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The New Team Smell

Vivek Ranadive had a deal in place with Michael Malone to hire him as head coach before he even became owner of the Sacramento Kings. The unconventional way of hiring a coach before putting front office personnel in place should have foreshadowed with what has been unraveling the past several days for the Kings.

Malone was fired in his second season after a somewhat surprising 11-13 start in the rugged Western Conference. DeMarcus Cousins has missed the past ten games with viral meningitis and the team expectedly has struggled, dropping eight of those ten games.

With Cousins not in the mix, opposing teams have been focusing primarily on Rudy Gay—which has reverted Gay back to the inefficient player he has been throughout his career. Cousins commands so much attention down low that it creates floor spacing on the perimeter that often led to higher percentage shots for players like Gay and Ben McLemore. With Cousins on the court, the Kings were a plus 12.7 per 48 minutes.

Ranadive’s inability to allow the staff he hired to make basketball decisions will undoubtedly hinder the potential of the Kings. General manager Pete D’Alessandro was hired to work in concert with Ranadive in making personnel decisions. Several different occasions through Ranadive’s brief tenure as owner can attribute to the growing rift between him and Malone that eventually led to Malone’s dismissal.

Since his days with the Warriors, Malone was widely considered a defensive coach. On the other hand, Ranadive wanted the team to run and play at a faster pace, similar to their Reno D-League affiliate. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Ranadive wanted Malone to instill a four-on-five defense—something his daughter’s youth team did and was written about in Malcom Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” book—where one defender would run back for easy cherry pick baskets.

Furthermore, Malone’s desire to re-sign Isaiah Thomas over the summer and hesitance of long-term extensions to both Cousins and Gay were overruled by Ranadive and his front office.

Even with the addition of speedy Darren Collison, the Kings do not have the proper team roster to run at a pace similar to the Warriors or Thunder. Malone was simply playing to the team’s strength of a pick and roll half-court scheme for the offense to run fully through their best player in Cousins. Additionally, Cousins post-up game improvement under Malone has been a huge reason for the team’s fast start this season.

Factoring in the lack of depth on the current roster, the unavailability of their best player, and the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Kings were surely going to regress to the mean at one point or another. With the tense offseason pandemonium, Kings’ management were waiting for any excuse to terminate Malone, and with their recent slump, they seized that opportunity. 

In their war room on draft day, Sacramento is featured by Grantland. Ultimately, they decided to pick Nik Stauskas over Elfrid Payton—one they may surely regret in the future. The Kings have a similar player to Stauskas in the more athletic McLemore, and Payton would have been a quality perimeter defender to fill the point guard void, as Thomas wasn’t expected to return. This was a simple objective call, but it appears that Ranadive is the driving force behind all decisions given how much he’s talking throughout the video.

In the past, Ranadive has seemingly liked to engage the media about his team. Since the ousting of Malone, Ranadive took two long days before he finally addressed the media. He compared the organization chaos to that of a Sousa marching band, and they needed to shift to a jazz band.

“We had a Sousa marching band, which was needed when there was chaos, but now we need to shift to a jazz band, where people can be individually showcased and improvised. What we need is a jazz director. I think that’s the kind of leadership moving forward.”

With past history that shows Ranadive controlling the organization top to bottom, it is quite ironic that Ranadive points out that he needs someone with creativity and that can improvise.

Other reports have come out that Ranadive did not directly speak to Malone about his termination, and Cousins found out about the firing over Twitter—rather unprofessional on all levels.

As talked about previously, new ownership tends to come in and try to run their respective teams as their own fantasy teams, and Ranadive clearly falls in this category. Until he realizes that the front office is employed to do their jobs in making basketball decisions, the Kings will be stuck in a form of chaos and uncertainty.

Coach's Corner: How Jason Thompson And Zaza Pachulia Are Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero -- Part 1

After finishing last season ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the Sacramento Kings have lept into the top half of the league this year. Their current rating of 103.3 has Sacramento at 14th overall, a particularly remarkable improvement given that the team has played the second hardest schedule in the NBA through the first 13 games. Part of the reason for their early success has been the unheralded play of veteran big man Jason Thompson.

As I mentioned in my piece about the impact of Omri Casspi on the team’s depth, Thompson has one of the most blue-collar roles in the league right now. Night after night, it’s usually Thompson, and not Demarcus Cousins, battling with the bigger and more effective frontcourt opponent. It’s a thankless job that rarely gets a player credit despite the fact it frees Cousins to use his energy to unleash hell (or more specifically, foul trouble) on opposing teams at the other end of the floor.

Even better for the Kings is that Thompson isn’t just absorbing body blows, he’s helping the team shut down opponents. Per NBA.com, Sacramento’s defensive rating is 96.5 when Thompson is on the floor, the second lowest mark on the team behind Darren Collison. Opponents have also shot just 40.7 percent from the floor when Thompson is on it -- a number that puts him second, again, to Collison -- compared to 46.8 percent when the blue-collar big man sits.

