It's hard to get a read on these Sacramento Kings. Last year, they were bad. They won only 25 games, sat below the league average in just about every measureable category and they ranked 29th out of 30 teams in attendance. By nearly all accounts this team was among the worst in league a season ago.
However, optimism nonetheless crept in where few thought it could survive. It began with the stellar play of the Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans. His 20-6-5 rookie averages were incredible, and he proved to be an unstoppable force when attacking the basket (over half of his shots came at the rim last year). He stood out in a tremendous freshman crop and looks to be even stronger going into this season with an improved jump shot reportedly added to his arsenal.
Another positive that came last season was the mid-season trade that netted the team Carl Landry from Houston. Landry immediately became the team's best post-up option, shooting 70% around the rim, en route to 18.0 ppg for the Kings last year. While his increased usage saw his PER plummet post-trade (from 21.11 to 16.02), Landry filled a huge need for the Kings and he did so at a ridiculously economical $3-million salary.
The team was also relieved to see point guard Beno Udrih, a questionable expenditure in the summer of 2008, rebound after a terrible '08-'09 campaign. His post-All-Star numbers of 14.2 ppg, 6.2 apg and 50-37-80 shooting percentages were a great balance in the backcourt with Evans, despite the tandem offering little in the way of wins.
The promise for this season, though, while including all of the above, comes from the presence of yet another Rookie of the Year candidate in DeMarcus Cousins, the 6-foot-11 center out of Kentucky. In a league that is getting increasingly smaller, Cousins stands out as a beast in the pivot, and combined with Evans he could be one-half of a terrific one-two punch in Sacramento. He's got great offensive instincts, has a nose for rebounds and could easily prove to be the most valuable player to come out of this rookie class, even more so than John Wall. That's because his size and skill set will prove to be a matchup nightmare for teams as he gets acclimated to the NBA game, whereas Wall is the type of player more teams have and, thus, more teams have prepared to slow down. Cousins still has to prove ‘it' on an NBA court, but his ceiling is as high as just about any young big man in the association.
That proving it thing, though, is something that extends all through the organization. While this team has done a tremendous job on paper of assembling a strong young core of talent (clearly attempting to emulate the Oklahoma City model), they were bad last year and will be expected to be bad until they prove that they can be good. Lots of young talent tends to introduce the possibility of immature mistakes on the court and a lack of basketball refinement. It's through adjusting to those mistakes that determines how good a team can get. Oklahoma City was dreadful during Kevin Durant's first two years, but they (from management to coaching to the roster) mined on those mistakes for wisdom and turned the club into a 50-win outfit last season. Sacramento has a lot of work to do before anything can be expected of them, but at least they appear to have the talent to do really impressive things should all of the elements fall into place.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - BENO UDRIH
Udrih's new role in Sacramento is probably not his ideal NBA job, but so long as he's being paid $6.5-million per-year, he'll have to play it the way the team wants. Udrih has been reared with the ball in his hands, making decisions for the club and initiating an attack. With Evans playing beside him, though, Udrih's role reverts to something closer to that of Derek Fisher in Los Angeles; shot-up shooting. Evans will be the initiator for most of what Sacramento does, and as his shooting improves the team will be that much more inclined to leave the ball in his hands. If Udrih keeps shooting like he did last season, then he'll be an ideal floor spacer for Evans (and Cousins), and hopefully it's a role he embraces despite it's lack of use for the playmaking skills he spent the early part of his professional life honing.
SG - TYREKE EVANS
At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds and a wingspan that would be the envy of most bigs, Evans was practically built to play NBA basketball. The ease with which he adapted to the pro game last season was pure bliss to watch, as was watching opposing teams try to rein him in on defense. He's drawn comparisons to a young Dwyane Wade, but Evans actually had a more productive rookie season than Wade did (save for the win differential). He's so unstoppable going to the basket that even a semi-reliable mid-range jumper would open up his game tremendously as defenses would get killed for playing up on him to deny his shot and they'd get burned sagging off of him to deny penetration. With Cousins in toe now, too, Evans has a partner that will take some of the attention off of him, which should open up the floor for him even more. If there is another young guard with more potential in the NBA right now, I don't know who he is.
SF - OMRI CASSPI
This is a total shot in the dark. Like last year, the Kings have several options at this position and no clear choice for opening night. Casspi is intriguing because his outside shooting helps spread the floor for Evans and Cousins, and he was stellar at times this summer with the Israeli National Team, but his Summer League performance was kind of weak and he couldn't sustain his quality play for the duration of last season. Donte Green is another option, but right now he's still more potential than player on a night-to-night basis. There's veterans Francisco Garcia and Antoine Wright, and both offer definable skills that could help this team (shooting and defense, respectively). When it comes down to it, though, Casspi's upside and popularity probably win him the day on opening night, but that doesn't guarantee he'll keep the job if he can't improve his consistency in year two.
PF - CARL LANDRY
Minutes do funny things to people's efficiency. When Landry was in Houston, his production off of the bench was stellar, and he was often the team's go-to scorer down the stretch in fourth quarters. Add ten minutes to his per-game average, though, and a starting role, to boot, and you see a guy's consistency start to ebb a bit. First, because teams are now game-planning for you as a starter, working to deny you with starting caliber players. Second, because increased minutes means more shots which gives you more chances to miss. Third, as a sub you're the primary attraction on the second unit whereas with the starting five you can get bumped to second or third in the pecking order. Regardless of why Landry's efficiency dropped, however, he still brought the high-percentage low-post scoring that the Kings were looking for when they gave up Kevin Martin to get him, and with a full training camp under Paul Westphal he should be able to regain some of that consistency that defined him Houston. Even if not, at $3-million per-year it's hardly like he's performing below his earning power, so how can anyone really complain with what they're getting from him?
C - DEMARCUS COUSINS
I don't care that Westphal plans on using Sam Dalembert here, or that he plans on easing Cousins into the NBA game or anything else; Cousins is the future of this team at center and at some point this season he'll be the starter and he'll stay there for the foreseeable future. After all, while Dalembert can be an effective rebounder and shot blocker, he's also a foul machine and provides little in the way of offensive support to a team that ranked 22 out of 30 in offensive efficiency last season. Plus, throwing Evans to the wolves worked wonders to accelerate his development last season and there is no reason why the same logic shouldn't be applied to Cousins (he went for 16 points and 16 rebounds in his first starting gig in preseason). He'll be a starter sooner or later and since there is no earthly reason to think that latter is the smarter choice, I'm going with sooner on his bet with Cousins.