Kings beat writer Jason Jones and columnist Ailene Voisin make predictions for the 2017-18 season:
Jones: George Hill reminds everyone he was a big reason Utah made the playoffs last season. Zach Randolph still owns the post when needed. All the youngsters grow up fast. Buddy Hield becomes a reliable 20-point per game scorer while Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos control the paint and answer the rebounding concerns. All that happens and the Kings suddenly find themselves in position to win (gasp) more than 30 games – with an outside shot at snagging the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Voisin: An almost ideal season would be for everyone associated with the organization to fight the urge – counterintuitive though it seems – to cobble together a few more meaningless victories at the expense of developing the youngsters. These next two seasons are all about laying the foundation for the future. The goal is to run, but not hurry, to be competitive without blowing their chances for another high lottery pick. But this is a brutal balancing act for coach Dave Joerger, who has 14 different personalities to manage. The players seem to genuinely like each other, though, and the veterans seem to be embracing their mentoring duties. If the Kings win 25 games and the youngsters show improvement throughout the season, that would be a win-win for all concerned.
Jones: The kids play like kids. Fox goes through a baptism by fire against NBA point guards and the overall youth proves to be too much to overcome most nights. By February, the front office decides to unload the cap-friendly contracts of veterans to commit even more time to the young core. Twenty-two wins later, the Kings pin their hopes on adding a pivotal piece in the lottery, again.
Voisin: A roster featuring nine players selected in the first rounds of the past three NBA drafts screams a terrible win-loss record, but that’s not a problem. The Kings want to avoid devastating, career-threatening injuries; discord and disillusionment within the locker room; the inability of the players to grasp Joerger’s schemes; and for the youngsters to regress between October and April. Just don’t forget: Too many victories jeopardizes a shot at a prime-time draft pick.
Jones: The Kings have several young players, but Hield is most likely to make a big impact. He very well could end up as the Kings’ leading scorer. Hield made the All-Rookie First Team while gaining ample experience over 82 games. The natural scorer will be encouraged to be aggressive and have the opportunity to generate offense.
Voisin: Already a tireless worker, Hield lost weight and added muscle during the offseason, and arrived at training camp in excellent shape. Most of his attention was spent on creating off the dribble and moving without the ball, skills that will make him an even more dangerous offensive threat. But the Kings desperately need his outside shooting, which improved from 39.6 percent to 42 percent after joining the Kings at midseason.
Jones: Cauley-Stein was the first player drafted by general manager Vlade Divac. He’s entering his third season, a time when fans and media expect to see a player make big strides and show he’s a cornerstone player. Cauley-Stein has shown flashes, but they need to begin to happen regularly, leaving no doubt he’s the Kings’ center of the future.
Voisin: Cauley-Stein begins his third season, which is usually when a player’s skill set and a sense of their role come into view. One caveat is that big men tend to develop more slowly. Yet Cauley-Stein is something of an enigma. He is working to expand his range and finish at the basket, but he is more of an opportunity scorer whose real value is on defense. But his lack of consistency and focus is troubling. The starting job is his to be poached. Strong work on the boards and avoiding foul trouble would earn him more than the 20 minutes he averaged in his first two years.
Jones: For the fourth consecutive June, the Golden State Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, again, will prove to be too much for the best player in the world, LeBron James, and the Warriors win their third title in four seasons.
Voisin: Golden State and Cleveland meet in the Finals, with the Warriors capturing another championship. If Isaiah Thomas’ recovery from a hip injury is still problematic when the playoffs start, then the Cavaliers will fall to the Boston Celtics, who will lose to the Warriors.