Now, as usual, these early season numbers could be subject to some drastic changes as the games continue to pile up. Thompson also definitely benefits from spending a lot of his time on the floor with not just Collison, but the team’s star duo of Cousins and Rudy Gay playing with much more consistent energy and effort on defense. All of this makes Thompson’s role with the team a fascinating subplot as the Kings move forward. If the data holds and Thompson continues to be a key part of the Kings defensive improvement while, at the same time, being a total zero on offense outside of the occasional rim finish, it puts Sacramento in a weird spot.

On one hand, the team could try to upgrade his positions and replace Thompson’s willingness to battle opposing bigs down low with someone who adds more offensive punch. But removing Thompson’s role as something of a designated hitter (or maybe battler?) could do untold damage to both Cousin’s production -- he already has foul issues despite the arrangement -- and the team’s defense. Yet it’s pretty clear, that Thompson makes life harder offensively for the rest of his teammates until he finds an efficient way to exploit a defense.

At least for right now the Kings can be happy with the the status quo. Despite less than flattering performances on offense, Thompson has played a key role in Sacramento’s early success.

Unsung Hero - Part 2

Throughout his career, Zaza Pachulia has never really had a stand out attribute to his game. He’s been solid in most areas -- from rebounding to leadership in the lockerroom -- but unlike role-player extraordinaire Nick Collison, Pachulia was never a plus/minus darling at any of his spots. This year in Milwaukee has been a little different.

The Bucks surprising sprint out of the gate (well, compared to last year which was a drunken stumble down a 20-story flight of stairs) is a little bit of a mirage -- 7-7 starts are a little easier to come by when facing the ninth easiest schedule in the league -- but Pachulia has been one of three players with a positive net rating, per NBA.com. Part of that is due to head coach Jason Kidd’s management of his minutes, as Pachulia typically plays against more physical frontcourts that match his strengths (literally) well. But the other part of it is that Kidd’s insistence on running Corner action, the offensive concepts made famous by Rick Adelman, has allowed us to a see a new side of the Georgian big man.

Though his assist numbers aren’t noticeably better, Pachulia’s passing has created opportunities for a Bucks team that has been pretty poor offensively to start the year. Check out this dime against OKC:

Milwaukee is still at their best when their long and active defense gets stops and steals that lead to their young athletes scoring on the break. It’s probably a primary reason why Kidd has his group so focused on that end of the floor. As we all know though, it’s impossible to rely solely on transition or even semi-transition (or early) offense. Teams will make shots and other game stoppages will force the Bucks to go against set defenses.

With so many young players (and, correspondingly, bad decision-makers), putting the ball in the hands of Pachulia really helps the Bucks offense in half-court situations. And yes, that sentence was as weird to type as it was to read. I’m not sure if running Corner action is in the best long term interest of Milwaukee, but until their kids figure out NBA basketball -- and/or add skills to breakdown set defenses -- having a post player like Pachulia use his previously unappreciated passing to create easy shots in walk-up situations will be a nice boost for the team.

The Big Mistake: Measurables Vs. Situation

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

Thomas Robinson was seen as one of the safest picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6'9 240, he was an elite athlete with prototypical size for the power forward position at the NBA. A first-team All-American, Robinson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior, leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game. 

The Sacramento Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick, expecting to plug him into the starting lineup next to DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Robinson lasted only a few months with Sacramento before being shipped to the Houston Rockets and then the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the rare Top 5 pick to be on three teams in less than a season.

So what happened?

Robinson, like many of Bill Self's players, looked better than he really was at Kansas. While Self gets his fair share of elite recruits, he has won ten Big 12 championships in a row because he recruits players who fit his system, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. 

At Kansas, Robinson shared a frontcourt with Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in 2012. Withey, at 7'0 235, was an elite shot-blocker who cleaned up a lot of Robinson's mistakes on the defensive end. On offense, Withey could play high-low with Robinson and knock down a 20-foot jumper.

Self's inside-out offense slowed down the pace of the game and put guards who could space the floor around Withey and Robinson, giving them a ton of room to operate in the paint. At that point, there wasn't much the vast majority of NCAA front-lines could do against a 7'0 and a 6'9 who would play in the NBA.

However, when he faced big men who could match his size and athleticism, Robinson was a fairly limited offensive player. He couldn't consistently knock down a perimeter jumper, couldn't put the ball on the floor, couldn't score out of the low post and couldn't create shots for his teammates.

His struggles in their two games against Kentucky, one of the only teams they faced with multiple NBA-caliber big men, should have been a red flag. At the next level, every frontline looks like Kentucky’s.

Rather than being a safe pick, Robinson was a fairly substantial gamble. He projected as an average defender at PF, an average shot-creator, a minus shooter, a minus passer and a plus rebounder. Whoever drafted him would need to spend several years developing his offensive game before he would be a starting-caliber player.

