Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sacramento Kings

Through the first two weeks of the season, the Sacramento Kings have been one of the biggest stories in the NBA. They came into Dallas with a 5-2 record and they certainly looked the part early, getting out to a 20-point first quarter lead and squeezing the life out of the Mavs offense. Dallas was able to claw back into the game and pull out the win, thanks in large part to foul trouble for DeMarcus Cousins, but the Kings certainly made an impression.

"They hit you with physical force. They have skilled guys and they can make shots," said Rick Carlisle after the game. "We knew it would be a grind of a game, whistle-by-whistle, possession-by-possession." 

Sacramento doesn't really look like a modern NBA team. That may be why they zigged when everyone else zagged this summer - no team's off-season got more puzzled reactions around the league than the Kings, who gave up on Isaiah Thomas to bring in Darren Collison, on his fifth team in six seasons. So far at least, their unconventional approach has worked like gangbusters, although their schedule the rest of November is brutal. 

The Kings don't run a lot of pick-and-rolls, they don't spread the floor and they don't shoot a lot of 3's. They play really simple basketball - they hold the ball, they run a lot of isolations and they pound the ball into Cousins and Rudy Gay. Instead of a stretch 4, they start two conventional big men in DMC and Jason Thompson. They play like a big team - they hit the offensive glass, they foul a lot and they get fouled a lot. In short, they are bringing the 1990's back. 

You can see it in the numbers. They are 27th in the league in 3PA and 30th in the league in 3P%. They take 37.3 FTA's a game, 1rst in the league, and they give up 26.9 FTA's a game, 26th in the league. They don't get a lot of assists (23rd in the league), but they also don't get a lot of turnovers either (21rst). They wear you down over the course of game and make you play at their pace - running offense through DMC allows them to control tempo.

The way to beat them is the way you beat any 90's team - you try to pack the paint and force them to beat you over the top and you try to stretch out their defense and get their big men in a lot of screen/rolls on the perimeter. You can also make up a lot of ground when they go to their bench, as they play Gay and DMC together a lot and there isn't much scoring punch on their second unit. This is not a team that can afford many injuries.

One of the keys to their early start has been the play of Ben McLemore, whose rebounded from a tough rookie season and started to establish himself in the NBA. The Kings have really simplified his role - just spot up, launch 3's and stay out of the way on offense. He's their best three-point shooter and he's really the only guy in their starting line-up who can space the floor for DMC and Gay. The key numbers for him: 43% shooting, 40% from 3, 1.4 turnovers a game.

Starting McLemore instead of Nik Stauskas also makes them a much better defensive team. They have an elite athlete at 1, 2 and 3 in-front of two physical big men. They are currently rated 11th in the NBA in defense, which is a tribute to Mike Malone's defensive schemes and the growth of DMC. He's never going to be a great shot-blocker, but he's become much, much better at reading the game and getting himself in the right position on defense.

Going forward, the obvious place to upgrade the starting line-up is at the PF position. Even if they don't want a stretch 4, they might as well get someone who can provide a little more scoring punch than Thompson, who doesn't appear to have much, if any, of a role in the offense. Looking at their cap situation this summer, the guy that jumps out at me is Greg Monroe*, who would really fit their mid 90's Heat vs. Knicks motif. 

My guess is their depth and lack of shooting eventually catches up with them in terms of making the playoffs, but that's not what will determine whether this season is a success. The key for them is that they have found an identity - they know who they are and they know the type of players they should be looking for. This is a team that should be trying to play like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers, grinding out possessions in the half-court.

* Monroe, basically, would be the Z-Bo to DMC's Gasol.

That's what DMC is built for. He's one of those guys you really want to see in person - the camera doesn't do justice to just how big and physical he is around the basket. Even though he only played 30 minutes on Tuesday, he still had 16/11/5 on 7-13 shooting. The craziest part is he still has so much room to grow, on and off the court. He's still only 24 years old. Check out what he said after the game:

A few years ago, that's a pretty good indication that he racked up 2 T's. Instead, he kept his cool all night, even when he was drawing a lot of whistles. Also - the Mavs were absolutely mugging him all night. At one point, Chandler picked up a foul for close lining him on a post-up. They just had no real way to deal with him. "Cousins is as difficult a match-up as there is in this league," said Carlisle. "In terms of brute strength but also basketball skill."

DMC is a 1990's player in a 2010 league. He ain't trying to be everyone's friend and he's not afraid to let you know he's there in the paint. When you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world to build a 1990's team around him. The Kings look like they have something.

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