ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Sacramento Kings

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Last season: Another mired below mediocre for a Kings team that has been just awful for the past seven years. Sacramento finished with just 28 wins, good for 13th out of 15 teams in the West. The team was 29th out of 30 in defensive efficiency (only the Bobcats were worse), DeMarcus Cousins remained out of control emotionally, leading the league with 17 technical fouls and being suspended by his own team for internally struggling to fall in line with then-head coach Keith Smart.

The Kings fired that coach in the offseason, and gave Cousins a huge contract extension based solely on talent — which has been seen only in flashes, but is expected by most to materialize at some point in the future.

Last season’s signature highlight: A montage of Cousins being T’d up or ejected would be appropriate, but as always, let’s keep it positive. Fast forward to the 1:57 mark, and you’ll see what the Kings saw in Cousins to warrant that large contract extension — a raw and powerful skill set that allows him to get to the rim for powerful dunks seemingly at his choosing, no matter the defenders in his way.

Key player changes: The Kings appeared to improve from a personnel standpoint this summer, getting some young talent in place while ridding themselves of a former home-grown Rookie of the Year in Tyreke Evans.

  • IN: Carl Landry was signed in free agency, in a move meant to add some much-needed frontcourt depth, but he will now be out three-four months following hip surgery. Point guard Greivis Vasquez came over in the trade that sent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was acquired via trade with the Bucks. Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum were respective first and second round draft picks this summer.
  • OUT: Sacramento wisely gave up on Evans, dealing him in a sign-and-trade instead of matching the three-year, $44 million offer he got from New Orleans. James Johnson (he of the game-winner against the Knicks) signed with the Hawks. Toney Douglas is now with the Warriors, and Cole Aldrich is with the Knicks.

Keys to the Kings season:

1) DeMarcus Cousins: The new ownership group of the Kings has made it clear that they view Cousins as the future face of the franchise, and backed up that statement by extending the talented but troubled power forward for four years and $62 million this summer. Cousins has said all the right things since then, but historically he’s had trouble keeping his commitments once the ball is tipped.

Sacramento was in a no-win situation with Cousins, so the max contract was essentially mandatory — fail to offer it, and Cousins has a reason to be mentally checked out. Give him those guaranteed dollars based on potential, and he may feel like he has nothing to prove, and could be content with berating officials and opposing players rather than focusing on helping his team from a basketball standpoint.

The Kings won’t win a lot of games this season, but the version of Cousins they get will go a long way in the franchise being able to build for the future. Despite the lack of expectations at the team level, this is a huge season for Cousins.

2) Greivis Vasquez: The newest point guard in town, and the one likely to earn the starting nod is going to be instrumental in the development of the Kings’ offense under new head coach Mike Malone. If Cousins is to be believed (and in this instance, he almost certainly is not), he’s never played for a coach with an offensive system. Vasquez is a more traditional point guard than Evans was and Isaiah Thomas is, and his ability to distribute consistently will go a long way in determining just how competitive Sacramento can be in most games this season.

3) Patience: Sacramento is going to be sub-.500 for the eighth consecutive season, and there isn’t anything that’s going to stop that. But once again there’s reason for optimism under a new head coach, a new ownership group, a newly-minted franchise player and a talented rookie class. As long as there is development and a direction associated with the team as the season progresses, things will be considered to be moving along as planned. But if Cousins regresses (or even repeats last season) and the new pieces don’t quite fit, it’ll be tempting for management to scramble once again to make drastic changes to turn things around.

At some point, you have to put the building blocks for success into place, and stick with a plan for longer than a season and a half. More than ever, that time in Sacramento is now.

Why you should watch: It’s always fun to get in on a ground floor opportunity, and one of these seasons, that’s exactly what this Kings franchise will be. And despite his temperament, Cousins remains one of the more talented big men in the game who at times showcases a powerful skill set that is matched by only a select few players around the league.

Prediction: Pain, and it would be disingenuous to paint it any other way. Sacramento will be bad again in terms of pure wins and losses, but it isn’t about that this season. If the team can develop into a cohesive unit, if Cousins matures into a leader on the floor and plays at an All-Star level that most feel he’s capable of, and if new head coach Mike Malone gains his players’ respect by grabbing hold of the team and implementing a system that works, then for the first time in years, the Kings’ season will be viewed as a success.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

Associated Press
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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.