of Outlaw three years ago and was rewarded for my faith by Travis hitting just 27 percent from downtown and chucking at every opportunity through his first two seasons with the team. Maybe it was Michael Malone, maybe it was the added playing time or familiarity with the team, but this year, Outlaw proved he actually has some talent. His 39.6 percent mark from the field is underwhelming, but he’s connected on 35.1 percent from long range and stepped up as a strong bench scorer down the season’s home stretch. Outlaw is under contract for next season, and he’s not a guy you want as the No. 1 perimeter bench option. However, Outlaw as an 8th/9th guy in the rotation should be fine — he knocks down shots, helps on the boards and uses his length to defend three positions.
7. The Kings don’t know how to use Derrick Williams.
Derrick Williams tantalizes with an athletic skill set, but have we really figured out how to get D-Will into spots that benefit the team? Trust me, this is a two-way street, and Williams is in no way absolved of responsibility. But with the forward set to earn $6.7 million next year, the Kings have to figure out how to get the most out of Williams. Part of that is motivating him — too many times, especially late in the year, Williams floated with no purpose on the floor. The other part is putting Derrick in places to succeed. Recognize mismatches, get him the ball and encourage him to attack. Williams was best when going to the basket, and he can be a valuable bench producer. If the Kings don’t think so, his expiring salary could be a nice piece to a bigger trade.
8. Jason Thompson needs a change of scenery.
Jason Thompson has been nothing but professional since coming to Sacramento from Rider University six years ago. He’s a great member of the community and on the court, he’s been a steady, if unspectacular, member of the Kings frontcourt rotation. That said, it seems like this relationship has run its course. Thompson has reached a wall in his development and has expressed some unhappiness with a changing role. Thompson has always seemed like an ideal third big man, but with the Kings looking to create a new identity, it may be time to make a move. With Thompson’s contract, that’s easier said than done, but both sides could use a fresh start.
Dec 6, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) and point guard Isaiah Thomas (22) after a play against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
9. The success of the Kings and growth of DeMarcus Cousins go hand-in-hand.
The Kings new management married themselves to DeMarcus Cousins the moment they arrived, showering the big man with praise and a contract extension. As such, Sacramento fully hitched its wagon to DMC. Cousins rewarded that faith with a monstrous season that included incredible statistical output and better behavior on the floor. There were still hiccups — the 16 technicals, the suspension for punching, the on-court outbursts toward teammates — and that will always make me wonder about Cousins’ true ability to be a leader. But Cousins, at age 23, flashed those moments of pure domination, those moments that make you believe he could drive the Kings to be contenders. One can only hope that the Kings continue to surround him with positive mentors and stay on top of his behavior. His talent is truly unrivaled in the NBA.
10. Isaiah Thomas needs to stay.
Isaiah Thomas is the heart of the Sacramento Kings. Through every obstacle — untrusting coaches, unworthy teammate competition — Thomas comes out stronger. Just this year, the Kings brought in Greivis Vasquez and handed him the reins to the team. It took 18 games for management to realize the errors of its ways. Thomas outshined Vasquez and proceeded to destroy much of the league. As a starter, Isaiah has averaged 21.5 points on 45.1 percent shooting, 6.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds. His PER of 20.6 (a ranking of his efficiency on the court) ranks 20th in the NBA and is behind only three point guards — Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Goran Dragic. All the while, Thomas has continued to show his leadership ability — cheering on teammates while injured, sparking the team during hard times, playing with 100% effort every minute he’s on the court. He hits restricted free agency with the Kings having the opportunity to match any offer he receives. If they don’t and Isaiah walks, it would be absolutely demoralizing. Isaiah has proven this year that he is an NBA starter, and more than that, he’s arguably the most beloved player on the team. Hard to lose double threats like that.