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This summer, CBSSports.com’s Eye On Basketball will take a team-by-team look at the 2015 NBA offseason. We continue with the Sacramento Kings.
It seemed like the Sacramento Kings were completely imploding in late June — after failing to win 30 games for the seventh straight year, their franchise player used emojis to call their head coach a snake in the grass. Since then, Kings vice president Vlade Divac has made major changes to the roster. While DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl improbably remain together after the emoji fiasco, the only other holdovers are Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Omri Casspi and Darren Collison. Sacramento looks better on paper than it did last year, but can Karl bring everybody together?
Probably. Rondo should be an upgrade over Collison, who will now be one of the better backup point guards in the league. Koufos should bring more than Thompson and Landry did. Belinelli is an upgrade over Stauskas in the short term. If Cauley-Stein is a defensive difference-maker immediately and Curry can space the floor, this team should improve, perhaps significantly. The question is if the whole can be better than the sum of the parts — aside from a short stretch under Michael Malone at the beginning of last season, that hasn’t happened for the Kings in ages.
“I feel like now we have one of the best coaches of all time,” Casspi said. “Vlade, as the GM, has been there and been through everything, basically, in basketball. We have the right atmosphere and the right system in place. I feel like it’s time for all of us to step up.”
Karl has elevated his teams before by giving them offensive freedom, and ordinarily you’d think Sacramento would have a few more wins simply based on the fact it will presumably only have one coach next year. Last season was a complete circus, in Cousins’ words, and there’s at least some semblance of stability now – if the front office can chill out and Karl can earn everybody’s trust, that is. Big if.
Can Rajon Rondo resurrect his career?
Karl compared Rondo to a bunch of other headstrong point guards – including all-time great Gary Payton, which may or may not be a little generous – but this particular player presents a different sort of challenge. While it’s great that Rondo will be given more freedom than he had in his failed stint with the Dallas Mavericks, he’s not an obvious fit with Karl’s system. He has traditionally preferred to play at a slower pace and dominate the ball, which is essentially the opposite of the style the Kings are trying to implement.
Rondo is the most fascinating guy in Sacramento, and it’s not just because his star power has faded. Yes, he has something to prove and an opportunity to get another big contract. He also has a brilliant basketball mind, and the best version of him could lift this team on both ends of the floor. If he recaptures what made him great he has the talent to solve this weird puzzle, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen him be consistently great.
Is Sacramento closer to sustainable success?
Impossible to say with any certainty. The Stauskas trade, in which the Kings surrendered a recent lottery pick, a future pick and two pick swaps, said so much about the organization’s goals. Sacramento badly wants to be respectable, which makes sense on some level because it’s been so long since it was relevant. Even if things go relatively right, though, what does that mean for the future of the franchise? Does anybody think this version of the Kings can make the playoffs? Would 35-40 wins really be that much better than having another chance at a high draft pick?
Sacramento’s offseason saw the front office try to fast forward the rebuilding process, which is an extremely difficult thing to do. You’d take this roster over the one that Divac inherited, sure, but we don’t know whether or not this is real progress. Cauley-Stein looks like an awesome complement to Cousins in the frontcourt. Beyond him, it’s hard to identify any addition who will absolutely be around a year from now. If the Kings don’t make a major leap in the standings, which will be extrememly difficult to do in the West even if they do become a better team, no one would be surprised by more sweeping changes.
Given the talent added, perhaps the Kings shouldn’t be seen as a joke. With how crazy their offseason has been, though, the onus is on them to prove that they deserve to be taken seriously.
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The Grizzlies gave the Warriors a scare, but once Steve Kerr moved Andrew Bogut onto Tony Allen and began ignoring the Grindfather offensively completely, the jig was up. Still, they had a successful season and could have made the Western Conference Finals with one more regular season win and the 2-seed.
Instead, they enter the new season vs. a somehow-improved Western Conference and they still didn’t fix their biggest issue. But hey, they got Marc Gasol back, so things are still pretty rosy for the Memphis Blues.
I don’t want to be overdramatic here, but Gasol leaving would have been followed shortly by ash falling from the erupting volcano that FedEx Forum would have become, and all professional basketball life would’ve ceased to exist in the city of Memphis. Gasol is central to everything the Grizzlies have planned both short and long-term. As Memphis’ defensive anchor, biggest offensive playmakler and strongest leader, he established himself over the past two seasons as the clear best and most important player on the team.
Losing Gasol would have left the Grizzlies without a center and trying to patch together a contender without a top-20 player, and it also could have spurred the departures of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Mike Conley over the next 18 months. Instead, Gasol re-signs, and now not only can the Grizzlies hope this current configuration somehow navigates the stormy seas of the Western Conference and lands the fortune they need to win a title, but it also opens a window to whatever comes after the Grit-Grind era as Memphis can now plan for the next phase with Conley and Gasol on board.
In short: it was really, really important. I mean, look what happened to Portland.
Did the Grizzlies address their biggest weakness?
Well, they didn’t sign a big-time shooter, did not make any coordinator moves that would seems to change the snail’s pace at which they play, and they’re still going to struggle in creating and making 3-pointers. But they did addd one small twist: Matt Barnes.
For years, teams have beaten the Clippers by doubling Chris Paul and/or Blake Griffin and making Matt Barnes beat them. Last year, Barnes came closest to breaking that system, and came up huge all year, especially in the Clippers’ first-round win over the Spurs. He shot 37 percent from 3-point range, and did so reliably. His shot chart looks exactly like what the Grizzlies need, at least on the cheap:
Barnes doesn’t take bad shots and he hits corner threes – an irreplaceable commodity in today’s NBA that the Grizzlies have long lacked. He can still cut to the rim and score from the baseline as well, to keep defenses honest. Still, Barnes fell short of being a true knock-down shooter for the top offense in the league last year. So you can either look at it as “Barnes contributed to the best offense in the NBA” or “even on the best offense in the NBA, Barnes wasn’t spectacular.” It’s a pretty standard glass-half-empty/half-full situation.
Either way, Barnes is an upgrade, and it opens the door for Memphis to look to move Jeff Green on an expiring contract for a better shooter. Jordan Adams is also still around, and if he can stop making young-guy mistakes and learn to be a plus-defender, he has real potential to earn meaninful minutes and legitimately contribute to a contending team, which is no small thing.
So, with largely the same team, will the Grizzlies somehow be better in 2015?
Well, they were the second-best team in the Western Conference for most of last year, and many Warriors attested to the fact that Memphis gave them their toughest playoff challenge. They won 55 games and earned the 5-seed in the crazy Western Conference, missing out on the 2-seed by a single game. Getting better is going to be tough, especially when you consider the Thunder are healthy again, the Spurs got LaMarcus Aldridge, the Clippers no longer have a bench that stinks like a poultry processing plant, and the Rockets landed Ty Lawson. Oh, and the Warriors are still pretty good, too.
The good news, I suppose, is that Memphis didn’t really get worse. They lost Kosta Koufos, who was arguably the best backup center in the league, but in adding Brandan Wright, they landed a smart, athletic finisher who can make plays and protect the rim. At least one member of their fleet of reserve power forwards (Martin, Jarnell Stokes, Green) should be able to produce.
The Grizzlies will again defend at a high level, and may improve upon what was a top-15 offense until their post-All-Star swoon last year. That should be good enough for a playoff spot and maybe even homecourt advantage in the first round. But it still doesn’t put them on the level of the Spurs, Thunder and Warriors among the super-contenders in the West.
They’ll just have to grit their teeth and grind on. Memphis isn’t going backwards, but they may not have made up any ground in the West either.
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