Joerger: ‘Do you want to come back in 3 years ... or enjoy the journey?’
Kings beat writers Jason Anderson and Noel Harris make their predictions for the 2018-19 season:
Anderson: Some of the young players show significant improvement from last year and continue to develop over the course of the season. De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III look like future stars in the team’s new run-and-gun game. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic emerge as two of the NBA’s most lethal 3-point shooters. Willie Cauley-Stein has a career year, showing he can dominate the paint consistently enough to warrant a contract extension, even if the team thinks twice before giving it to him. The Kings probably fall short of the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but they prove to be far more entertaining than expected. In the words of the “Vladfather”: “Super team, just young.”
Harris: The Kings are not expected to end their postseason drought, which is the NBA’s longest at 12 seasons. What would be great for Sacramento is to see the young nucleus improve on the court. Their roles become more defined as the team learns to play together while finding ways to win. The Kings were 5-0 in one-point games and 3-0 in overtime last season. They build on that success in close games, and improve on last season’s 27-55 record, taking an important step in the “journey” coach Dave Joerger has referred to in training camp.
Anderson: The youngsters are physically overmatched in a man’s league, prompting coaches and front office executives to abandon the youth movement and turn to the vets in a desperate attempt to save their jobs. Fox’s jumper shows little improvement. Bagley, the No. 2 pick in June’s draft, is outperformed by players taken at the back end of the lottery. The Kings struggle to win 25 games and finish with the worst record in the NBA without the benefit of a 2019 first-round draft pick because general manager Vlade Divac previously traded the pick — without protections — in a failed attempt to build a winner around DeMarcus Cousins. An abysmal season leads to mass upheaval, causing Divac and Joerger to lose their jobs.
Harris: The Kings have a very young team in a talented Western Conference, so a winning season isn’t expected. As the losses come, the camaraderie unravels as critics pile on them, on and off the court. The growing pains hurt, and competition for minutes threatens the togetherness that players discussed in recent weeks. The overall mission of improving and growing together gets derailed, and the Kings, who don’t have a first-round draft pick next season, are forced to start over with no new young talent to supplement the current roster.
Anderson: If he stays healthy and isn’t encumbered by minute restrictions, Giles could emerge as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. He is immensely talented, wonderfully skilled and physically ready to show the world why he was once the nation’s No. 1 high school prospect before suffering a series of knee injuries. In the team’s first four preseason games, Giles posted per-36-minute averages of 24.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and two blocks. He also flashed an ability to pass with vision, precision and creativity not seen from a big man in these parts since Chris Webber. First there was a lightning-fast one-handed touch pass to Cauley-Stein and then a dazzling behind-the-back, no-look bounce pass to Bagley, both of which resulted in uncontested dunks.
Harris: Fox, the 2017 fifth-overall pick, is regarded as one of the fastest players in the league, which is great for a team that wants to push the pace. The Kings’ offseason addition of forward Nemanja Bjelica should help spread the floor, giving Fox more space to operate. He’s shown a willingness to shoot more 3-pointers this preseason (he averaged 2.1 attempts as a rookie), but his free-throw rate and percentage will need to improve. He was 83rd in the league in attempts at the stripe and his 72.3 percent was 81st among qualified players. Getting to the basket this season could help boost both numbers.
Anderson: The fates of Divac and Joerger are inextricably linked. In February 2017, Divac famously told The Bee he traded Cousins because “it was time to start over,” and if the team is not “in a better position in two years ... I’ll step down.” A few months later, despite coming off a 32-50 season, the organization extended Divac’s contract and picked up Joerger’s fourth-year option. Those moves secured the services of both men through the 2019-20 season, but neither will feel much security if the Kings don’t show signs of improvement soon. Joerger is in a particularly tough spot. If Divac resigns or gets fired, a new general manager might want to bring in his own coach.
Harris: Cauley-Stein is a fourth-year center who is coming off his best season statistically, with averages of 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds, but he struggled with consistency. He also brought attention on himself when he said at media day that he’s “ready to get paid,” remarks he clarified days later by saying he wants to work and “dominate both sides of the floor.” As the Kings continue to develop their young players in search of future success, Cauley-Stein can help himself earn a contract extension with a strong showing in 2018-19. Should his struggles with consistency continue, it’s likely he’ll be wearing a different uniform in 2019-20.
Anderson: The Boston Celtics have enough weapons to make the NBA Finals interesting, but nobody has enough firepower to stop the Golden State Warriors from winning their fourth title in five years. Center was the only position of weakness in a loaded Warriors lineup over the past few years. They addressed that by bringing in DeMarcus Cousins, a four-time All-Star and one of the most dominant big men in the game, when healthy.
Harris: How can anyone pick against the Warriors? They’re coming off their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, with victories in three of those appearances. Add to it they acquired a fifth All-Star in Cousins, who is expected to be healthy for their stretch run, and all signs point to another lifting of the Larry O’Brien Trophy.