Time for Change? A Look at the Future Value of the Kings’ Roster

What does the future look like for George Karl, Demarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings from here on out?
Wednesday’s 110-105 loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, seemed to be a nail in the coffin for most Sacramento Kings fans’ optimism. After beating the Indiana Pacers on the road to go 12-17, many Kings fans envisioned a 3-game stretch against the Blazers and Sixers at home, and the Warriors in nearby Oakland, that would result in at least a 2-1 stretch, and a chance to be 14-18 and perhaps in the lead of the 8th spot by the start of the new year.

Instead, the Kings lost all 3 games (including a loss to the Blazers in which Portland was missing Damion Lilliard), and the results were uninspiring the least, as the Kings lacked cohesion, chemistry and discipline in what should have been a resume-boosting trio of games. Kings fans have already raised their pitchforks and gone on their soapboxes about the Kings’ inconsistent, disappointing and at times un-watchable 12-20 start this year, so I will not go into that debate much further. Rather, I want to take a look at the roster and analyze who is worth keeping and who is not going forward for the rest of this season and on.

Maybe the Kings will stick with the plan and the Kings in the current mold. Maybe change is already on its way (knowing Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, it’s probably the case). But the Kings are at a crossroads right now, and it’s worth looking into and seeing what direction the Kings could take to make this franchise competitive again, especially as they move into the Golden 1 Center next season.

The Inactive/End-of-the-Bench Guys

Duje Dukan, Eric Moreland, Caron Butler, Seth Curry, James Anderson

Dukan is pretty much a non-factor in this discussion, and is pretty much roster-filler for the Kings. Caron Butler, who was supposed to give some veteran leadership on and off the court to this team, has been such a non-factor that he’s been the subject of frequent trade rumors the past week or so. And though James Anderson is a scrappy player and a good story, his presence on this roster seems a bit superfluous. He probably needs to be on a team that would better utilize his calm, no-frills demeanor (I mean the Kings could…but we’re 32 games into the season and Anderson remains an “occasional” player at best).

The only two worth keeping perhaps are Moreland and Curry. Moreland has been a project of the Kings the past couple of seasons, as he has gotten quite familiar with I-80 East considering how many times he’s been called up and demoted to the Kings’ D-League team in Reno. In the D-League, he averaged a double-double, putting up a line of 13.7 ppg and 12.7 rpg in 7 career D-League games. But he hasn’t gotten much clock in the NBA, as he has appeared in only 8 games and has played 26 minutes total. With Cousins taking a majority of the minutes at the 5, George Karl preferring small-ball lineups, Willie Cauley Stein the post player of the future for the Kings (though his injury history isn’t a good sign), and a fractured foot that may cost him the year, it just doesn’t seem feasible to keep Moreland on for much longer. Sometimes, players are late bloomers, as Hassan Whiteside, a former Kings draft pick, has proven. I know the Kings and Kings fans do not want to give away another potential Whiteside player. But with the current makeup of this team, it doesn’t seem worth it to have Moreland in the Kings’ plans for the future, even if he does hold some talent and potential upside.

As for Curry, his future is a bit more debatable. Curry isn’t the playmaker that his brother is and never will be that kind of player. And Curry is more of an off-guard who could thrive in spot-up situations than the kind of shot-creator that brother Steph is. And Curry’s upside seems a bit limited at 25 years old. However, if Karl is going to be the coach of this team going forward, Curry would make a lot of sense for his fast-paced, shooting-heavy system (especially considering this team lacks consistent outside threats). He is young and he could find a valuable (not to mention affordable) role off the bench as shooter off the bench. He currently has a 3-pt FG percentage of 40.9 percent and he shot 46.7 percent on 334 attempts last year in the D-League with Erie, so he certainly has that capability to develop into a role player with the Kings.

The Veteran Bench Crew

Quincy Acy, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos, Darren Collison, Omri Casspi

I like Acy personally as a player. He hustles, goes all out and his effort makes up for his lack of natural skill in all kinds of ways. He is basically a younger and slightly more skilled Reggie Evans, whom I also liked a lot from last year’s squad. However, Acy is the typical “struggles to find a place” big guy that the Kings have had a tendency to acquire the past few years (JJ Hickson, Carl Landry, Ryan Hollins, etc.). Acy may be a good team guy, and he probably deserves more clock than he gets, but he is pretty expendable to the Kings at this point, especially once Cauley-Stein gets healthy.

