The Sacramento Kings are 14-21 with a -1.9 point differential and they are in 10th place in what has been an unusually down year in the Western Conference. Their offense has slightly improved (12th in the NBA) thanks to George Karl’s decision to push the tempo at every opportunity (1rst in pace) but their defense is still one of the worst in the league (22nd). BPI has them projected to win 35 games and make the playoffs 23% of the time. Yet, somehow, they are easily the best team in DeMarcus Cousins' seven seasons in Sacramento.

Cousins has been called a loser thanks to his often miserable attitude and his incredibly poor body language when he is on the court but it’s hard to imagine anyone short of LeBron James being able to carry the rosters he has been saddled with to the playoffs. He has never played with another All-Star and he has played for six different coaches and never won more than 29 games in a season. Everything in the NBA starts with ownership and the Kings had the worst ownership group in the league (the Maloofs) and may have somehow downgraded with the arrival of Vivek Ranadive, who has taken ownership meddling to a whole different level.

Vivek has burned through front offices, coaching staffs and philosophies at a breathtaking rate and he has mortgaged a huge portion of their future in an attempt to become relevant before the opening of their new stadium in 2017. The good news is that for all his missteps the Kings have stumbled backwards into a decent NBA team, one that has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs and playing meaningful basketball for the first time in a decade.

The biggest change for this version of the Kings is they aren’t trying to bring along young projects who aren’t ready to compete at the NBA level. There’s no Jimmer Fredette or Nik Stauskas in this year’s bunch, no one being forced into a role greater than his talents. The only young players who play at all are lottery picks with very small and defined roles - Ben McLemore and Willie Cauley-Stein - and neither guy is actively killing the team when he is out there, which counts as high praise for Sacramento draft picks.

Sacramento isn’t Oklahoma City or Golden State. The only bonafide draft success they’ve had in the last generation is when Cousins slipped into their laps due to behavioral concerns. They don’t have a lot of their own draft picks on their roster because their previous front offices showed no real ability to identify young talent. Instead, they have brought in a bunch of proven NBA veterans to play around their franchise player. They may have overpaid for some of them but that’s what a franchise that has been as miserable as the Kings has to do to bring in real talent.

Say what you want about Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, Darren Collison, Marco Belinelli, Omri Casspi and Kosta Koufos but they are all legitimate professional basketball players who would play for just about every team in the league. While Karl is still figuring out exactly what the best line-ups to put around Cousins, he at least has options on the bench that he can go too. The back end of their roster is still pretty questionable but when the Kings are 100% healthy they should be able to compete with every team in the league on a nightly basis.

If you dig into the advanced numbers, the two guys that stand out for good and for bad are Casspi and Koufos, respectively. Casspi is a net-rating monster, as the Kings offensive rating is 6.1 points higher when he is on the floor and a defensive rating 9.2 points worse when he is off. Koufos has the exact opposite effect - their offensive rating is 4.9 points better without him and their defensive rating is 5.0 points worse when he is on the floor. Six players have a net rating of +4.5 or higher when paired with Casspi while seven guys have a net rating of -5.5 or worse when paired with Koufos. The only guy on their roster who can lift Koufos out of his plus/minus malaise is Casspi himself and even then those two still only have a net rating of +3.1 together.


with Casspi

with Koufos



















Those numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone whose been paying attention to the NBA this season. Casspi has been playing as a small-ball PF this season and when he is on the floor the Kings can spread the floor and defend on the perimeter with multiple guys who can shoot 3’s and move their feet. Koufos has spent a lot of time paired with either Cousins or Cauley-Stein so when he is on the floor the Kings are playing traditional line-ups built around two 7’0 and those line-ups don’t really work in the modern NBA unless they are constructed in near perfect conditions a la San Antonio.

The way forward for Sacramento is fairly obvious. They should be playing either Cousins or Cauley-Stein at center and either Gay or Casspi at power forward and surround them with three perimeter players. The majority of those minutes would go to Rondo, Collison, McLemore and Belinelli and shifting Gay and Casspi to SF for stretches should eat up the rest of them. That gives them an eight-man rotation that can either pound the ball or play pick-and-pop with Cousins or get out and run with Cauley-Stein.

Not only would that get the most out of Cousins, who has been playing like the best big man in the league when he hasn’t completely fallen in love with the jumper and playing like a finesse player, but it would also maximize Gay, whose being paid like their 2nd-most important player. The benefits of playing Gay at the 4 were clear in their heartbreaking 2OT loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday - Gay scored 31 points on 20 shots in large part because he was being defended by Dirk Nowitzki for most of the game.

It remains to be seen whether the Kings will optimize their line-ups around Cousins but Karl is the best coach he has ever played for and he seems to have grasped the way the league was going when he was running the Denver Nuggets. Casspi’s playing time has been trending upwards over the course of the season while Koufos’ has been trending downwards so it doesn’t seem like Karl has been completely ignoring the dynamics of the roster.

The Kings have all the pieces to make a playoff run - an All-NBA big man, a stretch 4, a ball-dominant wing, a PG who can control tempo and run the offense and two wings who can be serviceable as 3-and-D players. Maybe more importantly, this is the perfect year for them to do as the pack has come back to them out West, with the Houston Rockets constantly on the verge of imploding, the Phoenix Suns doing so and the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz dealing with never-ending strings of injuries. If they can’t make the playoffs this year with this team, the real concern in Sacramento should be what team will?