After spending their whole lives as the biggest and baddest players on the court, the vast majority of big men become just another guy at the highest level of the game. Unless you are Andre Drummond, you don't enter the league bigger and faster than everyone you face.

Drummond was taken by the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 in 2012, four spots after Robinson. After one season at UConn, he was seen as one of the biggest gambles on the board, a raw big man who hadn't proven he could channel his physical gifts into consistent production.

At 6'11 275, Drummond has an unprecedented combination of size and athleticism. We have never seen a man his size do the things he can do in the air - he can take the ball between his legs and dunk in one motion. Nevertheless, despite going up against much smaller and less athletic players on a nightly basis in college, he averaged only 11 points and 8 rebounds a game. 

Unlike Robinson, Drummond wasn't in an ideal situation in college. He shared a front-court with Alex Oriakhi, a fringe NBA prospect who couldn't shoot the ball. Since neither Drummond nor Oriakhi could stretch the floor, opposing teams packed the paint against UConn.

On the perimeter, the Huskies never replaced Kemba Walker, who had left for the NBA draft the year before. Shabazz Napier, their starting PG, was still learning the game, more comfortable looking for his own shot than setting up his teammates. Ryan Boatright, their other PG, spent most of the season in NCAA limbo.

Soon after Drummond enrolled at UConn, the program got hit with APR (academic) sanctions that would make them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. To top it off, John Calhoun came down with cancer in the middle of the season.

Scouts looked at Drummond's tools and lack of consistent production as a freshman and wondered whether he loved the game. What they should have been asking is whether any of that would have mattered.

Would it have made Oriakhi a better shooter? Would it have made Napier a better passer? Would it have kept Boatright out of the NCAA's crosshairs? Would it have stopped the APR sanctions from coming down or kept his coach from getting cancer?

When you are scouting a player in college, you have to scout his teammates and his coaching staff too. If you don't know what's going on with his team, you will only get an incomplete picture of what's going on. Their team can make them look better or worse than they really are.

In the NBA, where Drummond has played with PF’s who can shoot and PG’s who can pass, he has been unstoppable on the pick-and-roll. He is bigger, more coordinated and more athletic than every center in the league - he has a lot of value standing in front of the rim.

If he were an NFL prospect, the draft conversation around him would be much different. The NFL scouts would have taken one look at him in the combine and lost their mind - Drummond had measurables as good as any prospect coming into the NBA in the last generation.

Two years later, does anyone care what Drummond or Robinson did in college? When projecting players to the NBA, past production doesn't necessarily mean anything. 

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

With the Cavaliers, Bucks, 76ers, Magic and Jazz owning the first five picks, we can begin to examine what will go into the decision-making process of the the first 14 selection.

Jimmer Fredette Gets Ideal Second Swing In NBA With Bulls

As Jimmer Fredette dons a new uniform, it will be interesting to see if Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls can find a way to utilize him within their system. Talent is only visible through opportunity; and Fredette could seize his opportunity very soon.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings Moving In Right Direction

The Kings have been going through major changes with a new coach, new personnel on the roster and a new ownership group. Perhaps most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be maturing and he's also become one of the NBA's most productive players.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Grading The Deal: Kings Sign DeMarcus Cousins To Max Extension

The Kings sacrificed the extra time for evaluation and the risk that comes with it for a possibly non-existent benefit. It did not help them secure any additional free agent talent and we cannot know whether a high-stakes season would have motivated DeMarcus Cousins or sent him into a spiral.

Why The Kings Are In The NBA's 2nd Longest Playoff Drought

While the Kings haven't gotten any lucky bounces in the lottery lately, over the last five years, they picked between No. 4 and No. 7. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins were good picks, but their misses in 2011 and 2012 has made them several players away from becoming a playoff team.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

Summer League Player Evaluation: Ben McLemore

The Kings are a great fit for Ben McLemore, who brings a scoring punch they have desperately needed, as well as great potential to be great on both ends of the court, no matter how mediocre things look right now defensively.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

The Lottery Lowdown

We have seen a whole lot of changes since the pre-Tournament issue of the Lottery Lowdown. March Madness gave us a few players to watch both this year and for 2014 while the Nike Hoop Summit and Combine helped clarify the picture in terms of athletic ability and positional versatility.

Looking At Potential General Manager Candidates

Seven teams named new GMs after the 2011-12 and candidates seem to fall into two different categories these days: the young savant and the seasoned veteran.

Sacramento, Seattle And The Kings – What Now?

Without expansion on the immediate horizon per David Stern’s comments on April 3, the NBA does not have a good solution either way. But they could guarantee a franchise to both Seattle and Sacramento within the next few years pending on which city is closer to a new arena.

Kings Juggling Talent, Immaturity

Without a doubt the Kings have a locker room filled with talent and also immaturity. Many times the latter overwhelms the former and results in a team getting drubbed regularly and developing a losing culture where the individual becomes the focus.

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