Okay, so maybe the Sacramento Kings aren't exactly "guaranteed" to be a playoff team in 2013, but there is ample reason to believe that they will at least seriously challenge for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference in 2013.
Well, for one thing, the Kings have one of the most talented young rosters in the league. Led by center DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento boasts one of the more gifted starting lineups (at least offensively) in the league, including the likes of Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, and Isaiah Thomas. The fifth player will either be rookie Thomas Robinson or Jason Thompson, depending on whom head coach Keith Smart elects to go with.
After an impressive rookie campaign in 2011 which saw Cousins average 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, the soon-to-be-22-year-old big man burst onto the scene in 2012, putting up 18.1 points and 11 boards a night while flashing incredible athletic ability for a player his size. Yes, there are some maturity issues, as Cousins actually asked to be traded back in January, but that was primarily because he was unhappy with then-coach Paul Westphal. After Smart took over, it was almost like Cousins was a different person.
I expect Cousins to put forth an even better effort in 2013, and it wouldn't shock me in the least to see him average 20 and 12.
Clearly, I think the Kentucky product is going to spearhead what I think is going to be a very exciting season for Sacramento next year, but it will not solely be because of him. Robinson, whom the Kings selected fifth overall in the draft, should provide Cousins with some much-needed help in the frontcourt, as Cousins was really the only big man capable of scoring consistently for Sacramento this past season. With the talented Robinson now in the fold, Cousins' job becomes that much easier, and the Kings' frontline becomes that much more lethal.
As far as the supporting cast is concerned, it was just two years ago that Evans won Rookie of the Year. Yes, he was a bit disgruntled toward the end of this past season because he was forced to play small forward, but he is very talented and will only be 23 by time the 2012-13 campaign starts. He has time to mature, and even if he still displays some immaturity issues this coming year, he will still fill up the box score, as evidenced by his averages of 16.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game in 2012.
That brings me to Thornton and Thomas.
Let's start with Thornton. I have loved his game ever since he was at LSU, and I thought the Miami Heat made a huge mistake when they traded him to the New Orleans Hornets after drafting him. I then thought the Hornets made an even bigger gaffe by dealing him to the Kings in the middle of his second season, as he demonstrated in his rookie year that he has the potential to be a prolific scorer in this league.
Thornton certainly showed his scoring prowess in 2012, posting 18.7 points per game to lead Sacramento. The inside-out game that he and Cousins formed last year should be even better in 2013, and that spells very bad news for opposing defenses. Could the Kings have two 20 point per game scorers on their hands next season? It's very possible.
Now, on to Thomas. This is a kid that was the last pick of the 2011 draft. So, basically, everyone else had a chance to take this accomplished guard out of Washington, but they were scared off by the fact that he was only 5'9". Well, now the Kings are reaping the benefits of the rest of the league's negligence, as Thomas averaged 11.5 points and 4.1 assists per game en route to making the All-Rookie Second Team.
As a matter of fact, those statistics do not even necessarily do Thomas justice, as it wasn't until after the All-Star break that he started playing big minutes (31.2 as opposed to 19.6 prior). His numbers? 14.2 points and 5.2 assists per game, not to mention the fact that he shot over 47 percent from the floor. Picture that: a 5'9" point guard shot the ball at a 47 percent clip. That is outstanding. Oh, and his three-point percentage during the 33 games after the All-Star break? 39.8 percent.
Now that you understand how talented Sacramento's starting lineup actually is, let me get into another reason as to why this team has a great shot at making the postseason in 2013.
Look at the teams that will likely be fighting for the seventh and eighth seeds in the West. The Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Hornets.
Of that group, the Jazz are the only team I can confidently say will make the playoffs. The Mavericks may consist of Dirk Nowitzki and a bunch of mediocre to poor players, the Rockets are in rebuilding mode and could very well end up dealing Luis Scola and Kevin Martin (and that has been rumored), the Warriors have players that have trouble staying healthy (namely Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry), the Blazers are likely losing several players to free agency, the Suns are losing Steve Nash, the Timberwolves will be playing a good portion of the season without Ricky Rubio (who is recovering from a torn ACL), and New Orleans just has all sorts of question marks.
A playoff berth is right there for the taking for the Kings. If Cousins can take his game to the next level and become the unquestioned third best center in the league and Evans keeps his mouth shut and plays, Sacramento can be a very dangerous team that no one will want to play in the postseason. The Kings are still another year or two away from becoming downright scary, but the pieces are in place for that to happen.
So get ready, Sacramento fans. You could be in for a great year in 2013.