Biggest Needs for Sacramento Kings During 2014 Offseason

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

Biggest Needs for Sacramento Kings During 2014 Offseason

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    Ranking atop the Sacramento Kings' list of needs is patience. This is still a young club that almost certainly hasn't seen its best days. 

    Patience may be a tough sell for an organization that remains on the outside of the playoffs looking in, but it's as important part as any to building a winning formula. Head coach Mike Malone is only one season into installing his defensive philosophy, and a young core is still trying to find its way in an incredibly competitive Western Conference.

    The Kings don't have much further to go on the rebuilding front—the franchise, more or less, has all the talent it needs already in place. The finishing touches will be significant, though. 

    Sacramento's cultural overhaul isn't complete. The role players may not be the best of fits. And no one would complain about having an additional veteran or two at the forefront of the rotation. These are all very doable fixes. 

    Kings fans are awaiting better days, and they deserve them. The team hasn't made the playoffs since 2005-06. 

    How can they return sooner rather than later? Here's one formula.

Holding on to Rudy Gay

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    Rudy Gay is playing the best ball of his career with the Kings, and he could just be getting started. During his stint with Sacramento this season, Gay is averaging over 20 points per contest and shooting the ball better than 48 percent.

    There's a lot to be said for finding a good fit with the team, but this could also be what it looks like when Gay starts to hit his prime. 

    The question is what Gay wants to do, however. He sounds like he's enjoying his time in Sacramento, but he also hasn't made any firm promises.

    This much we know—he's comfortable in Sacramento, according to Basketball Insiders' Bill Ingram: "I have to [keep a positive attitude], man. No matter where I go, I have to be me and be the best me I can be. Honestly, I feel like I do that better here. The wins don’t really pan out like I like for them to, but I definitely feel comfortable here."

    On the other hand, this is a man experiencing mixed emotions as recently as March, as NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper notes: "I don’t know. My gut tells me different things every day."

    Kings fans can't feel too reassured, assuming in any event that they're intent on keeping Gay around. They probably should be.

    Take a quick glance around the league and see how many long small forwards you find who can shoot like Gay. He's no Durant or LeBron, but who do you have above him after that? Paul George? Maybe former teammate DeMar DeRozan?

    At worst, you'd have to compare Gay to a more offensively inclined Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler (albeit a slightly older version.) 

    Now the more pressing question is whom among these swingmen is going to be available anytime soon. Expensive as Gay is, he's available. It's hard to put a price on that.

Trading Their Lottery Pick

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    The Kings only have three players over 30. Their core consists of 20-somethings, including 25-year-old Isaiah Thomas, 23-year-old DeMarcus Cousins, 22-year-old Derrick Williams and 21-year-old Ben McLemore.

    Of Sacramento's primary rotation, only Rudy Gay could truly be considered a well-traveled veteran—thanks as much to his well-traveled history as his age (27).

    All of that to say, the Kings are very young. Getting any younger wouldn't be especially advantageous at this point, not for a team that appears to finally be on the verge of turning the corner. ESPN's Chad Ford breaks down the draft dilemma:

    Barring a lottery miracle, they'll miss out on the top prospects in the draft, meaning they'll add yet another young player with talent, but not a franchise-changing one. The addition of Rudy Gay this season was an attempt to make a move away from just building around young players, but so far it hasn't had much of an impact. The Kings have talent, but their path from mediocre to contender is one of the unclearest in the group.

    There are plenty of teams who would love to get their hands on a top-10 prospect in what promises to be a relatively deep draft. Some of those teams are sure to have veterans who could help make the Kings better in the short-term.

    Any trade would likely require Sacramento to assemble a package based around their pick, one that potentially includes an expiring contract (perhaps Jason Terry's) and/or a solid young player like Jason Thompson. 

    If all of this sounds like a sign of impatience, to some degree, it is. The Kings have young players who can play. They just need some help to actually start getting wins. When your veteran leadership consists in Reggie Evans and Carl Landry, there's something to be desired.

    The Kings need a two-way difference-maker, someone who changes games with energy and defensive intensity—a Wilson Chandler type. Those kinds of players are few and far between, but Sacramento has the assets to make a run at one.

Improving on the Defensive End

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    Carl Landry is a microcosm of everything that's wrong with the Kings roster, and by no fault of his own really. The rotations just weren't assembled with defense in mind. The role players who should ostensibly make up for a defensively lacking core aren't those type of players.

    For the record, Landry only played in 18 games this season, so he's certainly not the problem in any concrete sense. That dubious distinction belongs more to someone like Derrick Williams, a younger version of Landry, if there ever was one.

    Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster explains how Sacramento's defense remains so enigmatically lacking:

    The whole reason Sacramento is in this mess is because it's continually dealt for players who are scorers who lack the ability to do much else on the court. Thornton was inherited, but Landry, Gay and Derrick Williams were acquired willingly.

