NBA season preview: Sacramento Kings

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Last Season: More of the same, for a club that has been truly terrible for the last six seasons. Paul Westphal was run out of town mid-season in favor of Keith Smart, who thus far has had much greater success relating to the team’s young players. DeMarcus Cousins showed significant improvement, and the speedy rookie Isaiah Thomas was a nice surprise. But the wins were once again lacking, and with the spectre of relocation hanging over the franchise, it could be another very tough season for the fans in Sacramento.

Key Departures: None that would be considered “key.”  Terrence Williams is gone, now in camp with the Pistons after averaging 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds while appearing in just 18 games for the Kings last season.

Key Additions: Aaron Brooks was added for some point guard depth, and the team selected forward Thomas Robinson out of Kansas with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Sacramento also traded for James Johnson, who was productive in Toronto but will now be part of a seemingly crowded frontcourt rotation.

Three keys to the Kings season:

1) DeMarcus Cousins: All-Star? Despite the poor attitude label that Cousins has had since entering the league, the reality is that he’s developing into a monster NBA talent. He finished last season tied for fourth in rebounding at 11 per game, with only perennial dominators of the category in Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, and Andrew Bynum in front of him. But in terms of total rebound rate, only Howard in that group was higher. All of this is to say that Cousins is a beast on the boards, and combine the skill he shows there with the fact that he’s unafraid to sacrifice his body defensively and plays with a chip on his shoulder that teammates love and opponents hate, and you’ve got a player primed to make a significant jump if he shows even a hint of improvement offensively.

2) Development of the core players: In addition to Cousins, there is talent present on the Kings’ roster. Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton are legitimate scoring threats at the guard spot, and Aaron Brooks may provide some depth there, as well. There should be minutes available for rookie Thomas Robinson off the bench, and the team made an investment in Jason Thomson, keeping him in place by signing him to a new five-year deal. Tyreke Evans is still around, but is floating positionally between the two-guard and the small forward spots. It will be up to Keith Smart in his first full season as head coach to develop this team and if nothing else, create a cohesiveness with the starters that the club can build upon moving forward.

3) Ignore the noise and just play. As tough as it will be at times for both the fans and the players, everyone needs to focus on improving the product on the court, wherever that court may eventually be in seasons to come. The relocation chatter will come and go, but it won’t be a surprise at this point, so the team needs to ensure that the distraction is kept to a minimum.

What Kings fans should fear: Relocation of the franchise. Because unlike Seattle which had its team taken from them, it’s tough to see Sacramento as a market attractive enough for the NBA to return to in the future if the Kings indeed end up eventually skipping town.

Prediction: If Cousins continues his progression and Keith Smart is the real deal, the Kings could be improved enough to see their win total creep up into the high 30s. Beyond that, again, the team is just looking for something to build upon for the future — one which, hopefully, will continue to be in Sacramento.

Report: Phil Jackson thought Carmelo Anthony was trying to sabotage him

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In March, Kristaps Porzingis offered a strong endorsement of the triangle.

That put him between then-Knicks president Phil Jackson and forward Carmelo Anthony.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to an NBA source, Anthony was furious to read Porzingis’ positive sentiments on an offense he disdains.

“Melo really chewed him out, lit into him,’’ the source said.

Actually, some Knicks officials believe Anthony’s influence on Porzingis has been detrimental and a key reason why Jackson became adamant about removing him from the roster any way he could.

“Phil thought Carmelo was trying to sabotage him,’’ an NBA source said.

Jackson tried to pressure Anthony out of New York, tweeted criticism of Anthony, sidestepped Anthony’s requests to meet, seemingly pushed an anti-Anthony narrative, publicly called Anthony a ball hog and used racially insensitive language to discuss Anthony’s friend, LeBron James.

But Anthony was trying to sabotage Jackson?

It’s unhealthy for a team’s president and highest-paid players to be on such different pages, but it’s also unhealthy for a team to be caught up on an antiquated offensive system. Anthony acquiescing to Jackson might have made the Knicks’ better in the short term. But if he widened the fractures that eventually caused the Knicks to split from Jackson, Anthony did the team a favor in the long run.

Report: Masai Ujiri’s salary about half what Phil Jackson’s was

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James Dolan isn’t fixing the Knicks’ biggest problem – James Dolan.

But the owner took a step in the right direction a few years ago by pouring a ton of money into the front office. Of course, Dolan did it in the worst way. Offering a five-year, $60 million contract, he didn’t target general managers with proven track records of success. He hired front-office novice Phil Jackson, whose tenure was a wreck.