Belinelli and Collison also fall into the same boat, though they are more talented players and could net more in return than Acy. Belinelli was signed to give the Kings a veteran shooter who came from a winning pedigree (he previously played with the Spurs). However, he hasn’t been able to replicate his San Antonio days in Sacramento. And a lot of that makes sense. The Spurs are a team that thrives on ball movement and role-specificity, and the Kings under Karl have been far from that, as he allows his team to be more free-flowing for both good and bad. That is not a good fit for Belinelli, and it shows, as the lack of role definition is causing him to have one of the worst years of his career in Sacramento (his 32.7 percent 3-point percentage is the lowest of his career thus far, and his 10.3 PER is the second-lowest of his career, above only his rookie year where it was 8.2 and he was buried on the bench by Don Nelson, who typically does that to rookies).

As for Collison, he filled in admirably as a starter lasts season (not easy to do considering he was replacing fan favorite Isaiah Thomas) and has given some fire and depth to the Kings’ bench this season. Also, he has been a nice complement on the court to Rondo, as Collison can not only shoot a bit from the outside (to help mask Rondo’s shooting woes and open up the lanes for him to drive and create), but he can also be a good running mate for Rondo on the break, as his speed and playmaking ability (though not as strong as Rondo) give the Kings a viable second point guard who creates a lot of options in the full-court game. According to PER, his tenure with the Kings has been the strongest of Collison’s career (16.8) and he has maintained his ability to generate shots for others (23.9 assist rate) despite the presence of Rondo, while still being efficient with the ball (13.5 turnover rate, which is better than Rondo’s 24.7 rate, and one of the best rates of his career thus far; he’s also doing this despite their usage rates being quite similar, with Rondo’s 19.1 and Collison 20.4).

Collison has been a more positive story in Sacramento while Belinelli has been more of a disappointment. Despite their different skill sets and performances as Kings, they really share what should be the same fate: they ought to be explored for possible deals by the February trade deadline or by the end of the year. Collison has only one more year left on his contract, while Belinelli will have 2 more after this season, and they are both complementary players that can help a playoff team or a team on the cusp solidify a spot in the playoffs. But, they are not much more than role players, and the Kings need to fill in these spots with younger guys who have more upside and are a lot cheaper to boot.

Kosta Koufos may be in the same boat. But I hesitate to throw him in, because his contract his a bit longer and more expensive than Belinelli’s and Collison, and he is a good insurance policy for Cauley-Stein (whose health is worrisome) and Cousins (whatever the Kings should do with him). Unless you could straight up trade him for a young big man, Koufos probably merits a place in the Kings’ future, or at least until they are able to find another projectable young big to fill in the void for Boogie should he be gone (more on this later). And Koufos has proven to excel in Karl’s system (as he did in Denver) and after a down year offensively, he has picked it back (his PER is 15.3), though his defense hasn’t been as dominant as in years past with Memphis (that may have to do more with Memphis’ system and defensive-minded players, something the Kings lack, as per Karl).

And lastly, Casspi deserves to stay with this roster. His best years have come in Sacramento and he has proven to be a valuable fit to the chemistry of this team. He has been one of the few players to really mesh well with Cousins, and he provides good leadership and stability to a squad that lack those two characteristics tremendously. If there is such a thing as “untouchable”, Casspi is it in my mind. He’s only costing the Kings six million combined this year and next year. Keeping him should be a no-brainer for Vlade Divac and Kings management.

The Draft Picks

Willie Cauley-Stein and Ben McLemore

Cauley-Stein is an injury risk. He got hurt in college at Kentucky, and his injury this year isn’t promising, especially considering how injuries can derail post players in a hurry (Greg Oden, Joel Embiid, etc.). But, Cauley-Stein showed some promise in the beginning of the year, and he is the kind of defensive player who could help change the culture of the Kings organization. He has a tremendous skill set and athleticism that allows him to guard multiple players on the floor, and his abilities are certainly missed, especially as the Kings’ defensive effectiveness continues to plummet. WCS probably will never be more than an average offensive player (his 13.5 PER this year is a bit discouraging for a big, which PER tends to favor). That being said, I think he could have a Steven Adams kind of impact on this Kings team, and i think that is worth keeping around for in the Kings’ long-term future, or at least through the duration of his contract which could be as early as 2016-2017 or as late as 2018-2019 depending on whether the Kings pick up his option.

