Much of the Kings' success will depend on the play of DeMarcus Cousins.
This year's version of the Sacramento Kings is almost nothing like we've seen in the past. The franchise has a new owner in Vivek Ranadive, a different general manager with Pete D'Alessandro and an unfamiliar face at head coach with Michael Malone. These three men will be instrumental in the team's revival.
Of course, a new head coach and GM aren't needed unless the team isn't living up to expectations. After missing the playoffs for seven-consecutive seasons and coming off a campaign that saw the franchise finish 28-54, that's undoubtedly the case.
Beyond a change in management, the Kings have also seen a lot of turnover on their roster. As with the management side of things, such a switch in personnel isn't needed if the players are having on-court success.
The hope is that the change in the fabric of the franchise will foster a winning environment. Whether it does or not remains to be seen. But this much is clear: Without it, the organization was stuck in neutral. At least now it has a legitimate chance of moving forward, and that will all start in the upcoming season.
But before we get into predicting how the team will fare in 2013-14, let's examine its strengths and weaknesses, along with a breakdown of the squads that figure to be the Kings' biggest competition.
Believe it or not, the Kings were actually one of the better offensive teams last season. The team finished 12th in offensive rating at 106.85 points per 100 possessions. It also finished 10th in scoring, with an average of 100.2 points per game.
While Sacramento lost its second-best scorer in Tyreke Evans, who averaged 15.2 points per game, it parlayed Evans' departure into the acquisition of point guard Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez gives the Kings a legitimate point guard, and his pass-first mentality should help to set up DeMarcus Cousins with some high-percentage scoring opportunities.
If there's one area the Kings are strongest, it's their depth in the backcourt. The team figures to have two new starters in point guard Greivis Vasquez and shooting guard Ben McLemore. However, there's plenty of depth backing up those two.
Who should be the first guard off the bench?
Isaiah Thomas, who was the starting point guard for much of the last two seasons, figures to be a spark plug off the bench. The 24-year-old averaged 13.9 points in 26.9 minutes in 2012-13 and 18.7 points per 36 minutes. While he'll likely see a small dip in playing time, he should still be able to contribute offensively while splitting time between the 1 and 2.
Marcus Thornton was the primary sixth man last season and averaged 12.7 points in that role. He may see a decrease from his 24.0 minutes per game, but he's already demonstrated he can produce coming off the bench.
That leaves Jimmer Fredette and rookie Ray McCallum. McCallum figures to get the lion's share of his playing time at point guard. He's best suited for the position and should give the team another pass-first option to back up Vasquez.
As for Fredette, it's unclear where he'll fit into the depth chart. He played much better in his second season than he did as a rookie. But he performs best playing off the ball and is an excellent spot-up shooter. That could be his biggest role on the team—the ability to stretch the floor with his ridiculous range, indicated by his 41.7 three-point percentage.
It'd be one thing to be a bad team and an aging team. At least the Kings have youth on their side. Six of their 14 players currently under contract are younger than 25 years old. And only three of their 14 players will be 30 or older when the season tips off. Furthermore, the Kings have seven players who all have three years or less of NBA experience.
Having youth on the roster doesn't guarantee success or even improvement from all of the young players. Because every person develops differently, there's no telling which players have tapped out their physical potential.
But mentally, with the right coaches in place, every player can hone his craft. That's where the youth and experience really come into play. Many of these players are still early into their NBA learning curve, and that could bode well for their ability to improve in the future.
There's really no denying that the defense has been a glaring weakness on the Kings. They were one of the worst defensive teams last season. Sacramento had the second-worst defensive rating, allowing 112.16 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, their opponent average of 105.1 points was worst in the NBA.
Luckily for the Kings, new head coach Michael Malone is known for his defensive acumen. As the lead assistant with the Golden State Warriors over the past two years, he led the team from 26th in defensive rating in his first season to 13th last season.
Sacramento has also added a defensive upgrade in Luc Mbah a Moute. According to 82games.com, Mbah a Moute held opposing small forwards to a PER of 10.0 in 2012-13. He also posted a defensive rating of 107, which is markedly better than John Salmons' 115—who was the team's primary starting small forward last season.
Not only did the Kings struggle to prevent opponents from putting the ball in the basket, they also failed to corral rebounds on occasions when the opposition missed.
Sacramento was the worst defensive-rebounding team in the league last season, only hauling in 71.0 percent of its defensive-rebounding opportunities. As far as the offensive glass is concerned, the Kings were marginally better, collecting 26.6 percent of their offensive-rebounding chances, which was good enough to rank them 16th in the NBA.
Overall, the Kings were 25th in the NBA in team rebounding, averaging 40.5 rebounds per game. Conversely, the team was 24th in opponent rebounding, giving up an average of 43.5 rebounds.
While the Kings were actually one of the league's better teams when it came to scoring ability, they were one of the worst when it came to passing. And it makes sense if you spent much time watching the team last season, as many of its points came off of one-on-one baskets.
The addition of Greivis Vasquez should really help in this regard. Vasquez was third in assist percentage among all qualifiers last season. Compared to the team's previous starting point guard, Isaiah Thomas, who was ranked 61st among qualifiers, it's a significant upgrade.