    That just doesn't mesh with the core group. Cousins and Thomas can handle the scoring load, but they're going to give up points on the other end. This current supporting cast isn't supporting in the least bit, as it needs touches to have any real value. That's a problem.

    The Kings won't have any cap space unless Rudy Gay walks and, even then, signing additional talent is likely to create logjams at positions where the team already has sufficient depth. There will need to be trades, probably relatively small ones that won't generate huge headlines. But there's no doubt that the Kings defense is, to some large degree, a personnel issue. 

    Teaching some of these old dogs new tricks may not be entirely feasible.

    The Kings gave up well over 103 points per game in 2013-14, ranking them 24th league-wide. There are intangible fixes that can and will help, but the surest solution would be importing some role players who understand their contractual existence is predicated on getting stops.

Keeping the Core Intact

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    The biggest mistake Sacramento can make at this point is blowing everything up prematurely. 

    While there are some changes that should be made around the margins, the Kings have one of the best young cores in the league. Look for McLemore to take on a bigger role next season, and look for the triad of Cousins-Gay-Thomas to continue developing into All-Star caliber talent. There are no guarantees in this business, but it's awfully hard to imagine this group taking a step back.

    Chemistry is a good thing, and it doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it takes years to develop in full, and it arguably never stops developing.

    Who better to break down Sacramento's emerging core than head coach Mike Malone? Suffice it to say, he likes what he sees, according to Basketball Insiders' Bill Ingram:

    I’m not even sure of the exact record, but I know we’ve shown the ability to be a great competitor and beat a lot of the best teams in the NBA when those guys are all playing. When they play at a high level, three 20-point scorers, we become very hard to guard because you have a low-post force, a wing with the versatility and athleticism that Rudy has and a point guard in Isaiah who can score, get to the foul line and make plays for his teammates. Not that many teams have that three-headed attack. It’s great to have and hopefully we’ll be able to keep those together because with that core you add some pieces to that and you allow Ray [McCallum] and Ben [McLemore] to continue to mature and get better and I think we have a solid foundation. Those guys, offensively, are terrific and they’re getting better defensively.

    There's really nothing keeping this team from scoring at a Rockets or Clippers-like pace in another season or two. The pieces are all there. It's just a matter of them gelling and dictating tempo. 

    It's also a matter of them "getting better defensively," as Malone puts it. While peripheral adjustments to the roster could help on the defensive end, the biggest difference may simply come as this unit learns to play with one another.

    Getting stops isn't just about having stoppers around. It's also a function of timing, understanding rotations and knowing when and how much to help. These things are learned, so, to some degree, we just have to be patient and hope the message sinks in.

    The Kings have to be tougher and quicker defensively, but—more than anything—they have to be smarter. That entails a broader cultural change on a team that simply hasn't prioritized the defensive end in a long, long time.

    The mistake would be confusing a cultural change with making serious alterations to this roster's core. One need not imply the other.

Giving Mike Malone Some Time

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    Mike Malone has been on the job for all of one season. 

    The worst thing the Kings could do is leave it at that. Malone was an invaluable component of Mark Jackson's staff in Golden State, and he has the pedigree to become an outstanding head coach in this league.

    But alas, he also has a young team, some messes to clean up and the ever-unpredictable DeMarcus Cousins with whom to work. Every day is an interesting for Malone, and that may remain the case for the time being.

    It didn't take long for Malone to tire of his team's bad habits. He tore into his team in December and set an unmistakable tone for the rest of the season. Losing ways are unacceptable. His comments came on the heels of another lackluster defensive effort, as reported by Cowbell Kingdom's Jonathan Santiago:

    Michael Malone admittedly wears his emotions on his sleeves. After his team’s latest loss at home, the Sacramento Kings head coach was seething. Malone hates to lose and despises it even more when the losses pile up due to a lack of execution. Last night’s defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans was a prime example of the latter. In a winnable game, the Kings allowed the Pelicans to shoot better than 54.5 percent from the field and score 36 points in the game’s final period en route to a 13-point victory.

    The Kings' play was clearly incompatible with the vision and philosophy Malone had for this team coming into the season. He described that outlook in no uncertain terms, clearly outlining the culture and thinking needed to change, according to The Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones:

    The identity of our team is going to essentially come down to four things. Defense is No. 1. Rebounding is No. 2. And once we rebound, we want to become a running team, but we run with discipline. And that means obviously taking care of the ball and proper shot selection. The last thing is valuing the basketball and sharing the basketball.

    The turnaround hasn't been instantaneous, but there has been progress. The Kings moved from 29th in points allowed to 24th. And, according to ESPN.com, they improved the rank in rebound differential from 27th in 2012-13 to fourth this season. 

    Though there remains plenty of work to be done on the defensive end, you can't deny this is a much better rebounding team. That won't translate into a significantly better record alone, but it's a sign that someone's listening. Malone's philosophy isn't falling on deaf ears. It will just take a little while for it to fully sink in.

    Malone deserves however long it takes.