NBA Season Preview: The Sacramento Kings

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Last season: 25-57, in a year that was really all about figuring out that Tyreke Evans is a star you can anchor a team around. He is. And they found a nice young core to go around him.

Head Coach: Paul Westphal, who did a pretty good job trying to build young team and getting them to focus on defense. Be clear, their defense wasn’t that good but they focused on it (it was better than the disastrous year before), and it is that end of the floor that can anchor another big step forward. However, the team is not taking any steps forward if Westphal doesn’t settle down his rotations and give the players a rhythm that can get into.

Key Departures: Andres Nocioni is gone taking some toughness, a three points shooting threat and an oversized contract for that to Philadelphia. Spencer Hawes is gone, the price in talent for getting rid of the Nocioni contract. Hawes was inconsistent but losing someone like him would hurt a lot of teams — unless you have a DeMarcus Cousins coming in. Two solid players out the door but guys the Kings can get by without.

Also gone is Jon Brockman, some more size in the middle that likely would not get minutes now.

Key Additions:
They had the No. 5 pick in the draft and DeMarcus Cousins fell to them. That could be the best thing to happen to this franchise in a decade. The beast out of Kentucky then went out at Summer League and showed he could be the rookie of the year (well, the first half of Summer League until conditioning issues seemed to catch up with him). This preseason he has averaged 16.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in just 25 minutes per, although his shooting percentage of 44.8 percent needs to improve. There are questions about focus, but so far he looks like a steal.

Samuel Dalembert comes in and brings the defense at the rim the Kings really need. His offense is also a better fit in Sacramento’s drive-and-dish offense than whatever it was they were running in Philadelphia last year. Dalembert is also a large expiring deal that can save money this season or be traded for more assets.

They also drafted the very athletic Hassan Whiteside, a project that could pan out. Or not. But a good risk. Antoine Wright also was signed to a deal.

Best case scenario: They gel quickly behind their powerhouse young core and sneak into the bottom of the Western Conference playoffs.

For that to happen: Tyreke Evans will have to continue on a path to mega-star — that means developing a jump shot — and others will need to provide outside shooting well. DeMarcus Cousins will need to take the first steps to NBA stardom. Also the Kings defense needs to improve and the role players need to blend in.

Evans has spent all summer working on a jump shot and he is shooting 36 percent from three this preseason, well up from the 25.5 percent of last season. But he needs to do this when the games count (and the defense is better). If he can continue to knock down the shots and show off a hesitation move now and then, he will continue to blow us all away.

Where the Kings will be beasts is on the boards — they have a lineup of guys who thrive on the glass. Or, they will in a month or so when Dalembert returns from injury, although Cousins and Carl Landry will do just fine in his absence.

Where the lack of Dalembert hurts is on defense, where the Kings will be without that intimidating eraser at the rim for the first few weeks. Cousins will step into that role; we’ll see how he does with it and if he can stay out of foul trouble.

For the Kings to really thrive, Omri Casspi needs to become a scorer off the bench, Donte Greene needs to live up to the starts role, Jason Thompson needs to keep improving, and Francisco Garcia needs to be a steady outside shooter for the team (along with Beno Udrih in that role).

More likely the Kings will: Be improved but not quite playoff ready in a deep Western Conference.

Evans and Cousins are a powerful young core. Very powerful. Build a contender around powerful. But you need them to grow and mature, and you need to start finding the right pieces to go around them. Can Landry, Casspi, Garcia and the rest do that? If not they need to go. The Kings are going to have a lot of cap space after this year (whatever that will mean under a new Collective Bargaining Agreement) and a chance to build more around this team.

Last season was about finding out Tyreke Evans was THE MAN. This season is about seeing if Cousins can fit with that and who is coming along for the ride.

Prediction: 36-46, but this time the draft spot will not be so good as to have Cousins fall to them. Well, unless David Kahn has a lot of picks in front of them, then anything is possible.

Mavericks don’t use scandals as excuse for poor play vs. Lakers

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long week for the Dallas Mavericks. First Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for saying on Dr. J’s podcast that he told the team they would be better off losing. That was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell report of sexual harassment run rampant — starting with the team CEO — and a corporate culture on the Mavericks’ business side that allowed it this behavior to flourish. Then on Friday, Mavericks’ star rookie Dennis Smith Jr. was named in a report about players who took money from agents while in college.

Did all that bleed over to the slow start and ultimate 124-102 blowout loss to the Lakers Friday night?

“I don’t know, we had some good looks…” Dirk Nowitzki said of the impact of the scandals, adding the rust from the All-Star break may have impacted the team’s play more. “Once you’re out there, you don’t necessarily really think about what is going on off the floor. You’re in a zone, you play, you compete with your team, we just didn’t play hard enough, compete hard enough at times.”

“I’m not going there, I think this is just a situation where Los Angeles jumped on us and we didn’t have enough answers,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, also blowing off the idea of the scandals getting in the players’ heads. “The guys we have in this locker room, we just have to show up the right way, and our level of force was not there.”

It’s difficult to say if the Mavericks did feel any impact from the controversies swirling around the team — they were already one of the worst teams in basketball (18-41, and they have been outscored by an average of 3.2 points per 100 possession). They have a bottom 10 offense and defense. A bad outing vs. the Lakers isn’t necessarily tied to everything outside the locker room, especially for a team in the middle of the Tankapaloza going on around the NBA (their owner said as much). Put simply, Dallas was already bad before the waves of controversies hit.

