Sacramento Kings: This Year's Oklahoma City Thunder

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Sacramento Kings: This Year's Oklahoma City Thunder
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Over the last decade, around three new teams entered the playoffs each year.

And every one of those years, at least one young team made the leap into the playoffs. A team universally regarded as talented, but thought of as still one year away.

With a reverse-draft order, the worst teams continually get access to the best young players. Unless you're the Clippers, eventually—by osmosis if nothing else—a solid core of young talent clicks around a developing All-Star.

In 2009, it was Kevin Durant's Thunder, in 2008 Brandon Roy's Trail Blazers and in 2007 it was Chris Paul's Hornets.

Hindsight bias makes their ascension seem obvious now, but before last season started the Vegas betting line for Oklahoma's over/under win total was 34.5.

In making predictions, we tend to look at past results and assume they will be likely to continue—just look at the first few weeks of NCAA football polling. Power teams like Texas and Florida, despite losing huge senior classes and breaking in new QB's, were ranked in the top 10, because, well, because they are always top 10 teams.

Improving young teams benefit from three factors in racking up wins: flying under the radar of the media and other teams (at least for a while), the natural improvement curve for players under 28 (and the reverse for older players) as well as the energy to play through grueling back-to-backs and seven-day road trips that characterize an 82-game grind.

The Sacramento Kings, whose top 10 players have an average age of 24.8 years old, are one of the youngest teams in the league. But this off-season, the dominant storyline around the team has been the real possibility that they will be moved after failing to get a new stadium financed.

As a result, their steady accumulation of talented players has gone somewhat unnoticed. The betting line for their over/under win total this year is 27.5. Expect them to go over that by a lot.

In fact, with the Suns losing Amare Stoudemire and the Nuggets likely to trade franchise player Carmelo Anthony this season, the Kings are a dark-horse team ready to slip into the Western Conference playoffs.

A good offensive team combines high usage players who can create open looks at the basket off of individual moves and therefore command double-teams (shot-creators) with low usage players who can hit open shots. And the closer those shot-creators can get to the basket, the more it exposes the defense.

With Tyreke Evans and Kentucky rookie DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings have two players who can create easy looks for themselves at the basket.

Evans, at 6' 6" 220 lbs. and with exceptional ball-handling ability, is already one of the league's premier slashers. A bulldozer of a guard with an exceptional 6' 11" wingspan, there are very few players who can match up with him defensively.

According to Hoopdata.com, he attempted the most shots within three feet of the rim last season at 8.4 a game and converting them at a 59.4% clip. That's more than LeBron James or Dwyane Wade and more than post players like Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

Now, with the addition of Cousins, the Kings have a low post game to complement their star slasher. One of the most effective low-post scorers in NCAA history, Cousins, at 6' 11" 270 lbs. and with a 7' 4" wingspan, should transition easily into scoring at this level—especially considering the scarcity of true seven foot centers in the league these days.

According to ESPN's Draft Rater, Cousins projects as the most valuable rookie player, statistically, coming into the season. In six pre-season games, he averaged 16 points in only 26 minutes.

With Cousins and Evans operating in the paint, the lane should be crowded. Most importantly, the Kings have role players capable of taking advantage of this; all are at least passable 3-point shooters—Francisco Garcia (37% career 3-pt. shooter), Beno Udrih (35.8%), Omri Casspi (36.9%) and Donte Greene (33.6%—but 37% last season).

The player in the other forward slot, either former Rocket Carl Landry or former lottery pick Jason Thompson, can operate out of the high post and knock down 15-20 foot jumpers.

The key to a playoff push for the Kings will be their defense. Younger teams tend to struggle defensively because they are so used to coasting on natural ability at lower levels of basketball, and because they are all fighting for second contracts and viable careers in the league—contracts which are almost always determined by offensive production.

With the addition of the shot-blocking Sam Dalembert from Philly, the Kings certainly have no excuse. At every position besides the off-guard spot next to Evans, Sacramento has above-average athletes with excellent wingspans, the foundations of strong defensive players.

The coaching staff will need to have a defensive system that holds players accountable and forces them to focus defensively. The season's real challenge will be whether Paul Westphal, a relatively laid-back offensive-minded coach, is up to the task.

Either way, Sacramento has one of the best young cores in the league, with two likely All-Stars surrounded by talented young role players who complement their game. No matter where they end up playing in the next few years, their future is bright.

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