DeMarcus Cousins could be the biggest detriment or biggest catalyst to the team's success.
The Sacramento Kings would like nothing more than to start off the tenures of owner Vivek Ranadive, general manager Pete D'Alessandro and head coach Mike Malone with a bang. But given all the turnover the franchise has experienced over the past six months, doing so will require overcoming obstacles in its way.
With the new coaching staff in place, adjustments are needed to fit within its system. Part of that is the schematic tweaks that come with a new staff, but there's also the task of fitting in with yet another new face at the helm.
There are rotational concerns that need to be addressed. Most notably, the Kings need to figure out how to navigate playing time for an incredibly stacked backcourt and how to divvy up minutes between their multiple options at power forward.
Last, but certainly not least, center DeMarcus Cousins is now the unquestioned face of the franchise. How the 23-year-old adjusts to this increased responsibility could be the single biggest factor in determining whether or not the season is a successful one.
So while everyone involved wants to see the Kings come out of the gates running, doing so is not going to be easy.
Adjusting to Mike Malone
Believe it or not, the 2013-14 campaign marks the third straight year in which the Kings are opening with a new head coach. Two years ago it was Paul Westphal, last season it was Keith Smart and now the team has Mike Malone manning its bench.
Adjusting to three different messages from three separate head coaches in a three-year period has to be getting old for the players. Yet this is the situation they find themselves in, and how they handle it could be one of the biggest factors in their success.
As a defensive-oriented head coach leading a team that ranked 29th in defensive rating, Malone's first task will be improving that side of the ball. However, outside of small forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the team doesn't really have any above-average individual defenders.
Now, Malone has mentioned that this lack of individual defensive firepower shouldn't prevent the team from improving in this regard. His system is predicated on team defense and on-court communication, both of which can be improved with the players currently on the roster.
However, making those sorts of tweaks requires everyone buying into his system. If only a few guys are communicating on the court, or only some of the players are fulfilling their roles within the defense, then the Kings can expect similar results, and that's obviously not a good thing.
Ultimately, a team doesn't have so much turnover at head coach if things are headed in the right direction. Part of that could simply be that Paul Westphal and Keith Smart weren't the right coaches for the Kings. Yet it also could be that those two were unable to get everyone to buy into what they were selling.
If Malone wants a different result, he'll need commitment from his players, and the only way that will happen is if they're willing to acquiesce to his system.
Managing the Backcourt Rotation
As it currently stands, six of the Kings' players under guaranteed contracts are guards. What's worse (or better, depending on how you look at it) is that all of them are worthy of nightly minutes and none of them are tweeners capable of playing extended minutes at the 3. Therefore, finding a way to manage the backcourt rotation is something the team must solve early in the year.
At both point guard and shooting guard, there's no unquestioned starter. Greivis Vasquez is most likely going to be the team's starter at the 1; however, every time Isaiah Thomas is an afterthought (which he's been in each of his two seasons), he finds a way to emerge in the starting lineup by season's end. That could be the case once again this time around.
Who should be the starting shooting guard?
At shooting guard, Marcus Thornton and promising rookie Ben McLemore figure to be the two candidates as the starter. As the incumbent, and a more than capable NBA player, Thornton might be the best option in the early goings. Yet McLemore has huge upside, and he's likely the team's future at the position, so Sacramento might force him into a baptism-by-fire situation to ensure he's ready in the coming years.
Regardless of who ends up winning both of those starting jobs, the "losers" are still going to end up garnering significant playing time throughout the season. And that's not even mentioning rookie Ray McCallum and third-year player Jimmer Fredette, both of whom will get their share of run.
McCallum will log the majority of his minutes at point guard while Fredette will combo between both spots, depending on who he's caddied with when on the court.