Cuban was right, even if it cost him — this team should tank, lose a lot of games the rest of the way, and work to get a better draft position.

The code words for that is “developing younger players.” Which Dallas is and should be doing.

They are also trying to evaluate their free agents coming up this offseason — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — to see if they are part of the future. How does Carlise divide up the minutes over the final stretch of the season to help make those decisions?

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete. Last year’s team went through a tough year, won 33 games, and was one of my favorite teams to coach because of the character of the guys — but this year’s probably been even more fun. All these undrafted guys are so grateful to be here, they want to get better, and do compete hard, and that’s an exciting thing….

“Nerlens won’t play tonight (Friday), won’t play tomorrow, but will be available Monday and I want to get him out there and see how he plays with some of our other younger guys. We’ve got to look at what this could potentially look like, because some of these guys are free agents and decisions will have to be made.”

The Mavericks also will learn how those players deal with scandals.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 26, Bucks beat Raptors 122-119 in OT

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks felt extra good about getting a rare win against the Toronto Raptors.

Antetokounmpo had 26 points and 12 rebounds, and Milwaukee snapped Toronto’s seven-game win streak with a 122-119 overtime victory Friday night.

“We haven’t beaten them in a while so the win feels a lot better, to be honest with you,” Antetokounmpo said. “They’re a great team, too.”

Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton each scored 21 points as the Bucks won the opener of an eight-game stretch against teams in playoff contention. Jason Terry scored 14 points, and John Henson and Thon Maker each had 12.

“It’s a big gut-check and a big win for us,” Middleton said. “This is the best team in the East and we proved that we could beat them on the road.”

DeMar DeRozan scored 33 points for the Raptors, who had won five straight home games against the Bucks, and 15 of the past 17 meetings.

Toronto also eliminated Milwaukee in the opening round of last year’s playoffs. The teams will not meet again in the regular season.

Serge Ibaka had 18 points, and Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam each scored 17 for Toronto.

“We didn’t deserve to win,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “They outworked us, the outplayed us, they outthought us. Whatever adjective you want to use, they did it to us tonight.”

Jonas Valanciunas‘ buzzer-beating dunk for Toronto sent the game to overtime. He finished with 10 points.

Toronto suffered its first home loss since Jan. 26 against Utah. The Raptors are an NBA-best 24-5 at home.

“It’s good to have a tough loss like this,” Lowry said. “It kind of re-focuses us. We can get beat on any given night and we’ve got to come out there and play hard every night.”

The Raptors trailed 110-108 with 3.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter after Middleton split a pair of free throws. Following a timeout, Toronto inbounded the ball to Valanciunas, who paused before driving for the tying dunk.

Toronto scored the first five points of the extra session, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Terry and Middleton capped an 8-0 Bucks run, giving Milwaukee a 118-115 lead with 1:58 left.

Valanciunas stopped the run with a dunk, but Antetokounmpo’s jumper with 13 seconds left put the Bucks up 120-117.

DeRozan cut it to one with a dunk but Terry answered with a pair of free throws in the final second. DeRozan’s long inbounds pass to C.J. Miles was knocked away at the buzzer to give the Bucks the win.

 

Jrue Holiday hits game winner, Anthony Davis has 45, Pelicans beat Heat in OT, 124-123

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami’s third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans’ winning streak – and 42 or more three times – raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points.

Neither team was able to build a double-digit lead during game which riveted a boisterous crowd with its fast pace and array of highlights on both ends of the floor. There were 13 ties and nine lead changes.

New Orleans scored 37 fast-break points. Davis threw down seven dunks. He converted one alley-oop while being fouled and also turned a steal into a fast-break layup as he was fouled. And the All-Star wasn’t the only one blocking shots for New Orleans. Emeka Okafor, now in his second 10-day contract after being out of the league for four-plus seasons, had five blocks.

After trailing much of the second half, the Pelicans appeared to be seizing control with a 10-0 run during which Holiday scored eight points, giving New Orleans a 104-99 lead with 2:51 to go.

But the Heat rallied to tie it at 106 on Wade’s free throws.

Davis hit a jumper with 23 seconds left and Wade missed on the other end, but a rebound contested by several players fell to Dragic in the paint, and he hit an uncontested layup to tie it again.

The Pelicans had 14 seconds to set up a winning shot, but Davis’ drive was cut off along the baseline and his awkward layup attempted missed and the game went to overtime after Miami was unable to get a shot from an inbounds play with .8 seconds left.

 

Jimmy Butler leaves game with apparently serious right knee injury

Associated Press
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The Basketball Gods have not been appeased, and apparently have dealt the NBA another serious injury to a star player.

Jimmy Butler — Minnesota’s leader, an All-Star, and a guy having a fringe of the MVP ballot NBA season — went down grabbing his knee on this play against the Rockets Friday night.

Butler reportedly said “it’s torn” while being helped off the court.

After the game, Tom Thibodeau said it was a right knee injury that would be re-evaluated with an MRI tomorrow.

This is a non-contact injury that has the appearance of an ACL tear (hope that is not the case). Butler had ripped an offensive rebound away from Nene and was making a move to go back up when he went to the ground grabbing his knee.

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game. He was selected an All-Star but chose to sit out that game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, has a reputation for running players into exhaustion with heavy use (ask Joakim Noah) and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other elite programs trying to keep players fresh.

This is troubling for a Timberwolves team looking to end an 11-year playoff drought — Minnesota is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. While tied for the three seed going into Friday night, Minnesota is just four games from falling out of the playoffs in a competitive West.