November 12, 2017, 7:10 pm
Nobody expected the Kings to compete for a playoff spot, except for Charles Barkley, but when you look at a roster that has quality starter George Hill, lockdown defender Garrett Temple, serviceable when used correctly Zach Randolph and quality big Kosta Koufos – it’s fair to expect a certain level of veteran competency.
That, when paired with solid young talent in the form of De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield, should produce wins against bad teams and generally stay out of league-worst territory.
Many organizations have done much, much more with way less. Last year’s Sixers and Suns squads won 28 and 24 games, respectively.
The year before that the tanking Nets won 21 games. Various Heat and Hornets squads have eked their way to much better results. Memphis, with Dave Joerger at coach no less, was able to win games with a bunch of D-League guys two seasons ago.
The bar isn’t that high here and it’s not unfair to expect better results on the court.
In that respect, measuring development is pretty simple – are the players improving or are they not.
Are young players getting ample playing time and are they getting put into strong developmental experiences when on the floor.
Even that is fairly subjective since any experience can have the positive extracted out of it.
But again, the measurement is best viewed as a question of whether the young Kings are lapping up drops out of the spigot, or are their cups overflowing, or something in-between.
Record-wise, the veteran talent combined with ability of the young guys is better than the 20 wins they’re currently on pace for. If you don’t believe me go ahead and believe Vegas, who had them at about 28.5 wins or thereabouts prior to the season.
It begs the question of what is currently wrong with the Kings, whether or not it’s an issue with small sample size, or if there is something larger with the way they approach rebuilding compared to other organizations.
It’s also fair to look at how the Kings have handled past situations in the Vivek era (non-Malone period).
When DeMarcus Cousins repeatedly drove into flailing, fall-down drives and teams ran 5-on-4 the other way, it never stopped.
When George Karl let Rajon Rondo run an absurdist offense, or let Marco Belinelli and James Anderson be primary ballhandler/playmakers, and eventually alienate everybody but a handful of media people – the Kings just let it happen.
Heck, pre-dating this regime the Kings and many, many people surrounding the team could not see that Isaiah Thomas was a future NBA All Star, so maybe there’s something in the water in Sacramento.
Last year, when Dave Joerger played Matt Barnes 25.3 minutes per game while he was perhaps the worst player in the league when factoring impact (playing time + leash + locker room = clown show) – nobody in the organization had any juice to stop him.
Cousins wanted Barnes to play and Joerger trusted him from their time in Memphis. The coach has told media many times that he feels like vets need to play in order to have a locker room voice and we repeatedly heard last season that Barnes was a team leader.
This season it’s a new veteran and, frankly, a much better version of Barnes in Randolph. He can control tempo on the offensive side in stretches and he’s somebody the kids should actually listen to.
But Randolph’s presence on this team is emblematic of past organizational struggles to see basic strategy problems on the court, and its inability to step in and demand accountability when those issues present themselves.
Z-Bo has an astounding net rating of -22.1 this season in 24.6 mpg. His rebounding rate is down to 13.4 percent, by far the lowest of his illustrious career. His free throw attempts (1.9) are down because he can’t beat guys with regularity anymore.
It’s okay to say it – he’s old.
His turnover percentage (16.7) is nearly twice what it was last season when he functioned very well as the Grizzlies’ backup center. He was good in that role, going against second unit guys and becoming the focus of the second unit.
And that’s really the nexus of the Kings’ issues here. Randolph, installed as a team leader off the floor is being given a role that matches that on the floor.
For the starting unit, that has mostly been a disaster. Four of the team’s worst net ratings belong to guys in that group. After Z-Bo, Willie Cauley-Stein checks in at -17.6, Bogdan Bogdanovic runs at -16.0 and much-maligned George Hill brings back a -14.8.
(And also why the kids are probably tired of being blamed for the ills of their parents)
Look a little deeper and the problem with the first unit becomes a bit more complex, though it’s not all that complicated if you believe a team can and should optimize its systems to fit the talent.
The Kings lack the type of playmakers that create double-teams and make life easier for the other offensive players. What they lack in playmaking they make up for in versatility and athleticism.
Hill, Temple, Bogdanovic, <Insert Player Here> and Cauley-Stein should be able to run.
Hill slowed down in Utah because Quin Snyder runs the league’s slowest system, but his teams in Indiana were all middle of the pack. It’s not as if he’s adverse to running. Temple and Bogdanovic can run and one of the strengths of Cauley-Stein is supposed to be his rim-running.
But with Randolph on the floor they’re running a Utah-like 96.1 possessions per game, mostly because he takes a while to get back up the floor after defending, and because on offense he requires a series of pauses and jab-steps to get into what he wants to do.
Unfortunately for all involved, it’s not really working, which the numbers bear out.
If we isolate the stretches in which Randolph is scoring, he’s bring tempo to the offense, but he’s only a neutral player for the Kings. When he’s not scoring and he’s turning the ball over, Z-Bo is a sieve that’s dragging the Kings into the abyss.
