What Sacramento Kings Can Learn from Remaining Regular-Season Games
As the NBA regular season winds down, teams are looking ahead. Those in playoff contention are looking to potential postseason matchups and their positioning. While those out of the playoff picture are looking to the offseason and ways to improve their team before 2013-14 rolls around. The Sacramento Kings are one of those teams.
Sacramento has already been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. The Kings are looking to the offseason and ways to upgrade their team. But they can use this final stretch of games to help answer some questions before the regular season ends.
The Kings can evaluate the coach, they can examine their draft positioning, they can look at their impending free agents and they can determine which positions are most in need of an upgrade.
Yes, the season is winding down. No, the Kings aren't playing in the postseason. But they shouldn't just punt the rest of the schedule. This is still a valuable opportunity to get better, and Sacramento needs to make the most of it.
(Note: All contract info was obtained from Hoopsworld.com.)
Where They're Positioned in the Draft
With the draft lottery system the NBA has in place, there's no telling exactly where your team will be picking once the draft rolls around. For some teams, you don't even know if you'll be picking. The Kings are one of those teams.
Sacramento still owes the Cleveland Cavaliers a first-round pick. The pick is top-13 protected, meaning if the Kings' pick falls somewhere in the top 13 selections, they'll retain the pick. If it falls outside of the first 13 picks, the Kings owe it to the Cavs.
This last stretch of games will determine the Kings' positioning for the draft lottery. It could be instrumental in whether or not they'll get to keep the selection. As it currently stands, Sacramento is currently behind seven teams in the lottery.
If the team stays in its slot, it should be able to keep its pick. That's because a team can only fall so far in the lottery before it's automatically awarded a selection. Yet if the Kings get on a winning streak and end up getting to the 10th position, then they could fall enough in the lottery to lose their pick.
It'll be something worth monitoring over these last stretch of games. It's kind of catch-22, because you'd like to see the team finish the season strong. You'd also like to see it retain its first-round pick.
How to Finish Strongly
The Kings aren't going to the playoffs. They've already been mathematically eliminated. In that sense, all you're accomplishing by winning games is decreasing your chances of picking high in the draft. On the other hand, the team can use this home stretch to finish the season on a high note.
The team is 8-7 over its last 15 games. If it finishes strong over the remaining nine games, it will have put a nice finishing touch on the season. Let's say the Kings go 4-5 or above down this home stretch. That'll equate to at least .500 basketball over the last 24 games. That's nearly a third of the season with the team playing .500.
Draft pick aside, it's almost more important the Kings finish the season strong. If they go the previously suggested 4-5 down the stretch, that puts them at 31-51 on the season. It's certainly not great. Yet a 31-win season is something the team hasn't accomplished in the last four years.
At some point this team needs to start climbing back toward respectability. It'd be nice if it could accomplish that this season. The only way to do it is to finish strong.
What They Have in Keith Smart
By the time this season ends, the front office will have had 140-plus games to evaluate Keith Smart. In that sense, what happens over the last nine games likely isn't going to make or break his tenure with the team.
However, if you couple a strong finish down the home stretch with the previous 15 games, you have a decent sample size showing the team is heading in the right direction.
Smart's contract has already been picked up for 2013-14. The Kings could always fire him, but they'd still have to pay his salary for next year. Of course, if Smart finishes strong, it could be enough for the team to extend him so he's not the proverbial lame-duck coach.
How the team finishes down the stretch could be a strong factor in determining which way this goes.
What to Do with Toney Douglas
When the Kings traded for Patrick Patterson, Toney Douglas and Cole Aldrich back at the deadline, Patterson was seen as the only future asset the team received. He was the only player with a guaranteed contract beyond this year, and Douglas and Aldrich seemed to be throw-ins for salary purposes.
Yet Douglas and Aldrich have provided some value. In the case of Aldrich, who's an unrestricted free agent, the Kings can't decide his fate. He's free to sign with whatever team he chooses. Douglas, on the other hand, will only be a restricted free agent following the season. That means Sacramento has some say in the matter.
The Kings could offer him a qualified offer worth $3.1 million to retain him, or they could decline the option, making him an unrestricted free agent. They can use the final stretch of games to help make that determination.
Bringing Douglas back could be a good investment. The team's defense is much improved when he's out there. In fact, Sacramento posts a 100.6 defensive rating when he's on the court, opposed to a 110.1 when he's off it.
When you look at Jimmer Fredette (111.5 on; 107.2 off), who is the Kings' other backup point guard, you see that Douglas provides the defense that Fredette does not. And with defense being such an Achilles' heel for Sacramento, it might be worth it to bring back Douglas.
Furthermore, it's not like Douglas only helps with one dimension of the team. While the difference isn't as sizable as on the defensive end, the Kings are actually better on offense as well (111.6 on; 107.0 off) when he's on the court.
The contract, $3.1 million, may be more than the Kings want to pay for a player averaging 16.4 minutes per game. But if he's making that much of a difference when he's out there, it could be money well spent.
Positional Breakdowns Heading into Offseason
With nine players on the team all but certain to return, the Kings can use the remaining games to figure out their team needs. Now, a lot of those players already have defined roles. That should help eliminate some of the question marks. But others still remain.
For example, DeMarcus Cousins is the unquestioned starter at center. But who will back him up? Is that player on the current roster?
Chuck Hayes has a guaranteed contract next season, so the Kings might have their answer there. Yet Hayes might be too undersized to keep as the sole backup center. That means the Kings should evaluate Aldrich to determine whether they even want to pursue him following the season.
What about a defensive stopper on the wing?
James Johnson was supposed to fill that role coming into the season. He's been somewhat of a disappointment, and the Kings are highly unlikely to extend him a qualifying offer worth $3.95 million. But would they be amenable to bringing back Johnson at a smaller salary? Is his defensive game even enough to outweigh his overwhelming deficiencies on offense?
What about point guard?
Isaiah Thomas is going to be back, especially since he's only due $884K. But is IT a long-term answer at the position? His salary is such that the Kings could bring in someone else. In that scenario, Thomas would still provide excellent value compared to his contract. He'd also be an elite backup point guard, compared to being an average starting point guard.
The Kings aren't going to make these decisions based solely on what they see over the last handful of games. But since the offseason is fast approaching, they should start formulating a game plan for what they need to add before 2013-14 tips off.
Areas of Need
Just as the Kings can find which positions they're lacking and which of their internal options can fill those needs, they can also figure out specific aspects of the team that need shoring up. For example, maybe the Kings need someone who can provide three-point shooting, defense or rebounding, regardless of what position they play.
One area of concern is rebounding. They're currently 20th in total rebounds. They should use the home stretch to determine whether the internal options can elevate their performance in this area, or whether or not the team should bring in players who can attack the glass.
The same can be said for overall defense.
Is it a matter of the Kings not playing good team defense, is it because they simply lack good individual defenders or is it a combination of both? Sacramento needs to answer those questions before it heads into the offseason so it can make the strides on defense it so desperately needs.
You're not going to make any overwhelming breakthroughs on a nine-game sample size. But by evaluating the team in a forward-thinking manner, the front office can begin to figure out what aspects need improvement—that way it can go out and make those changes following the season.
Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso.