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Paul Flannery | February 9, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

Putting the Kings back together

The quest to rebuild the Kings

When Pete D’Alessandro got off a plane in Sacramento for his introductory press conference as the new Kings general manager last June, he was amazed by all the people who already knew his name.

"I’m walking through the airport and people are saying, ‘Welcome, Pete,’" D’Alessandro said. "I knew the enthusiasm the people had, but for the fans to have that much knowledge, to know the face of a guy who’s been behind the scenes. I’m walking through a mall and a 60-year-old woman says, ‘Pete we’re so happy to have you here.’"

Recalling the memory from a courtside seat at TD Garden an hour before the Kings played the Celtics, D’Alessandro paused for a moment and smiled.

"It makes you want to win," he said. "It’s a great fanbase. It’s a phenomenal fanbase. When the arena’s here. When the team’s where it needs to be. I’m just so excited about that. Those are big thoughts. Those are fun thoughts."

Everyone in Sacramento is thinking big thoughts these days. From D’Alessandro to coach Mike Malone and all the way up to owner Vivek Ranadive, the Kings have undergone a rapid transformation. There’s a new downtown arena on the horizon and a freshness to the franchise that had grown stale under years of Maloofery.

Since taking over, the new braintrust has made a number of significant moves, including parting ways with former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and extending DeMarcus Cousins, but that was only the beginning. In November, the Kings traded veteran Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to Minnesota for Derrick Williams, the one-time second overall draft choice who never clicked with the Timberwolves. That was the kind of deal rebuilding teams should make.

But in early December, D’Alessandro made an altogether different kind of move when he traded Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez to the Raptors for Aaron Gray, Quincy Acy and Rudy Gay. The general reaction to the trade was one of puzzled bewilderment. It’s not as if D’Alessandro gave up too much for Gay; it’s that he gave up anything at all. Why would anyone want a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer with an $19.3 million player option, clogging up the offense and muddying the cap sheet?

That the Raptors immediately took off and started playing good to very good basketball without Gay only validated the appraisal. This, after all, is the pattern that was established in Memphis when he was traded the year before.

But D’Alessandro saw something different. He had long admired Gay’s game and he saw a player who had played well in his time with the Grizzlies when he was able to work off a low-post threat like Zach Randolph. He imagined him playing with Cousins, the Kings’ emerging beast in the middle, and he thought that it was an obvious move to make.

"Frankly, I think a lot of teams did see it," D’Alessandro said. "The guy is just a really talented basketball player, as we see him on the court now. When he played his best basketball he played with strong low post threats and we’re seeing that naturally synergy between he and DeMarcus. That’s something. We did expect that."

Not only has Gay played spectacularly well, posting the best numbers of his career, but the Kings have been a .500 team whenever he and Cousins have been healthy enough to share the court. In addition, the trade opened up playing time for Isaiah Thomas and everyone’s favorite little man is looking like a franchise point guard.

On top of all that, a very interesting phenomenon has developed. With Marcus Thornton and Jason Thompson in the starting lineup along with Gay, Thomas and Cousins, the Kings have won seven of 11 games and that five-man unit is a rather incredible 18.8 points better than their opponents in about 186 minutes of work, per nba.com/stats.

Small sample size caveats abound, but no other five-man group has posted such a significant spread in as many minutes. Ideally, Williams and rookie Ben McLemore will be occupying those supporting roles, but there are signs of significant progress in Sacramento.

"When you make a trade of that magnitude, you have to feel pretty confident in your gut," D’Alessandro said. "These decisions are business decisions and basketball decisions. When you’re willing to make a big trade like that you have to feel strongly about it. The first day on the floor together you could see it. We feel very encouraged about what we’re seeing and we look forward to seeing it for many years to come."

Ah, and there’s the rub. If Gay decides to stay for the final year of his deal then the Kings will be right up against the luxury tax line before adding another lottery pick and addressing Thomas’ impending restricted free agency. It also should be mentioned that there are still hurdles to clear for the Kings’ new downtown arena and the new franchise caretakers are wary about sending the wrong signals to the city and its fanbase.

"One of the great things about being in Sacramento is the enthusiasm of our ownership group," D’Alessandro said. "The group is very invested in turning this around for the city of Sacramento to the point where I think the city of Sacramento sees it. To walk in in your first year and say, ‘Yes, we’re right there financially.’ That’s a credit to our owners and their commitment to the city. The city can see it now. It’s not just talk. That also means that we have Rudy Gay. And I say that with a smile on my face."

But let’s leave all that be for a moment, because for the first time in years the Kings’ focus is on the court and particularly their odd big three of Cousins, Gay and Thomas. How odd have they been? Really, really odd.

Still just 23 years old, Cousins is posting career highs across the boards in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. Boogie is one of nine NBA players who have averaged 22 points, 11 boards and 3 assists by his age. We’re talking Wilt/Kareem/Duncan territory.

"He’s got All-Star numbers," D’Alessandro said pointedly. "I’m personally so proud of him. The day I met him and we were in our gym looking eye to eye, to see his growth from that day. He didn’t know who we were. You could tell the anxiety. And to have him just flourish like this, it just makes me proud as a general manager. Now, where can he go? At some point people will take note and he’ll get the credit that he so deserves. The sky’s the limit."

No matter how high the internal expectations, Gay has enjoyed nothing short of a stunning revival. He’s averaging better than 20 points a game with a .608 True Shooting Percentage and a 22.2 Player Efficiency Rating with the Kings. There are only three other healthy players putting up lines like that this season: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Goran Dragic.

"The great thing about Rudy is -- we all heard it -- the knock on him was his inefficient play as a Toronto Raptor," Malone said. "But you look at his stats for us, I don’t know how many other perimeter players are going to average over 20 points a night, shoot 53 percent, 37 percent from three, get you five rebounds, three assists on a consistent basis. He’s really impressed me with how efficient he’s been, and he’s a willing playmaker."

Then there’s Thomas, the 5-9 dynamo who is averaging 20 points and 6.2 assists per game. The number of players shorter than 6-feet who have done that? Four: Dana Barros, Calvin Murphy, Damon Stoudamire and Michael Adams.

Those three represent the future, along with McLemore and Williams who are not nearly as far along in their development. McLemore has had his share of rookie struggles, but the Kings love his talent. Williams was miscast in Minnesota and never really fit into Rick Adelman’s system, but again, the Kings see upside in a player who’s still only 22 years old.

"Derrick’s one of the youngest players on our team," D’Alessandro said. "When we acquired him we thought, ‘What great potential.’ Derrick’s figuring the game out day by day. We love what we see from him. When you see him and Ben McLemore running the wings together that’s exciting. Our fans enjoy watching that. We’re very encouraged by Derrick."

It hasn’t been anything close to a straight line for the Kings. When Gay arrived, they were in the middle of a stretch with four games in five nights and practice time was scarce. Losses predictably followed. Then they won six of 10, including victories over the Heat, Rockets and Blazers. Then came the injuries. Cousins and Gay both missed a stretch of games and a seven-game losing streak halted the progress.

After a two-point loss to San Antonio last weekend, Malone told his team to forget the record and focus on the big picture. They responded with wins over the Bulls and Raptors before a tough loss in Boston on Friday without Gay and Thornton.

"We’re really close to being a team that can not only compete but win on a consistent basis because we’re starting to play the right way," Malone said. "We have three guys in Isaiah, Rudy and DeMarcus who can carry us offensively. The key is we’re starting to get it because we’re defending at a much higher level. I’ve seen enough. I know when we’re healthy, we’re a pretty good team."

"We're not going to waver. This is who we need to be." -Mike Malone on the Kings' improving defense

The son of longtime NBA coaching fixture Brendan Malone, Mike Malone made his rep as an assistant working with solid defensive outfits in Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State. He’s an old-school, defensive-minded coach in some respects, but he’s also a numbers maven who casually works in phrases like usage rate and efficiency. The number that makes him happiest? Over the last month, the Kings are sixth in field goal percentage defense.

"We’re not going to waver," Malone said. "This is who we need to be. We’re trusting each other more. We’re playing harder. We’re communicating. They realize, when we defend at a high level we win games. When we don’t defend at a high level we usually get our butts kicked. It’s evident in the stats."

At the moment, the Kings remain an intriguing work in progress. The talent on hand is obvious, but no one is under any illusion that the hard work is even close to completion.

"We don’t have enough wins to say I’m locked into any one thing," D’Alessandro said. "I see things I really like. You try to figure it out because it’s a big puzzle. I look at our roster from the beginning of the year to now that our fans seem more excited about. It’s a more exciting brand of basketball. We’ll continue to build with that method in mind. It’s a step by step process. First, acquire pieces and then turn it into a team, and it’s not quite a team yet."

Not yet, but the Sacramento Kings are finally headed in a positive direction.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

Several years ago a smart talent evaluator told me that there were many NBA players, they just weren’t all in the NBA. There’s only 450 jobs available at any one time in the league and many more qualified applicants toiling away in the D-League or abroad. All it takes is an opportunity.

Consider the case of Chris Johnson. An average-sized forward from the University of Dayton, Johnson spent four years with the Flyers posting solid, but hardly earth-shattering numbers. After going undrafted in 2012, Johnson hooked up with the 76ers’ summer league team and had training camp appearances with the Clippers and Magic.

When neither panned out, Johnson played for Rio Grande Valley in the D-League where he averaged about 10 points and shot 38 percent from behind the arc. He got a pair of 10-day contracts with the Grizzlies and performed reasonably well in short minutes, earning praise from then-coach Lionel Hollins.

But when Memphis pulled off the Rudy Gay trade, Johnson’s minutes were harder to come by and he was back in the D-League. Johnson went through training camp with the Nets, but with 15 roster spots already accounted for, he went back to Rio Grande, which is where the Celtics found him.

This turned out to be the break he needed. In Johnson’s first game with the C’s, starting guard Avery Bradley hurt his ankle and Johnson was thrust into the lineup against the Miami Heat. He scored 11 points and helped make the game far more competitive than it should have been.

Each time Johnson got a chance to play, he made the most of his minutes and when his second 10-day contract was set to expire, the Celtics decided to sign him to a four-year deal that guarantees employment for the rest of the season with three non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end. They did this even though his roster spot and minimum salary cuts into their limited luxury tax flexibility. That’s no small consideration. A few days in advance of their decision, the word from the front office was that Johnson might not get a deal.

Johnson’s chances of survival have now greatly increased. He has the rest of the regular season, plus summer league and training camp next fall to prove that he can make it in the league long-term. That’s a fantastic development for him and a nice little story in an otherwise forgettable Boston winter.

All of which brings us to Pierre Jackson. The rookie guard from Baylor has been lighting up the D-League, and on Wednesday he set a new single-game scoring record with 58 points. Jackson is averaging more than 30 points and six assists a game for the Idaho Stampede and would be in the NBA if not for one small detail. Twenty nine of the 30 teams can’t sign him.

Jackson was selected by the 76ers in the second round and his rights were traded along with Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans in the draft-day swap for Nerlens Noel and a future first rounder, meaning that New Orleans controls his career. The Pelicans had planned for Jackson to play overseas and to give him a shot next year when they won’t have a first round pick. His play in the D-League forced their hand a bit, as reports out of New Orleans indicate that Jackson’s agent was given permission to try and work out a trade, although that didn’t pan out.

Jackson will play in the D-League All-Star game in New Orleans next weekend and it’s yet another chance to prove to someone that he should be working in the NBA where he belongs.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Rockets at Timberwolves

You know who hasn’t received enough attention this season? Dwight Howard. Let’s see: averaging 18 and 12, shooting about 58 percent, with a Usage Rate a tick below Orlando levels, but above his Laker year, and anchoring a team who wins two out of every three games and is as legit as anyone else in the loaded West. Howard took a lot of criticism the last few years and a good chunk of it was deserved, but does anyone really think he made the wrong career choice?

TUESDAY Thunder at Blazers

After three and a half months of jockeying, streaks and injuries it feels safe to declare Oklahoma City the frontrunner in the Western Conference. The Thunder have survived Russell Westbrook’s absence and given young players like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb valuable minutes. Their defense has been superb and Kevin Durant is, of course, terrifying. And yet for all of that, getting out of the West will still require a supreme effort. Of all the matchups I’d like to see, OKC and Portland intrigues me the most. A great offense versus a great defense with star power and all that Pacific Northwest history? Yes, please.

WEDNESDAY Heat at Warriors

This was my Finals pick before the season started and I’m sticking with it because, why not? The Heat are at least a 50-50 proposition to get out of the East again and the Warriors … well, nobody really knows what to what to think of them. Their 10-game winning streak yielded a stretch of sub-.500 play over the last month and their lack of depth has been a major problem. Jordan Crawford has been predictably erratic and Harrison Barnes has had a disappointing season. But depth is less important in the postseason when minutes are extended, and as long as they have Andrew Bogut healthy, I’m not ready to count them out.

THURSDAY Nets at Bulls

Tom Thibodeau is a genius. He may be a tortured genius and somewhat irresponsible with his player’s minutes, but the man coach a basketball team. The Bulls have survived Derrick Rose’s absence (again) and are 15-11 since trading Luol Deng for essentially nothing, which is astounding considering what was left. Deng’s replacement, Jimmy Butler, is quietly getting his game back together after a brutal start to the season and Thibs has resurrected D.J. Augustin, while making solid use of rookie Tony Snell. Thibodeau may not get Coach of the Year, but he deserves some kind of award for carrying on through this madness.

FRIDAY Rising Stars

Let’s just have a Giannis Cam since that’s the only thing people really care about in this defense-optional exhibition that makes the All-Star Game look like Game 7 of the Finals.

SATURDAY Dunks & Threes

I’m not going to pretend that I understand all of the changes the NBA made to the dunk contest. Thankfully, we’ve got a primer. But I do know that Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard will participate and that’s good enough for me. Getting the young stars to perform at the Saturday showcase events is a big deal for the NBA and a welcome change from the past years when the field would have stumped anyone in a game of "Who he play for?" It’s the same for the three-point shootout with Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Steph Curry set to compete. This is how it should be.

SUNDAY The All-Star Game

The play on the court may be lacking, but let’s give the host city props for arranging a doozy of a halftime show that includes the great Trombone Shorty, Janelle Monae, the brilliant guitarist Gary Clark and the Night Tripper himself, Dr. John. You know what? Let’s skip the second half and Second Line our way back to Frenchmen Street. WHO’S WITH ME?

The ListNBA players in some made up category

There have been many memorable All-Star Games, it’s just that few of them have happened recently. The Shootaround takes a look back at some of the iconic moments.

Allen and Larry (2001): The Western Conference started Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Chris Webber, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. The East started Anthony Mason and Antonio Davis. But they also had Allen Iverson and 76ers coach Larry Brown. It was fitting that in the year of Allen and Larry vs. the World, the two would find a way to win against long odds by playing and coaching their hearts out. When it was over and Iverson was awarded the MVP, he yelled, "Where’s my coach?" It was a moment that symbolized their contentious, but occasionally joyous pairing.

