Could the Kings Actually Be Decent?

Sacramento has come out to a surprisingly competent start after years of being awful. They’re 4-1 through their first 5 games, they’re only loss coming to the Warriors, who are leaving a scorched earth trail through the rest of the league. Aside from the team that’s violating an imagined version of the Geneva Convention with their quality play, the Kings have squared off with two other playoff teams – the Trailblazers and the Clippers, as well as a not-untalented Denver squad.

So it’s not a case of crap competition artificially inflating the win total, does that mean Sacramento is for real? And how, after spending the offseason actively shedding talent by letting Isaiah Thomas walk only to replace him with Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions while making no other non-draft moves, are they doing this?

A lot of the roster is playing somewhere between mediocre and bad, and they’re collectively hitting a blistering *30%* on threes, so that’s not doing anything for them. Starters Ben McLemore and Jason Thompson are both currently rocking PERs below 4 (say what you will about PER, but “below 4” does now and will always indicate bad play). The thing that’s both saving the team and propelling them to unexpected new heights is the excellent play of the teams two “stars”, DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay.

Gay is playing fantastic basketball, but it’s bolstered by some unsustainable shooting percentages. He’s putting in over 50% of his 3s, which obviously won’t continue, but that actually shouldn’t be too big of a problem as he’s only taking about 20% of his shots from out there. The biggest sign of encouragement is the sheer volume of free throws he’s generating. Thus far Gay’s taken 46 free throws.

We’ve always known that Cousins could play so long as he could stay on the floor, he’s putting up some amazing numbers even by his standards. In the second matchup against Denver he fouled out after 22 minutes. Other notable stats he racked up in those minutes were 30 points on 14 field goal attempts and 11 rebounds. In 22 minutes. Holy crap. He’s also been getting to the line, and he’s been doing it at a slightly higher rate than even Gay.

Those two have both averaged 24 plus points per game, which is good, but it’s not overwhelmingly surprising either. The player’s stats that can cause a double-take so far is Collison. He’s also getting to the line, almost 7 times per game, and even though his usually trusty jumper isn’t falling he’s managed to parlay the trips to the line into decent scoring numbers while also dishing a solid number of assists. Reality be damned, Collison’s presence has resulted in a better offense than the team had with Thomas. Who cares about talent?

The offense is ranked 12th, but the defense might be an even bigger story, ranking 9th in spite of starting Collison, who looks pretty good so far. The Kings have generally been terrible on that end for years, leading to Mike Malone being brought in previously to right the ship. That hadn’t happened until now, but that 9th overall ranking, even through 5 games, is a big step in the right direction. If they can sustain that, Sacramento might actually stay in the playoff hunt for a while.

The schedule hasn’t been easy so far, but it’s about to get a whole lot worse. There’s an extended run of playoff or playoff-hopeful teams coming up. The easiest one on the docket for the next 10 days is the Thunder (everyone take a second to pour one out for those poor bastards) – other than that it’s all legitimately good teams. If they come out the other side of that stretch at something like 7-4 they will be in great shape, mostly thanks to their tenacious attacking in the face of all logic.

A bad shooting team shouldn’t be scoring well. A team playing these guys shouldn’t be playing sound defense. It’s happening though, and it’s pretty damn cool so long as it lasts.

My Favorite Things

One of my favorite songs is John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things. I discovered it a few years ago while listening to a random selection of Coltrane tracks as I worked. I was immediately drawn to this particular song, although I didn’t know why; it took me another listen to realize what was so familiar about it. Once I recognized the Julie Andrews song underlying Coltrane’s version (if you’ve never heard it, know that he isn’t hiding the inspiration in the least, I just happen to be dense) I cracked a smile. Something that old and familiar had found a new way to bring me joy.

So it goes with the NBA. As many games and seasons as I’ve watched, I still find new things that delight me in the middle of the long, otherwise barren stretches of the regular season. With the new season in full swing, here are a few things that have brought me some measure of happiness or amusement so far.

Bosh Looking Good

I’m not a huge Chris Bosh fan by any stretch, but there’s something appealing about seeing him blast out of the gate this year after spending years in LeBron James’ shadow. Dwyane Wade is off to a bit of a slow start, Luol Deng is more of a third option than an offensive pillar, and the rest of the roster doesn’t have much firepower. That leaves the offensive burden on Bosh, and thus far he’s responded well.

