Between snowstorms, a slam-dunk contest that includes Ben McLemore, an All-Star Game that may or may not include DeMarcus Cousins and four games in East Coast cities, some of the questions pertaining to the 2013-14 Kings should be answered.
Starting with the lack of an identity – and remaining alert with the Feb. 20 trade deadline only two weeks away – here’s a look at the top five issues:
• Lack of identity. Historically, good teams are defined by a specific style. They know who they are, and accordingly, so does everyone else. The Miami Heat overwhelms with athleticism, talent and a high-octane defense that generates transition opportunities. The San Antonio Spurs contest everything and eviscerate opponents with precise offensive execution. The Indiana Pacers protect the rim and exploit the length and shot-making of their guards and wings.
The Kings? They compete, but their collective soul remains very much a mystery. Offensive team? Defensive team? Wannabe uptempo team?
For all of Michael Malone’s fixation on defense, the Kings rank near the bottom in most relevant categories. The offensive numbers are better but more than a little misleading; while the Kings are among 16 teams averaging 100 or more points, the offense too often deteriorates into a clock-killing, isolation-oriented dribble-fest.
The fourth-quarter collapse Wednesday against the visiting Toronto Raptors was only the latest example of the poor decision-making and selfishness that crippled the Kings more than occasionally.
“Sometimes, the ball sticks,” said veteran Rudy Gay. “We have to make it harder on defenses. Most of our problems … it’s the offense. When our offense gets stagnant, it actually triggers their (opponents’) offense and makes our defense look bad. Part of this is trust.”
A large part of this is also dictated by personnel. As currently constructed, the Kings’ most talented players are offensive players. There isn’t a rim-protector in the house. Additionally, the guards are particularly poor at containment on the perimeter and consumed by dominating the ball and/or getting up shots.
But this is the NBA. You eat what you’re served. If it’s chicken soup, maybe you throw in a matzo ball. You don’t add marinara sauce. Offense, it is.
• The continuing education of Malone. Elite coaches adapt and maximize their talent. Chuck Daly’s 1983-84 Detroit Pistons ranked third in the league with 117 points per game, but when Dennis Rodman and John Salley were acquired, they slowed tempo, threw elbows and transitioned into Bad Boys. Pat Riley’s “Showtime” Lakers ran people out of the Forum, but his New York Knicks and Heat squads were bruisers and bangers. Gregg Popovich’s Spurs increasingly have complemented exquisite half-court schemes with opportunistic early offense.
But the system only works if the parts fit (see chicken soup). While the fans became grumpy during the recent losing streak, a rookie coach who is coaxing a career-best season out of Cousins, effectively incorporating Gay and coping with repeated roster changes deserves time to establish his identity and perhaps even cook up an offense. And not to be overlooked is this: Malone commands the locker room.
• Is there a point guard in the house? Acquiring a facilitating floor leader remains management’s top priority. A trade. The NBA draft. Europe. General manager Pete D’Alessandro and his staffers are searching everywhere. The consensus within the organization is that Isaiah Thomas – who wants to remain a starter and be paid accordingly – is better suited as a backup guard who changes tempo and provides scoring off the bench. The aggressive pursuit of a front-court defender persists as well.
• Why can’t the shooting guards shoot? Marcus Thornton is having a dreadful season (38 percent) and McLemore (36.7 percent), who has one of the prettiest jumpers in the league, forces shots and misses a troubling number of open looks. At the very least, this is a case of too many shooting guards, too many players who need the ball, too little time to go around and the absence of a facilitator. Jimmer Fredette is converting 47 percent of his attempts, by the way, and would help a team that sets screens.
• How much has Cousins improved? Perceptions are changing, though probably not fast enough to get him on the All-Star team. The next phase of his maturity consists of walking away from the referees, improving his conditioning (a career-long challenge because of his body type), and in general, making his teammates better. Cousins, 23, has that kind of ability. If your best player sets screens, makes the extra pass and runs the floor, he can demand the same from his teammates.
“We don’t have guys who know how to move without the ball, including me,” Cousins said bluntly the other night. “I get caught sometimes. Rudy (Gay) might have a post-up, and I’ll be in his way. But we need time together as a unit. We’re growing, getting better. This is all new to me, too.”