Magic’s MVP (1992): Magic Johnson shocked the world when he announced his retirement before the start of the 1991-92 because he had tested positive for HIV. Whether it was out of tribute or habit, fans still voted Magic to start the All-Star Game in Orlando. After much debate, Magic and the league decided he should play, over the notable objections of several players. The game was a blowout -- the West won by 40 points -- but Magic was sublime, scoring 25 points punctuated by a three-pointer at the buzzer. "I figured that shot was in," David Robinson said at the time. "He’s been writing that script for years."

The Tom Chambers Game (1987): There were nine Hall of Famers selected to the starting lineups -- and former Spur Alvin Roberston, which was odd. But the MVP belonged to Chambers, who subbed in for an injured Ralph Sampson and scored 34 points in front of the hometown Seattle crowd leading the West to a 154-149 win in an overtime classic.

Marvin Gaye’s anthem (1983): No one remembers anything about the game except for Marvin’s brilliant, soaring rendition of the national anthem. It was a critical moment in the league’s evolution. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had brought the NBA back from its lowest ebb, but just before David Stern arrived to put a corporate-friendly face on the league, Marvin Gaye reminded everyone that basketball was still the funkiest and most soulful game on the planet.

Bill Russell’s Promise (1963): At a pre-game gathering, Laker announcer Chick Hearn called Los Angeles, "the basketball capital of the world." This upset Charlie Russell and he suggested that a good ass-kicking was in order. His son Bill said that if he felt that strongly about it then he would win the MVP and make sure of it. "You can do that?" his father asked. "Yeah," Russell replied. And he did.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

No time to Showtime

Kendall Marshall went from disappointing lottery pick to out of the league after just one season in the NBA. How did he get from running point for the Delaware 87ers to directing Mike D’Antoni’s Laker offense? James Herbert has the story.

OK's D

What has fueled Oklahoma City’s rise to the top of the West? It’s not just Kevin Durant. Mike Prada shows us why the Thunder’s defense is every bit as vital to their success.

Patience not granted

Cleveland fired general manager Chris Grant this week after a series of free agent blunders and questionable draft decisions, but Tom Ziller wonders if the blame doesn’t rest with impatient owner Dan Gilbert.

Weirdest game of the season

Speaking of the Cavs, did you miss their game against the Lakers? The one where Los Angeles had five players left and one of them had fouled out, yet the Lakers still won by double digits. Tyler Lashbrook chronicled the insanity.

Wizards strike back

I had the great Mr. Michael Lee on the Drive & Kick podcast on this week to talk about the Wizards and John Wall. Plus, a few JaVale stories to get you through those winter doldrums.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"I'm not even thinking about it right now. I'll make a decision after the season, but I'm definitely considering coming back to school." -- Kansas freshman Joel Embiid, to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

Reaction: I believe Embiid when he says he’s considering skipping the draft and going back to college. I also believe that when the options are presented to him and examined closely, he’ll wind up in the draft. The rookie pay scale is structured to make the decision less of a lifestyle choice than an economic necessity.

"He's a clown. And he's scared. I wouldn't even waste my time." -- Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins on Mike Dunleavy.
"I would like to respond but clowns can’t talk. So I’ll mime or make him some animal balloons." -- Dunleavy, responding to Cousins.

Reaction: I’d like to take credit for the following line, but it belongs to Spurs beat man Jeff McDonald: "Really hope Mike Dunleavy's animal balloon for Cousins is a koala bear giving the finger." We all hope that, Jeff.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Orlando The Hero Dog

Orlando is the guide dog who tried to save his blind owner, Cecil Williams, from an oncoming subway train. This is the Knicks giving Orlando a medal for heroism. Awesome.

Tim Duncan

A treasure.

Joakim Noah

"Goodbye to you. Goodbye to you. And goodbye to you!"

Hedo Turkoglu

Hedo is now the physical embodiment of Benny Hill music.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editors: Tom Ziller

About the Author

Paulflannery_sbhed

Paul Flannery writes about the NBA for SBNation.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, hates to drive and is probably waiting for the Green Line.

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