With Jackson out, will Dolan get it right this time?

The Knicks are reportedly interested in Raptors president Masai Ujiri, but it will be more complicated now, because Ujiri just signed a contract extension and the Knicks are still paying Jackson.

But can New York lure Ujiri from Toronto?

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

As a source close to MLSE ownership told me Wednesday morning: “Don’t even waste your time on this.”

But as one NBA source put it: “This is not fake news, the Knicks will be coming hard.”

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Ujiri signed a five-year extension worth $32 million last September

Bruce Arthur of the Star:

All that just makes the Knicks more desperate for a new saviour, and league sources indicate the Knicks are already confident Ujiri is coming to New York.

Despite the contract, sources indicate Ujiri can leave if he wants to leave. It’s really up to him.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

As for reports that the Knicks were interested in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, sources told ESPN that the Knicks have a deep respect for him, but he’s under contract and thus would require permission to speak to and compensation — likely draft picks — which the Knicks would be very reluctant to consider.

Dolan has the fortune to offer Ujiri a significant raise and buy him out of his Raptors contract. Money goes a long way in these negotiations, though it’s unclear how much Dolan would spend on a less-flashy name – and whether the Raptors want more than just cash.

Sending Toronto first-round picks as compensation would hurt the Knicks, but not as much as hiring another incompetent front-office head.

Will Ujiri land in New York? There are so many mixed signals, but it appears the Knicks at least have a chance.

Report: James Harden recruited Chris Paul to Rockets throughout season

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Chris Paul to the Rockets seemed to come out of nowhere.

It didn’t.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

According to one NBA executive, James Harden, the Rockets’ all-star guard, had been recruiting Paul throughout the season. An executive from another team said Harden had already told a fellow NBA player that Paul’s going to Houston was a done deal.

This is how the league works now. James Harden continues to be a enthusiastic recruiter, and that’s a huge asset to the Rockets. It goes toward explaining why Houston general manager Daryl Morey has bestowed so much faith in Harden.

The NBA has simply decided nothing players do constitutes tampering. So, Harden was free to convey Houston’s message to Paul – and this went beyond the typical bonding of two stars. The Rockets had to orchestrate a complex series of transactions, including getting Paul to waive most of his trade bonus, to make the deal work. Harden was part lead recruiter, part middleman communicating with the front office.

Getting Paul was truly the Harden-Morey partnership at its finest.

Report: Thunder have planned Blake Griffin pursuit for months

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The Clippers sound confident about re-signing Blake Griffin in the wake Chris Paul going to the Rockets.

But L.A. will have competition for the star forward – from the Nuggets, Celtics (depending how their primary plan goes), Heat and Griffin’s home-state Thunder.

Royce Young of ESPN:

It’s a shame for the Thunder they backed off their plan to sign Griffin last summer, signing Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to contract extensions, only to resume it a few months later.

Letting Adams and Oladipo hit unrestricted free agency would have given Oklahoma City an additional $22,514,699 in cap flexibility while maintaining Adams’ and Oladipo’s Bird Rights. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to offer Griffin a max salary, but dumping Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and either Doug McDermott or Domantas Sabonis would’ve projected to get the Thunder there. In that scenario, Oklahoma City could have also exceeded the cap to re-sign Adams and Oladipo after inking Griffin.

Alas, the Thunder are now limited to dumping contributors that make the team appealing to someone like Griffin in the first place or executing a sign-and-trade. But a sign-and-trade gets complicated. Adams’ salary alone isn’t enough to return Griffin on a max, and it’s not even clear the Clippers – with DeAndre Jordan – would want Adams (though losing Griffin could initiate an even greater rebuild that includes trading Jordan). And again, the Clippers reportedly want to keep Griffin rather than go this route.

This was all foreseeable, though some surprising factors worsened the consequences of the extensions for Oklahoma City.

Griffin seemed more certain last summer to stay in L.A. The 2017-18 salary cap appeared on track to be higher. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t raise cap holds for first-round picks until next year. So, Adams’ deal projects to save the Thunder just $6,425,000 over the next four years relative to a max offer sheet – a paltry sum in the face of the potential cap flexibility lost this year by extending him instead of waiting to re-sign him.

The Thunder making moves earlier than necessary and salary-cap developments turning those plans especially imprudent – where have I heard this one before?