Through the first 3 games (all Heat wins) he is averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. The points are great, but the assists are a bigger indicator of how much more of a role he has this season in directing the offense. At no point during his tenure in Miami has Bosh averaged more than 2 assists per game. It’s also just generally fun to get to see him operate in the post after years of hanging around the perimeter.

Phoenix’s Point Guard Numbering

The Suns had one of the most exciting teams in the league last season, due in large part to their duo of point guards: Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. They can play together or separately, and they push Phoenix to an exciting up tempo style that’s effective and fun to watch. This offseason the Suns decided to force their advantage by adding another speedy point guard in Isaiah Thomas. A couple of early season games are hardly enough of a sample size on which to draw meaningful conclusions, but it’s safe to say the feisty up tempo style and multiple point guard looks are here to stay.

That’s all nice, but the really cool thing is their jersey numbers. Each member of the point guard rotation has a sequential jersey number: Dragic wears #1, Bledsoe is #2, and Thomas sports #3. This even extends to rookie Tyler Ennis, who has the #4 jersey. It’s a tiny and meaningless detail, but I’m amused that they felt the need to organize themselves by number. They had to have a conversation about who gets what number (who wouldn’t want to hear NBA players say stuff like “I should be #2 because I’ve been in the league longer”?) and generally coordinate something that’s usually random.

Klay’s Scoring Onslaught

Klay Thompson caught a little hell over the offseason for the related slights of not being traded for Kevin Love and for presumably warranting a max contract. I was part of the group questioning the Warriors’ thinking on both issues, but it’s still nice to see Thompson start the season with such an emphatic response to the haters (even if I’m one of those haters).

He’s averaged nearly 30 points per game over the first 3 games of the season, and he’s done it with a blistering 54/46/91 shooting percentage split. Included in his early season run is a career-best 41 points against the Lakers. Playing the Lakers will boost anyone’s stats, but the numbers don’t lie; Klay is having a terrific start.

Basketball’s Back

Basketball!!!

Defining Success: San Antonio Spurs

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

What do you expect? The defending champions are bringing back the usual suspects for another season, hoping to squeeze one more title out of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker and coach Popovich are back too in the quartet’s 13th season together, along with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, and Marco Belinelli. It’s no wonder with that kind of depth that they were able to get by last season without a single player averaging over 30 minutes per game, and Pop will again lean heavily on his strategy of resting the vets while cycling in young or unproven players to help them gain game experience.

This all has to fall apart at some point. Duncan has to finally break down. Parker has to lose a step. Ginobili has to sustain one too many injuries. It may not happen this year, and it certainly didn’t happen last year, but it will eventually, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Far from the early days of the Duncan era, when he teamed with David Robinson in a post-up centric offense, the last few years have seen the Spurs put on an offensive clinic thanks to their crisp ball movement and solid shooting. This team can get anyone an open look, and they’ll use some of the most creative sets in the league to do it. The entire process is a thing of beauty.

That awe-inspiring play was good enough to rank San Antonio 6th in offensive efficiency despite sitting their best players for large chunks of the regular season. The defense might somehow be more impressive, ranking 4th in efficiency last year. Every player can contribute offensively, making it easier for the coaching staff to use optimal defensive lineups for long stretches. The Splitter/Duncan combo can play together, especially in the regular season, thanks to the spacing provided by everyone else, and the bigs are fantastic together defensively.

It’s hard to say exactly how this season will go. The depth and talent make injuries less of an issue, and Leonard’s ascent should help mask the decline of Duncan and Ginobili, but the roster is old, and a big decline by more than a couple of the key contributors could signal the closing of this core’s title window. In addition to Duncan and Ginobili, Diaw is always a risk to be out of shape, and he is on the wrong side of 30.

We’ll have to wait and see how well the team holds up and whether or not father time ever comes calling for Duncan. A spot in the playoffs is almost assured, however, which is something almost no other team in the West can say. Once there, the health of the team and the luck of the draw will be the biggest factors in determining if the Spurs’ quest for a repeat is successful.

Predicted Finish: 59-23 | 1st in Western Conference

Defining Success: Los Angeles Clippers

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

The L.A. Clippers are legitimate contenders, and may end up with the best record in the West. Last season ended on a rough note, with the Donald Sterling fiasco finally reaching a broad enough audience at the right time to earn him a long overdue ticket out of the league, but this year’s roster is absolutely loaded and will stand out even with the stiff competition around them.