McLemore on the other end has really disappointed this season, especially after a promising start last year. Unlike Cauley-Stein, it seems as if McLemore’s future as a King is in doubt. He gets buried behind more veteran players in Karl’s rotation (specifically Belinelli, Casspi and even Collison, who plays more crucial minutes at the 2 with Rondo), and he hasn’t really developed into the kind of scorer scouts imagined he would be when the Kings drafted him No. 7 (and many thought that was a steal, as he was projected to go Top-3). He still shoots the 3-ball well (40 percent this year with 37.8 of his total shots 3-pointers), but the rest of his offensive game still leaves a lot to be desired (hence his 10.0 PER). And defensively, he constantly seems lost and gets taken advantage in switching situations (and he certainly doesn’t get much help from his teammates in this regard either).

I like McLemore more so than most (maybe it’s the Kansas connection for me). But, I don’t see the Kings going forward considering how far his stock with management and fans has dropped in Sacramento. He needs a change of scenery, and with his rookie contract up after next year, McLemore could be a good low-risk pickup for teams looking to add some perimeter scoring to their rosters.

The Veteran Stars

Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo

The outlook on Rondo is not complicated. He needed Sacramento because they were the only team that would take a risk on him after his dysfunctional stint in Dallas, and his injury plagued last couple of years in Boston. Rondo did what Rondo needed to do to get himself back in the discussion as one of the more desirable point guards, and his value hasn’t been higher since his  pre-Brad Stevens Boston days. (And if you think about it, I would take Rondo over Derrick Rose at this point, something unthinkable a couple of years ago.) That being said, I do not think Rondo ever envisioned a long-term future with the Kings and I don’t think management did either, and it’s obvious on the court, as he does seem a bit more aloof and at arms-length with this current squad (I mean, they can’t even help him up correctly, just showing how not on the same page they are). Watching him make incredible dimes and show glimpses of the Rondo that tore up the Eastern Conference during the “Big 3” days of the Celtics has been a joy to watch in Sacramento, but his tenure as a King from Day 1 has always felt like it was just a temporary pleasure rather than a sign of things to come.

Gay on the other hand is a bit of a different story. It seemed the past couple of years that Rudy was starting to mature as a player and buck the bad mojo he got from his days in Memphis and Toronto. The common adage was that those teams “got better” when Gay left town because Rudy was the kind of efficiency-killing scorer that could put up great numbers, but didn’t help his team win on the court. In his first one and a half years in Sacramento, he seemed to be a welcome surprise. In 55 games in 2013-2014, he put up 20.1 ppg and 5.5 rpg and finished with a 19.6 PER and accumulated 4.5 win shares (compared to 0.3 in 18 games with Toronto that year). The next season was even better, as he averaged 21.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.7 apg in 68 games and bettered his PER to 19.7 and win shares to 6.1. For all those Gay-critics out there, Rudy did his part to demonstrate that he was capable of being the “star-like” player in Sacramento that many envisioned him to be back in Memphis and Toronto. Kings fans grew to love him, management rewarded him with an extension through 2016-2017 (with a player’s option in 2017-2018), and he even represented Team USA roster in the FIBA World Cup (though he was an alternate who was chosen after a bazillion others declined).

But this seasons unfortunately has been a regression to the performance that Memphis and Toronto fans warned Kings faithful about. His scoring has dropped to 17.5 ppg, his PER has dipped to 15.9 (barely above average), and his true shooting percentage has fallen 4.1 points from 55.6 percent to 51.5 percent this year. Rudy is no longer dominating in any regard, but seeming to settle as the efficiency-killing scorer who seems moreconcerned about impacting his numbers rather than his team’s standing in the win-loss column. This self-absorbed nature with numbers is not surprising considering the addition of Rondo has seemingly usurped Gay’s role as the No. 2 to Cousin’s alpha dog title. It seems like Gay has struggled to develop his role on this Kings team with Rondo taking his place, and because of that, he is getting less touches (his usage rate is down from 27 percent to 24 percent) and trying to do too much when he does have the ball to prove he still can be a Robin to Cousins’ Batman. Much to his and Kings fans’ chagrin, Rudy instead has gone from Robin to Alfred, only if Alfred was bad at keeping care of the house or had a tendency to spill the beans about Batman’s whereabouts every now and then.