Going in the team's favor is that a couple of the guards are capable of manning both the 1 and the 2. Isaiah Thomas could play off the ball if paired with either Vasquez or McCallum. The aforementioned Fredette is also capable of doing the same thing. That should provide some flexibility and help in alleviating the logjam
But that still leaves McCallum, Vasquez, McLemore and Thornton, all of which are pigeonholed at their respective positions. And depending on whether the team takes a win-now approach or a long-term viewpoint, how their minutes are divided could change.
There's always the possibility of dealing one of the guards for depth at another position. Even then, the Kings will need to get them playing time up until that point to keep their trade value.
So, basically, no matter what the team decides to ultimately do, all of the backcourt members need to have their playing time managed, and it will be up to the coaching staff to start organizing it as soon as the season gets underway.
Finding a Significant Role for Patrick Patterson
The implication of this one is that Patrick Patterson won't have much of a role on the Kings. That's not necessarily the case. But with Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and Patterson at power forward, there simply won't be a lot of minutes to go around. That's why Sacramento should try and find playing time for Patterson in a variety of ways.
Of the three, Patterson's the one that has the most versatility. Jason Thompson does the majority of his work in the paint, with 495 of his 745 field-goal attempts coming within 10 feet of the basket. Carl Landry's got a bit more range than Thompson, but he's a solid interior presence on the boards, so switching him to a role that takes him further from the hoop will mitigate that factor of his game.
Patterson, on the other hand, could be a prime candidate to move throughout the lineup. His development of the corner three-point shot has provided a means of staying effective on offense while outside of the paint. He's also an inferior rebounder to both Thompson and Landry, meaning the Kings could be better served by having one of those two at the 4.
One option would simply be to give Patterson some time at small forward. It's a position he hasn't played much during his NBA career, save for a few short stints during the 2011-12 season. Whether or not he can handle the transition is unknown. But what is known is that Sacramento's biggest weakness is small forward, so it's certainly worth a shot.
Another solution would be to pair Patterson with Thompson, having Patterson at the 4 and JT at the 5. This isn't an ideal scenario, as it requires DeMarcus Cousins to be on the bench.
Yet at 6'11", 250 pounds, Thompson's got the requisite size to play some center. He played the position in spurts last season, and though he's got similar size to most 5s, he'd be much quicker than his opponent counterpart on offense. His quickness, paired with Patterson's ability to stretch the floor, would be a good look to shake things up a bit.
Besides, it would get Patterson more time on the court. Perhaps more importantly, it would be an alternative to Chuck Hayes, who has some value as a post defender, rebounder and facilitator from the high post but provides next to nothing in ability to create his own shot.
DeMarcus Cousins' Stature as Face of the Franchise
DeMarcus Cousins has been the Kings' best player for the last two years. Expecting him to fill that capacity yet again is nothing new. Yet this is the first time DMC is the official face of the franchise, the player with which management expects to build around.
The days of Tyreke Evans and Cousins as the pillars are gone. If he develops, Ben McLemore could one day occupy Evans' role. For now, it's all Cousins.
In most cases, and with most players, this wouldn't be seen as a hurdle. In fact, it may not be as far as Cousins is concerned. What separates the 23-year-old from most players of his caliber is the X-factor of his maturity. Because of that, you never know how he'll respond...in virtually any situation.
It could be that this is what Cousins was waiting for. He's talked a big game in the past about being the go-to guy. This is his chance to put his money where his mouth is. Or it could be that this elevation in stature does nothing to affect his professionalism.
Now that Cousins is the unquestioned cornerstone, what are you expecting from him?
Here's the simple fact: No player, coach or executive will have as big of a role in determining how successful 2013-14 will be as DeMarcus Cousins. If he's dedicated to his craft and stays poised when everything isn't going his way, the Kings will have a transcendental player on their hands and a bright future. If he's not, Cousins has the ability to undermine everything that's being built in Sacramento. He's that important.
Whether Cousins is a hurdle needing to be overcome or a catalyst in overcoming hurdles is completely up to him. But the Kings are hoping this is the year the center finally goes from the former to the latter.
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