Thursday, September 3, 2009

Season Previews 09-10 Edition "Kings"

We are back from a month and a half long hiatus.

With less then a month until training camp breaks, thought it would be a good time to start our annual season preview. There are quite a few “ifs” that could make or break any of the 30 teams this upcoming 09-10 season. Getting away from the formula of those websites that break down teams and rank them in some order that they then try to justify (like we admittedly tried to do last year), we thought it would be nice to try something outside of what has become commonplace in the sports writing/blogosphere.

Here at Westcoast Slant, we’ll simply be breaking down each team and giving realistic outcomes without any sort of finishing order or power ranking, etc. While it may not be as controversial as a ranking system, it will undoubtedly be more insightful for those who are interested in the game of basketball and not the dark art of fortune telling. So, of course we’ll begin out west with teams that are pretty much set with their rosters going into training camp.

Sacramento Kings

Let’s be honest, expectations for this team are not high and many pundits believe that they will be the worst team in the entire Association next season. While it’s easy to label a team that only won 17 games last year as next year’s winners of the worst team award, give me any season and we’ll see teams projected to do poorly, actually do okay. I’m not saying the Kings will make the playoffs, but recent history teaches us not to bet against promising youth. Many thought the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to be historically bad, especially after their putrid start, but their young players developed as the season went along and the team went 10-16 after the All-Star break after having gone 13-43 before it. Check out this blog for another example of a young team defying expectations and the ensuing enjoyment that fans got out of it.

With that in mind, these “ifs” if answered positively, could mean 25-30 wins for the Kings, doubling last season’s effort.

The first if is obviously true for every team we’ll be covering over the next couple of weeks. If the Kings stay healthy, they could make a run at 30 wins. This is no easy feat considering the Kings franchise player, Kevin Martin, has only averaged 61 games over his five seasons. Last year he played in 51. The year before? 61. So, it’s not like his injury last season was the exception to the rule. Kid misses games plain and simple. If Martin can stay healthy, he could average 25 points a game and do so in the K-Mart way, which is super-duper efficiently.

Along those lines, there’s the whole if Tyreke Evans and K-Mart can coexist question. For what it’s worth, I like the pairing. Yes, Evans is untested as a point guard, but if nothing else, the Kings will be shooting a lot of free throws next year since Evans and Martin prolifically get to the charity stripe. Also, Martin averaged 20 a game playing with gunners Mike Bibby and Ron Artest (on less shots) which only proves that he finds ways to score no matter how many shots he gets. It’s not like Evans will be jacking up 30 shots a game (at least, I hope not). There’s plenty of shots to go around on this squad. Evans and Martin, if healthy, will make a dynamic backcourt that has the ability to average 45 points a game.

And don’t count out a small ball lineup that will feature Martin at the three, Evans at the two and newly acquired Sergio Rodriguez leading the break.

While this offseason depressingly saw the Maloofs cutting payroll like a paper shredder, there are two things that Kings fans should be excited about for the 09-10 season. First, the roster is filled with talented youth. Outside of the expiring contract known as Kenny Thomas (K-9), the Kings do not feature anyone over the age of 30. Their current star player (Martin) is 26 and their star of the future (Evans) is 19. Jason Thompson is 23 and Spencer Hawes is 21. And as far as K-9 is concerned, there’s a slim possibility he nets some moderate talent being that he’s one of the bigger expirings this year.

The second thing to be excited about is Paul Westphal. For all the haters out there (Tom Ziller), Westphal has a 267-159 coaching record, for a .626 win percentage. A number that is only bettered by four other current coaches with more than a season under their belts (Rambo doesn’t even have half a season so he doesn’t count). The coaches are Phil Jackson, Greg Popovich, Mike Brown, and Stan Van Gundy.

While I’m not trying to put Westphal in their company, though, I guess that’s exactly what I’ve done, I am saying that he’s had success as a coach. Big time success in fact, success that included a trip to the finals, something Mike D has only dreamed about.

And Westphal knows how to run an offense. He was like the OG D’Antoni back in the 90s. During his three full seasons guiding the Suns, Phoenix led the league in offensive rating the first two seasons, and finished third in his last. They also averaged 59 wins during that span.

Evans could grow into a Kevin Johnson type player. Martin is already a superior offensive player to my all-time favorite Sun, Thunder Dan Majerle (though, nowhere close defensively) but I won’t even try to say that Thompson is a poor man’s Barkley because, well, that would be a stretch even my imagination can’t justify. But there are some similarities. Andres Nocioni can shoot. Spencer Hawes can shoot. Francisco Garcia can shoot. Omri Casspi could shoot in Europe. There’s no reason outside of bad chemistry or disgruntled players that this squad won’t be effective in a Westphal-run system.

Looking at that lineup, the Kings have some intriguing pieces that just need time to grow up together. However, there is the potential problem of lack of playing time, even on this, a most likely lottery-bound team, due to the redundancy in the current makeup of the roster.

Evans is slotted to be a one, but the Kings committed big money and years to Beno Udrih last summer—$32 million over five years to be exact. They also acquired Rodriguez this offseason and neither Rodriguez nor Udrih can legitimately play the two. Where and if Udrih plays will be a big question especially considering his latest injury that is estimated to put him out until right before training camp. He’s not really a point guard/point guard, though he did average six assists the last 16 games of the season. His high-end midrange game is not as effective or as valuable with Evans on board, and if the Kings decide to run next year, Sergio’s game is tailor-made for that style.

Further complicating matters is the logjam at small forward where Francisco Garcia, Andres Nocioni, recently drafted Omri Casspi and the as-of-yet disappointing Donte Green all look to play. Garcia can and will play some shooting guard, and Casspi is supposedly versatile enough to play three or four different positions, but he’s never played in the NBA, so I won’t jump to any conclusions. He’ll get some burn because of his scrappiness and work ethic and overall energy, but it’s unlikely he’ll be a major contributor this year due to the plethora of small forward options.

Assuming Evans is able to quickly adapt to NBA-life, the next biggest improvement to the team will most likely come from the bigs. Thompson must build on his solid rookie campaign. People made a fuss about his advanced age coming out of college, but he’s still only 23. There’s plenty of room for growth—polishing up that raw offensive game and learning the nuances of defense being most important. Hawes is another who will need to continue to develop.

Surprisingly, the man who could have the biggest impact (no pun intended) on the team is the injury-prone Sean May who could be pushing both Thompson and Hawes for minutes by midseason. May could be the poster child for John Hollinger’s PER system and why I use it as one of several tools for evaluation, but refuse to place too much importance on its findings. For me, it’s more like a guidebook. Two years ago, May’s per-40 minute numbers looked very impressive, 20, 11 and three assists with a 19.22 PER. But injuries, weight issues and reality have proven May to thus far be considered a bust. He’s played all of 82 games in four seasons. Seeing that he’s only 25, there’s every possibility that he could have another stellar year playing as Thompson and Hawes’ backup without the pressure of a starting role. Of course, there’s also the likelihood that he’ll miss 60 games.

Overall, Kings fans shouldn’t be too depressed. Come the trade deadline, the Kings will be a major player with K-9, even if they prove to be just window shopping. Furthermore, the additions of Westphal, running point guards Rodriguez and Evans and the potential of May combined with the continued development of Hawes, Thompson and Martin mean that the Kings will be fun to watch and will be a lot tougher than a year ago.

If things fall the right way (which would pretty much be the opposite of last year), the Kings will be quite a bit better than people think, though, playoffs are a pipedream at best.

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