Now the one argument you could make with Rudy is that Karl has gotten him to adjust his offensive shot selection, as he has made more of an effort to take more shots in more “effective” areas. Take a look at Rudy’s shot chart from a year ago:

Screenshot 2016-01-01 at 4.28.52 PM

Now let’s see how Gay has altered his shot selection in a full off-season under Karl:

Screenshot 2016-01-01 at 4.31.52 PM

As you can see, Rudy is relying less on the elbow mid-range shot (a staple shot of his, especially last season) and focusing more on the corner and elbow 3 pointers as well as finishing at the rim more. So, though Rudy has struggle to fit in amidst the addition of Rondo, and his percentages aren’t as good as a year ago, it could be that Rudy is simply growing through this shot adjustment (not a bad thing because him taking better shots will be better in the long run). Maybe he’ll get back to his old numbers and perhaps even surpass them as the season goes along and as he plays more under Karl. That is one argument that makes Rudy worth keeping around in Sacramento.

Despite this shot selection “improvement” though, the main issue with evaluating Rudy is that despite his talent and the flashes of brilliance he showed with the Kings prior to this season, the days seem to be dwindling for him as a King. As long as Rondo is on this team, he won’t be the kind of player that was so effective the past two years for Sacramento. At the same time, even if Rondo goes and Rudy becomes the focal point again (along with Cousins), will this Kings team be a playoff contender or the same kind of squad that hovered in the 28-34 wins range? The answer to that question seems to be closer to “no” than yes, especially considering the Kings were more talented than they were the past couple of years, and still don’t seem much better than a 28-34 wins squad.

And as talented as Rudy is, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of player that can be “the guy” for this Kings team, especially if Cousins leaves. He probably could not handle team’s best defenders, and he wouldn’t have the complementary talent to help ease the pressure off of him and help him succeed offensively (he always succeeded as a secondary threat remember in Sacramento). And thus, the Kings are stuck in this situation where having Rudy really is more damaging than good, but they probably won’t have a lot of options with him. He is a solid role player, maybe a bit better than the typical role player, but he can’t help a team get over the top and he can’t lead a team by himself. And to make matters worse, I cannot imagine Rudy’s stock is high, simply because NBA executives know about this label for Gay, and they know adding him would be a bigger risk than it is worth. Hence, that makes the decision to deal him so difficult because the Kings know they would be severely under-compensated in any transaction involving him.

It’ll be interesting to see what they do with 22. I think the Kings would be better off without him, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Kings will suffice getting the short end of the stick in order to change the scenery in Sacramento or if they will hold onto him knowing that they put a lot of money into him and they want to see their investment through, with the slight hope Rudy can be the Rudy of the past two years and somehow go against history and be more of a “star” player that can help the Kings over the top in year 4 or the tail end of year 3.

I know…that sounds like wishful thinking but don’t underestimate Vivek and this Kings management.

The Franchise Player and the Head Coach

Demarcus Cousins and George Karl

What do the Kings do with Boogie? Is it time to cut ties? Do they try another coach? Do they close their eyes and hope for the best.

Basically we have to come to an agreement to this central fact: Boogie and Karl cannot get along and are poisoning this team whether intentional or not.

So, that means either Cousins goes or Karl goes…and this is where things get dicey.

I believe the Kings should ship Cousins and stay with Karl through the duration of his contract.

/gets ready for eggs being pelted at him.

/gets hit in the head. Says “I’ve been shot!”

/wipes eggs off forehead.

Now the first thought in many Kings’ minds is this: why let Cousins go and stick with Karl? Shouldn’t it be vice versa?

This pains me to say because I love Boogie so much as a basketball fan. He has an incredible skill set. When he is amiable, he is one of the most charming players in the league and maybe in Kings history. To have a guy who can average 20-10 and be one of the most feared post players in the league isn’t an opportunity that is available every draft. I really believe Cousins’ is one of the league’s 10 best players in sheer talent, impact and long term value.

At the same time, there are times when places or situations just are not fits. We saw it in Philadelphia with Barkley and the Sixers. Webber had to go through two organizations (Golden State and Washington) before he really found his niche in Sacramento. Zach Randolph had failed stops in Portland, New York and the Clippers before he really was embraced by Memphis and established ‘Grit ‘n Grind’.