And that’s the question for the Kings to consider. None of these players are served well by playing in 30-point blowout losses.
Is the allegiance to positioning Randolph as a team leader via minutes, touches and primary playmaking duties at the root cause of it.
And is the overall system, highlighted by allegiance to Randolph, Koufos and a deliberate high post offense holding everybody back?
Hill is the new punching bag locally because of his big contract, and on the floor he looks lost, but are we really expecting him to be comfortable – not even running – but watching the Kings’ repetitive and ineffective sets?
Or are we going with the Thunderstruck theory of having forgotten how to play basketball? It’s certain he’s spiraling the wrong direction as lack of confidence is the defining characteristic of his play.
Skal Labissiere — who is more of an internal punching bag — who somewhat amazingly owns the team’s best net rating for anybody playing 19 mpg or more, is working through having strict liability for the mistakes he makes – an old school method of coaching that checks to see if pressure bursts pipes or if it makes a diamond out of coal.
And so far he’s mostly failing. It’s hard to compete in the NBA as a raw player and especially when everything going on around you is suboptimal.
And when everybody else around you is afforded mistakes, yet you’re on the hook for all of yours, it’s a bit unclear on how that’s going to end well for anybody involved, let alone for somebody like Labissiere.
He currently lacks both the feel to know what’s effective, or the confidence to keep an edge when his mistakes carry more weight than those of his teammates.
He, more than any Kings player, has the widest range of possibilities in development roulette.
The starting unit isn’t good enough to run a slow and deliberate action, at least not with the type of scheme that requires Cauley-Stein to be a primary playmaker, or with sets that give the defensive team options such as ‘let Garrett Temple beat you’ or ‘go ahead and shoot that 18-footer.’
The Kings are built to run and quite simply that’s not going to happen with Randolph on the floor. It’s antithetical to what his role is for that unit and this team.
Therein lies the rub for Joerger. He basically disavowed any use of Randolph at backup center, which is curious since he just thrived in that role last season.
What happens, though, if you use Randolph at backup center is that one of Koufos or Cauley-Stein gets crunched unless you play Cauley-Stein at power forward, which should at least be an option on the table if you pair Z-Bo with one of the Thin Towers.
Or, you say au revoir and give a tip of the cap to Koufos for a job mostly well done as a backup big in the NBA, but you don’t shed a tear for the fact that defenses and opposing coaches are thrilled to have the Kings run so much offense through him.
Joerger clearly does not want to do that and it’s because he does not think Skal is ready, full stop. And he loves Koufos.
Still, cutting Koufos’ minutes to optimize the presence of Randolph is actually combining two problems into one – a win for the Kings after they overstocked the cabinets with clichéd veteran experience and side of comfort food for Joerger.
Now that you’ve made those moves you still have to keep the trains moving on schedule.
It’s not as if the season’s first 15 games aren’t going to become 30 or 50 within the blink of an eye, especially for an organization with a history of not intervening when bad basketball decisions are being made.
And on that note the messaging from Joerger and the team is to push goalposts back not just through the end of the season but all the way through next year, too. Some of that is fair and some of that is posturing.
Likewise, the decision to wrap the team’s offense around Randolph when he’s on the floor makes sense.
That said, wrapping this team around Randolph and giving him full run of the yard at this stage of his career is also posturing.
It’s brutally obvious his minutes should be more in the 16-20 mpg range and that he’s a better fit as a second-unit gunner. But veterans can only have a voice in the locker room if they’re leading on the floor, and young players need to earn their minutes, or so the legend goes.
Meanwhile, the Kings’ pace — once a great buzzword of the Pete D’Alessandro era — is actually a thing that’s holding them back.
In games that the Kings have lost by nine or more points (six total), the Kings have an average pace of 95.7. In games that they lose by eight or less (or win), the Kings’ pace jumps up to 100.9.
Throw out an outlier win against the Mavs (90.5) against the backdrop of five other games in which the pace ranged from 100.6 to 105.8, that average number in those such games jumps up to 103.0.
When Randolph is off the floor the Kings jump up to a good, but not great 100.0 possessions per game. That’s a big change that could easily be bigger if the system relied on more pick-and-rolls and less offensive resets once they got done with the secondary break.
However you implement an increased pace, players like Fox, Hill, Mason, Temple, Hield, Bogdanovic, Jackson, Skal and Willie are all going to have an easier time playing in quick-hitting, reactionary situations with the defense on the move.
Asking them to be deliberate and think the game through against defenses that are setup and not afraid of the Kings’ primary actions is a recipe for failure.
The information is readily available and it’s right here on the table.
The question for the Kings is whether or not they have the organizational fortitude to rethink Randolph, and whether or not veterans need to be handed minutes they’re not earning in order to establish culture.
As we all know, the tougher road that requires better navigation and more patience usually yields the better result.