This new Sacramento Kings regime doesn't shy away from a gamble.
That much was clear the moment current majority owner Vivek Ranadive finalized his purchase of the franchise back in May.
Ranadive gave longtime assistant Michael Malone his first taste of the head-coaching ranks. A similar career boost was granted to first-time general manager Pete D'Alessandro shortly thereafter.
But the on-court moves the franchise has made really indicate its willingness to bet on high-risk, high-reward options.
The new brain trust deemed the supremely talented but short-fused DeMarcus Cousins worthy of a max contract prior to the start of the season. Less than a month into the 2013-14 campaign, the Kings went swinging for the fences again. Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick in 2011, landed in Sacramento after two-plus ill-fitting seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Kings accomplished two things with these transactions. They raised their ceiling, but they lowered their basement at the same time.
Sacramento saw a gamble it liked and acted on it. Does the potential payoff trump the league's other risk-reward pairings?
It feels like a great time to be a Kings fan.
Nevermind what the standings say. For the first time in a long time, it feels like a plan is in place for this franchise.
Cousins isn't a typical cornerstone. He's had run-ins with opponents, officials, teammates and coaches. He treats defense like an optional part of the job, plagued both by a sputtering motor and poor technique.
But his offensive gifts are tremendous. A solid 6'11" and 270 pounds, he has a deep bag of tricks with his back to the basket.
And that's just the beginning.
He has handles men of his size should never possess. He's light on his feet with balance that defies his massive frame. His soft shooting touch and ferocious finishing capture the two tiers of his attack.
Power and finesse. Style and substance.
He could stumble into a gym and walk away with 20 points and 10 rebounds. He's had six 20-10 games already this season. His unassuming quickness has helped him reach career highs in steals (1.6) and blocks (1.2).
Even with red flags flying at full mast, teams would break the bank to pry the big man out of Sacramento.
Williams isn't on that level. He cost the Kings nothing more than spot-starter Luc Mbah a Moute.
But his scintillating skill set could put him back on that pedestal.
He's shown flashes of brilliance in his two-plus-year career. Whenever he could climb out of Rick Adelman's doghouse in Minnesota, he often responded with eye-popping stat sheets.
He averaged 15.0 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds in just 29.8 minutes a night after the All-Star break last season. His offensive versatility allows him to punish smaller defenders on the low block, race around bigger ones on the perimeter or fill highlight reels with his high-flying finishes.
His problem has always been consistency, but that was compounded by a constantly changing role with the Timberwolves.
The Kings are still figuring out just what they have in Williams. He's already seen an 11-minute swing in his floor time through his first three games in Sacramento. Assuming that stabilizes at some point, he'll have the best shot at success he's had in his short career.
Just like Cousins, though, there are plenty of questions he still has to answer.
Unavoidable Question Marks
Cousins is the league's most combustible player.
Some nights, his eruptions are restricted to the stat sheets. Those are the best kind of Boogie nights.
But they're about as predictable as Cousins himself.
Since his NBA arrival in 2010, he's found himself among the top five in technical foul leaders in each of his three NBA seasons.
He held the fifth spot in his rookie season of 2010-11 with 14. He climbed up to No. 2 the following season, racking up 12 techs during the abbreviated 66-game 2011-12 campaign. He reached the category's top spot last season (17), drawing two more whistles than the next-worst violator, Russell Westbrook.
The ownership change in Sacramento and the millions added to his bank account this summer haven't changed his style one bit. He's once again pacing the league with five technical fouls, sharing the top spot with Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.
He admits some guilt, but he blames perception as well for his repeat offenses.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm innocent, because I've done things," he told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. "But to get the reputation that I've got, I don't think I've done enough."
He's right. Perceptions can be damning.
But the reality is he lets his emotions get the best of him. And that hurts his team.
Maybe that damage comes in the form of the free points his technical fouls gives the opposition. Or that massive hole that forms in Sacramento's interior when suspensions keep him out of the action.
Cousins is often only as good as he allows himself to be.
Williams doesn't fight those same demons. His struggles have been far more specific to the game.
At 6'8" and 241 pounds, he's either an oversized 3 or an undersized 4. Even with two-plus years of NBA evidence in hand, the jury's still out on his true position.
The Kings, so far at least, see him as the former. He's held Malone's starting small forward spot in each of his first three games.
But his perimeter game has holes.
He's 2-of-20 from downtown on the season and just a 29.4 percent shooter from beyond the arc for his career. And he's not the type of player to create offense off the dribble. Via NBA.com's SportVU data, he's attempted just seven drives—defined by the site as a touch that starts at least 20 feet from the basket and is dribbled within 10 feet of it, fast breaks excluded—on the season.
The fact that he's a part-time defender doesn't help matters.
Maybe those lapses never had the chance to be corrected in Minnesota. That, or the fuse has already burned out in the light bulb hanging above his head.
Best Gamble in the Business?
All teams take risks. The last thing a franchise wants is an overly conservative roster with limited room for growth.
But few teams swing as wildly for the fences as Sacramento has.
The Miami Heat fired off a pair of desperation heaves on the free-agent market this summer, rolling the dice on both the well-traveled Michael Beasley and the oft-injured Greg Oden.
So far, Miami gets an incomplete grade for the pickups. While Beasley has been a more-than-pleasant surprise, Oden has yet to see a second of regular-season action.
But the Heat can afford that incomplete mark. Winning back-to-back titles buys that kind of luxury.
The Detroit Pistons crossed their fingers and staked the franchise's present and future on two risk-reward talents.
The first gamble came in the form of the hulking 6'10", 270-pound manchild Andre Drummond. The 20-year-old's combo of size and athleticism trumped his less-than-stellar season of college hoops (10.0 points, 7.6 rebounds in 28.4 minutes a night), at least to the point that it convinced Detroit the project was worth the No. 9 pick in 2012.
He's still learning the basics of life in the NBA post, but that gamble is already paying off. The sophomore leads the league in shooting (64.6 field-goal percentage) and is tied for second in rebounds (12.8). He's one of only three players with a top-20 ranking in both steals (2.0, tied for ninth) and blocks (1.3, tied for 20th).
The second one came with more flash and a much higher price tag.
Investing that much money in Smith was a gamble on its own. If he hadn't already convinced himself that he's a perimeter shooter, the investment would be a no-brainer. But he see himself that way (4.7 three-point attempts per game) and that continues to sap his effectiveness (27.0 three-point percentage).
But putting Smith alongside a pair of big bodies in Drummond and Greg Monroe was the definition of a boom-or-bust move. So far, there's been more busting than booming going on. Despite this supersized wall around the basket, the Pistons have allowed their opponents the third-highest field-goal percentage in the league (46.9).
The Pistons have a better team now, but the Kings have the better risk-reward balance.
Sacramento spent big on the supreme talent and took a low-risk flier on the player with a modest upside but an unsettling stat sheet. Sort of like biting the bullet for a prime slab of beef, then gambling on that damaged-but-probably-OK clearance can of vegetables.
Detroit went the opposite direction. Smith, and his unholy box scores, came with those extra zeros attached. Drummond and his freakish potential cost nothing more than a mid-level lottery choice.
There are going to be some down nights in Sacramento and some celebratory ones in Motown. Risk-reward players always cause some ebb and flow.
But for the first time in a long time, the Kings' highs are where they should be and their lows are escaping the danger zone.
Sacramento is now a gambling town. And I like the bets this regime is placing.
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