Last season wasn’t exactly a failure, unless winning 57 games and making the 2nd round in a loaded conference is frowned upon these days. With upgrades across the roster there’s no reason to doubt the Clippers’ ability to reach the Western Conference Finals and compete for a title.

Spencer Hawes was the biggest signing of the offseason, providing solid depth and floor spacing behind (and possibly next to) DeAndre Jordan. At backup point guard, Jordan Farmar will be an upgrade over the departed Darren Collison. The only area that may be short on quality depth is the wings, where J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes will be supported by Jamal Crawford and a bunch of question marks. If Reggie Bullock can’t provide some support in his sophomore season the Clips will be left hoping for help from the scrap heap.

Barring injuries, that shouldn’t matter. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can carry this team a long way. The extra shooting on the roster will be a huge help, but Griffin’s continued improvement is the best hope for L.A.’s other team making it out of the West. Entering his 5th season he will have the most help he’s ever had, and should continue to get better.

The Clippers are in a very strong position with Kevin Durant missing the first weeks of the new season and San Antonio more interested in resting their players than putting up gaudy win totals. With a strong regular season, L.A. could land the top seed, guaranteeing themselves homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. What with the West being a bit of a crapshoot when the playoffs start that could be just the advantage this team needs to get over the top.

Even if that doesn’t happen, a top-4 seed and a trip to the conference finals would be considered a great season, and it’s completely reasonable for a team this deep and this talented to pull off the feat.

Predicted Finish: 57-25 | 2nd in Western Conference

Defining Success: Oklahoma City Thunder

Each team enters the season with varying expectations based on the talent on their roster, where they are in their team building cycle, and the delusions of management and fans. Prior to the start of the season I’ll look at what would need to happen for each team to call their regular season a success, and how likely they are to make it happen.

Kevin Durant isn’t the only player on this team. His absence won’t be the end of the world. It sure won’t be fun though. In reality, barring setbacks, losing the reigning MVP should only cost the Thunder a few games in the final standings. That may be enough to turn a 1-seed into a 4-seed in this brutal conference, and that could be devastating to the title hopes of one of the league’s few true contenders.

Injuries have played a stealthy role in keeping OKC from returning to the finals since their first trip there in 2012. In the 2013 playoffs, Russell Westbrook went down in the 1st round and didn’t return, leading to the Thunder being ousted by Memphis in the 2nd round. Last season, Serge Ibaka suffered a calf strain that kept him out of the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio. They lost them both, and eventually dropped the series in six games. A healthy Ibaka may have swung the series.

Instead of consistent trips to the finals these Thunder have been mired in the upper reaches of the playoffs, unable to catch the breaks they need. For better or worse, the roster is constructed around three players, and any injury to one of them is enough to take them out of contention. It’s hard not to talk about the James Harden trade when discussing OKC’s depth, so appreciate how great of an act it will be for me to skip past it. This is one hell of a core, and they’ve been championship quality when healthy. They just need to be in good shape through the playoffs – it’s as simple as that.

The early part of this season will see Westbrook getting his chance to run the show on his own, but the bigger question is how much Ibaka can step up offensively. There’s not a ton of scoring talent available without Durant, and the lanky power forward offers the best bet for a secondary offensive force.

A few other players could help that along as well. Anthony Morrow wasn’t an Earth-shattering pickup this offseason, but he can shoot the lights out and should get plenty of opportunity early in the season when the offense is desperate for spacing and perimeter scoring with Reggie Jackson also missing time due to injury.

The more obvious promotion would be of Steven Adams to starting center over Kendrick Perkins (sorry, I couldn’t avoid every tired Thunder storyline). Adams played well in his rookie campaign, and stands to improve with more time on the court. He’s not a game changer in any sense, but he’s big, gets in the way on defense, and rebounds pretty well. He can’t shoot and occasionally inspires opponents to punch him, but whatever, mainly he’s just not Perkins, who is absolutely awful. This change needs to happen sooner rather than later.

A championship is still a real, achievable goal if Durant can make a full comeback fairly soon. The Thunder will need to get a little lucky, just like any team does to win a title, but the pieces are certainly there. Getting some contribution out of the likes of Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb would help, but it really all comes down to the big three. Get them healthy and flowing and everything else will fall into place.

Predicted Finish: 56-26 | 3rd in Western Conference