Yes, Cousins is a rare talent. But the Kings need to move on and cut the cord for the sake of their organization as well as for fans’ psyche. This relationship is akin to an unhappy marriage that was in dire need of divorce long ago. And furthermore, Cousins needs a change of scenery for his own sake as a player. The Kings have tried multiple coaches, different GMs and even a new ownership group and it’s the same issues popping up time and time again. The attitude. The lackluster defensive effort. The yelling at teammates. The ejections. The pissed off interviews post game. Cousins may truly develop into a major superstar in the league, capable of carrying his team into contention in the Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone or Hakeem Olajuwon mold, but he needs to be in a winning environment. He needs to be in an environment or around players that will call him out on his shit, and he needs a coach that will utilize his talents properly while still challenging him to grow as a player and a leader. I just cannot foresee that in Sacramento. He’s gotten away with too much, and the organization has let him down too much that he cannot trust them with anything and vice versa.

I do not know where Cousins will end up. However, if he cares about winning and his legacy, he will go to a team where there will be “true” veteran leadership. There needs to be an organization with a clear plan, and a coach that won’t be afraid to stand up to him, but keep things in house. I hope Cousins succeeds because he seems to be a really good person at the core (like I said, this guy has really had no issues off the court as a King). And furthermore, when he is on, he can be one of the most enjoyable throwback players in the league to witness. Just watch the highlights below and you can see what I mean. Hopefully, a new organization will give him more of the good (as evidenced in the highlights) and less of the bad and ugly that unfortunately has tainted his career in Sacramento overall.

And with Cousins days likely (and in my opinion should be) numbered, it only makes sense to see Karl’s true vision for this team. A lot of people say that the Kings should focus more on the half-court and slow it down and be a style that is more akin to the Memphis Grizzlies or 90’s NBA, which means getting rid of Karl. However, that is a style that only made sense with Cousins. Without a true big to build around, and Cauley-Stein more of a defensive-specialist, it makes no sense to fire Karl and try to build that style of play. There is a lot of dysfunction with this Kings team, but Karl has them playing well offensively: they are 3rd in the league in points scored and 19th in offensive rating (and doing this despite underwhelming performances and lack of chemistry). If Karl can really get the players he needs, the kind of quick, up-tempo savvy athletes that made his system work in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver, then the Kings may be better sooner than people think.

And if people think the idea of Karl rectifying the ship without Cousins is a wishful fantasy remember this: After the 2010-2011 season, the Nuggets parted ways with Carmelo Anthony, whom the Nuggets got a big haul for which included no-name guys and a lot of draft picks and cap-clearing pieces. Two years later, the Nuggets were one of the best teams in basketball, despite not having a “star” player (yes, they lost to the Warriors in the first round, but if you look at the whole picture and the struggles of some key players, not to mention the injury to Danilo Gallinari prior to the playoffs, a lot went bad luck-wise for the Nuggets heading into that series, which Karl or anyone else couldn’t control). In my mind, Karl can do that again, especially considering the Kings seem to be a little tweak here and there from being a playoff team in a year or two. Just look at what the Nuggets did that season below and tell me Kings wouldn’t be excited for that in the new arena:

If Karl has more say in player personnel, and if the Kings can net good hauls for Rondo, Rudy (perhaps) and Boogie (and whoever else I said was expendable above), it is entirely plausible to think that Karl can have the Kings in the playoffs in the 6-8 range as a fast-paced team with a strong core of young talent as well veterans whom mesh well with Karl’s coaching philosophy. Vivek wants the Kings to play up-tempo. The Kings have thrived for the most part in such a system beyond Cousins and Gay (to a degree though on Rudy; let’s wait and see until the second half of the year). Why not give Karl a real shot at making this happen without the baggage that is preventing this from really seeing it through (i.e. Cousins)?

It will be interesting to see how things develop within this organization over the remainder of the season. Will Vivek finally give into what Karl has been harping for behind the scenes (trading Boogie)? Will Vlade finally re-tool this roster into a team that has a good long-term future and not just short-term one? And will Kings fans buy into Karl and let him do what he was hired to do (build a playoff team in the mold of his former Sonics, Bucks and Nuggets teams)?

They will all be questions that most likely will be answered before or by the February trade deadline. It will be fascinating to see what kind of Kings team will be hitting the floor when the Golden 1 Center opens its doors in 2016.