It seems like there are almost too many notable changes to consider with the Kings. Chief among them are the overhauls at the top of the organization with GM Pete D'Alessandro and head coach Michael Malone. These two gentlemen will be guiding the franchise, and they've already left their fingerprints with some personnel decisions.
Sacramento added shooting guard Ben McLemore with the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft. Entering the draft, the Kansas product was projected to go in the top three picks. When he fell all the way to the seventh selection, the Kings pounced on him. He figures to be the shooting guard of the present and, most certainly, the future.
With the selection of McLemore and his agreement to a four-year, $44 million offer sheet from the New Orleans Pelicans, Tyreke Evans became expendable. Instead of letting him walk for nothing, the Kings flipped Evans for Greivis Vasquez. That move clears the way for McLemore at the 2, and it also provided an upgrade at point guard.
Beyond that, Sacramento has made a couple lesser acquisitions, both of which should still impact the team. Ray McCallum was added with the franchise's second-round pick. He figures to be one of the primary backup point guards, splitting time with Isaiah Thomas, who also figures to spend time as a combo guard. The Kings also added Mbah a Moute, whose defense should be a welcome addition.
Comparisons to Their Likely Western Conference Competition
Before we get too far into this category, I should point out that it's based on the teams who figure to be the Kings' closest competition. Since the Kings don't figure to be players in the playoff picture, most of these teams also find themselves in a similar boat.
The Blazers are a difficult team to figure out. On the one hand, they've got some serious talent in point guard Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. With another year of development from Lillard, who was last year's Rookie of the Year, and the addition of C.J. McCollum through the draft and Robin Lopez via trade, Portland could be much better.
Which of these teams is most likely to make the playoffs?
On the other hand, the Blazers really struggled with depth last season. While their starters led the NBA in scoring at 79.0 points per game, their bench was dead last with an average of 18.5 points. The additions of Dorell Wright, McCollum and Earl Watson should help in this regard, but it might not be enough to get them back into the postseason.
Minnesota has been ravaged by injuries the past two seasons, causing them to fall short of expectations. With better luck in that department, coupled with the acquisitions of Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad and the emergence of Nikola Pekovic, the T-Wolves could finally be making a push toward the postseason.
The Suns were the worst team in the Western Conference last season, finishing with a 25-57 record. While the franchise has made some noticeable changes to its makeup, the on-court results figure to be similar.
Jeff Hornacek was brought in as head coach. Phoenix also added two first-round picks in the draft with Alex Len (No. 5 pick) and Archie Goodwin (No. 29 pick). On top of that, the Suns swung a couple different trades, netting Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee.
The acquisitions add to Phoenix's depth, but they likely won't be enough to make a significant jump in what figures to be an extremely competitive Western Conference.
New Orleans Pelicans
Of the Western Conference teams that finished behind the Kings, the Pelicans seem to be the one most likely to make a dramatic jump in the standings.
In 2012-13, No. 1-overall pick Anthony Davis looked solid as a rookie, and he only figures to improve with a season of experience under his belt. The team also added Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to its backcourt, along with key reserves in Greg Stiemsma and Anthony Morrow.
If the chips fall the right way, New Orleans could go from the 15th-place team in the Western Conference in 2012-13 to a team primed to sneak into the back end of the playoffs this upcoming season.
Utah was considerably better than Sacramento last season, finishing at 43-39 and only missing the playoffs by two games. Yet amid a bunch of roster turnover, the Jazz figure to take a step back.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who formed a formidable frontcourt duo, have both moved on. In their place are promising youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. The two prospects have incredible upside, but filling the void left by Millsap and Jefferson in 2013-14 seems unlikely. The Jazz also added Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert through the draft.
In the future, Utah will be a force to be reckoned with. Gordon Hayward, Kanter and Favors have all shown signs of bright futures. And former lottery pick Alec Burks finally has a chance for extended minutes. But the Jazz should be looking toward 2014-15 and beyond, because barring something unforeseen, they'll be a lottery team this upcoming season.
How many wins will the Kings end up with?
Amid so much uncertainty, pegging a win total for the Sacramento Kings isn't an easy thing to do. The pieces on the team are better suited for each other than they've been in the past, especially the acquisition of a pass-first point guard in Vasquez that'll keep DeMarcus Cousins involved.
But given that it's Sacramento's first year in Michael Malone's system, it's difficult to envision the squad making any serious noise. With a defensive-minded coach in Malone, the team should improve its atrocious defense. Yet a larger jump in this area is likely to occur in 2014-15, after Sacramento has had a full year to adapt to the new schemes.
Furthermore, while Ben McLemore is a promising player and one that could potentially compete for Rookie of the Year honors, he's still only a rookie. He's likely to go through some growing pains, and given that he's projected as a starter, that learning curve could have an effect on a team that'll already be going through the process of adapting to a new coach.
Yet, the Kings were downright bad last season. Since the bar was set so low, it's very possible for them to be considerably better, yet still nowhere near the playoff race.
In fact, this is the most likely scenario.
In a stacked Western Conference, and given all the change the Kings must adapt to, it's unrealistic to expect them to qualify for the postseason. But the franchise is heading in the right direction, and it should manifest into a step forward.
Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso