On The Come Up

by October 21, 2011

by Leo Sepkowitz

Since selecting Tyreke Evans with the fourth overall pick in 2009, the Kings’ arrow has been pointing up. OK, so maybe more diagonal, as their record since drafting Evans is a dismal 49-115, but big-time progress has still been made. Paul Westphal was brought in to coach the team before the 2009 season, and while the record certainly doesn’t suggest it, he could have the Kings ready to strike in the Western Conference awfully soon.

This progress can’t come fast enough for the Kings’ fan base, which has seen nothing but failure following dominant play in the early 2000s. Those teams were led by guys like Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac and Doug Christie, but when their run of success ended after the ’05-06 season, the Kings quickly fell to the basement of the West. Thanks to poor drafting (Francisco Garcia, Quincy Douby and Spencer Hawes were their first-round picks from 2005-’07), Sacramento had next to no young talent, leaving fans to long for the glory days when CWebb would sprain an ankle and miss at least 10 games.

But Sacramento’s front office has pulled it together over the past few years, and the Kings might have the best developing young talent in the NBA. Yes, I said it. They drafted Jason Thompson in 2008, Evans in 2009, DeMarcus Cousins in 2010 and Jimmer Fredette in this year’s Draft. Former Rookie of the Year Evans has developed into one of the League’s best guards, and though he battled injury throughout most of last season, he was still able to average nearly 18 points, 5.5 assists and 5 boards per game. Cousins took a little while to find his groove in his rookie campaign last season, but when he turned it on, it was absolutely scary. He scored a double-double in 19 of his final 37 games, and ultimately ended up with a 14 points and 8.5 boards a game.

Thompson and Jimmer are wild cards for Sacramento. Thompson, a former lottery pick, hasn’t lived up to expectations, but he hasn’t been bad either. He’s a big (6-11, 250), athletic dude who can contribute with some really solid minutes, though it doesn’t look like he’ll ever turn into a consistently productive starter. Fredette, who dominated college basketball to the tune of 28.5 points per game last season, will be very interesting to watch in his rookie season. His shooting ability is undeniably incredible, but his size and mediocre D could limit him to being a career role player.

They’ve also been able to add significant talent via trade. They picked up guard Marcus Thornton from the Hornets in exchange for Carl Landry in February. Thornton averaged over 21 points per game in 27 games as a King. They stayed busy during the offseason; in late-June they swapped sharpshooter Omri Casspi for forward JJ Hickson. Hickson averaged nearly 14 points and 9 boards in 2010 with the Cavs, and really picked it up after the All-Star break, as he averaged 17 and 11 during the second half of the season. They also traded for John Salmons, who averaged 14 points per game last season, in a draft day move that sent backup point guard Beno Udrih out of town.

So what does all of this roster management mean for the team that had the second-worst record in the West last season? It means that whenever the ’11-12 season kicks off, Sacramento comes in with a potential starting lineup of Evans, Thornton, Thompson, Hickson and Cousins. Their second unit will feature Jimmer, Salmons and Donte Greene. It means that the players under contract for next year plus soon-to-be rookies (who haven’t actually signed yet) have an average age of 23.8. It means that including rookie salaries and excluding players whose contracts expired at the end of last season, the Kings’ payroll should be roughly $35 million next season, $23 million less than the ’10-11 cap (it will certainly change with a new CBA agreement). Over $14 million, or roughly 40 percent of the payroll, will be going to Salmons (owed $8.5 million this season) and 29-year-old Garcia (owed $5.8 million).

Within two years, both of which seemed like failures on the surface, the Kings have stockpiled players with massive upside at every position, and then some. If Fredette can contribute as a consistent scorer, he could join Evans, Thornton and maybe even Salmons as guys with the potential to drop 20 on any night. Plus they can match size with any team in the League, as starting Thompson at small forward alongside Hickson and Cousins would give them three serious rebounders without sacrificing athleticism.

Of course the Kings most likely won’t pull a ’09-10 Oklahoma City Thunder turn-around and improve from 25 wins to 50. But the foundations for success are clearly there. Just like the Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Kings have two real stars in Evans and Cousins—though neither is close to Durant’s level at this point. But the argument could be made that Sacramento has a better offensive supporting cast around their two studs than OKC does. Where the Thunder have just one legitimate scoring threat in James Harden behind Westbrook and KD, the Kings have Thornton, Salmons and Fredette behind Evans and Cousins. Don’t forget about Hickson, who scored 20 or more points in 19 of his final 39 games last season.

The Kings’ outlook could also be likened to that of the Chicago Bulls a few years ago. Starting with a terrific little-big duo in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Bulls have climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference just three years into Rose’s career.

If Sacramento wants to shoot up the ranks like the Thunder and Bulls have recently, they’re going to need to start playing defense. They tied for 24th in the League in points allowed last season, a number that will obviously need to improve going forward. Re-signing veteran center Samuel Dalembert could certainly help, but the move toward a stronger defense will have to be one that the core players make. Cousins and Hickson have the potential to be dominant in the low post and Thompson can create some serious mismatches. But everybody is going to need to start playing to their full potential if the team wants to return to where they were from 2000-’04, when they averaged 57.5 wins per season over the four-year stretch. Perhaps second-round pick Tyler Honeycutt can help out defensively, as he averaged a steal and 2 blocks per game with UCLA last season.

Only the Suns allowed more field goals than the Kings last season, despite the fact that Sacramento gave up the eighth fewest three-pointers (Phoenix ranked 26th in that category). This means that the interior defense simply was not tough enough, and if they want to challenge physically huge teams like the Lakers and Mavericks, the post defense has to be better. This largely rests on the shoulders of Cousins. If the Kings want to return to their dominant form, it has to start with DeMarcus Cousins in the middle.

Going forward, the Kings have a lot to build on. They finished last season with eight wins in their final 15 games. They ranked fourth in the NBA in rebound differential, a stat that should improve with Hickson’s arrival as well as the development of Cousins. Offensively, they finished in the middle of the pack in points per game, but with Fredette and Salmons now around, their 99.4 points per game should increase at least slightly. The Champion Mavericks put up 100.2 points per contest last season, so it’s clear some defense could really go a long way in Sacramento.

If DeMarcus Cousins can get his off-the-court act together (he was removed from the team plane after a post-game altercation with Greene in February) and Evans can stay on the court for 82 games (he missed 37 in his first two seasons), they have a chance to form one of the great young duos in the NBA. No team in the League, save the Clippers with Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin, has a guard and big man, both 22 years old or younger, who can produce offensively like these two can, and with an equally young supporting cast now in place, the pieces are truly there for Sacramento improve rapidly.

Keeping in mind that teams in the West like the Suns, Blazers, Rockets and Hornets are on the decline while the Jazz and Nuggets enter a re-building mode, the opportunity for the Kings to slip into the Playoffs is there. Plus, the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks are certainly powerhouses for now, but will no doubt decline in coming years. A new wave of Western Conference teams will rise up, and while the Thunder will certainly be at the forefront of the movement, the Kings could be right behind them sooner than you think.