How the Kings Might Work, Huertas’ Emergence, Opportunity Cost of Cavaliers Punting Draft

FULL TIME RIM PROTECTION + LENGTH AT THE POINT OF ATTACK = ELITE DEFENSE?

Everyone appears focused on whether DeMarcus Cousins, George Karl and Rajon Rondo will get along but Sacramento’s biggest challenge next season will be generating a healthy offense without floor spacing.

Research from Stephen Shea & Chris Baker made tangible what most of us already figured: the more three-point shooters you have on the floor, the higher your offensive rating. This is especially the case if you have an elite shot creator. Cousins is one such elite shot creator — a diverse post scorer who also possesses the passing skills to create three-point looks for spot-up shooters, if the Kings surrounded him with such shooters.

But Sacramento built a roster that will make it challenging for him to be as effective a player as he was last season. The additions of non-shooters Rondo, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos are expected to shrink the floor around Cousins’ face-up drives and perhaps worsen his turnover problems.

Cauley-Stein and Koufos have value on offense. They can both catch-and-finish out of the pick-and-roll and generate second chance opportunities in volume. The problem is having them on the weak-side when Cousins is posting up on the opposite block or setting a ball-screen for a pick-and-pop. The opposing center can reasonably be a help-defender with great position to rotate to the front of the rim and challenge a drive or a roll while still keeping track of his man.

Karl had success in Denver a couple of seasons ago with lineups featuring Kenneth Faried and Koufos together, as well as Koufos and JaVale McGee, which undoubtedly meant one of them was away from the ball often, but at that time he used to employ a tactic where one of them stood out of bounds and opponents actually guarded them. That is now illegal and off the table.

Rondo is also a problem. Opponents don’t fear him as a spot-up three-point shooter, a pull-up shooter out of the pick-and-roll and probably not even as rim attacker at this point. Everyone knows that his number one priority is passing out of dribble penetration, regardless of whether or not he himself has a path to score.

With Cousins expected to log the majority of his minutes with both a center and Rondo on the floor, Sacramento’s path to an above-average offense seems dependent on two or three of Darren Collison, Rudy Gay, James Anderson and Caron Butler out-producing expectations as three-point shooters. That’s probably unlikely.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean the Kings are definitely on track to lose 60% of their games yet again, though. Rondo, Cauley-Stein and Koufos will make it challenging for the team to play good offense but their presences make it plausible this team could play really good defense, perhaps even great.

Utah led the league in defensive efficiency after February 1 last season, allowing just 96.9 points per 100 possessions. They looked like the best defense seen since the historic 2013–2014 Pacers. These two teams have a couple of things in common; full-time elite rim protection and length defending the point of attack. The Kings have enough to replicate the pure aspects of this formula, according to data from Nylon Calculus and Draft Express.

Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, blocked 233 shots on 105 appearances at Kentucky. His biggest asset as a prospect is his ability to pick up smaller players on switches, but he projects as a fine rim protector as well due to his shot blocking skills.

It takes more than just pure length and athleticism to build a top 10 defense. Rondo and Collison will need to fight through the screens, the wings will need to ignore the right so-so shooters to add an extra body crowding the lane, Cousins can’t defend in space flat-footed anymore and Cauley-Stein will need to prove he can make the right rotations at the pro level.

But with Cauley-Stein, Cousins, Koufos, Rondo and Collison as well, Sacramento is starting up from a pretty good point here. In four preseason games, opponents have shot just 52.7% within five feet and averaged 95.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats/.

If they do become an elite defense, the Kings will only need their offense to be average in order to compete for a playoff berth. Utah won 21 of 35 games after February 1, despite the fact it ranked 18th in offensive efficiency, averaging just 102 points per 100 possessions. That .600 win percentage would have translated to 49 wins over the course of a full season for Utah, which would have beaten New Orleans for the eighth seed in the West.

Maybe expecting the Kings to be the best defense in the league is unreasonable. They could be very good, though, and that’s how things might work out, despite the clumsy events that led to the building of this roster.

HUERTAS PROVING ME WRONG SO FAR

I was skeptical of Marcelinho Huertas’ transfer to the NBA. There is no question that in his prime, his skill-set would have been perfect for that league. But Huertas didn’t play very well last season, losing late-game minutes to Thomas Satoransky, and I was concerned that his transfer to the United States was a couple of years too late.

Huertas was not much of a scoring threat last season. Due to either injury or general decline in athleticism because of age, he couldn’t turn the corner out of the pick-and-roll to the get to the rim and his patented one-legged runner completely disappeared.

Huertas has incredible court vision but if the opponent doesn’t respect his outside shooting, his interior scoring or his in-between game, the amount of scoring opportunities he can create for others is limited, even if he’s the sort of playmaker who can anticipate rotations a split-second before they happen.

But he’s making me eat it so far. Huertas has 14 assists in his first 31 minutes in preseason and the Lakers are plus-18 with him on the floor, according to NBA.com/stats/.

Most of his assists have been on court vision alone, without needing to get into the lane, hitting shooters and big men filling the baseline in the right windows. Huertas has, however, managed to be just enough of a scoring threat to create openings off the bounce as well. His one-legged runner has reappeared. He hit three of them in the first couple of games and has hit a couple of pull-up mid-range jump-shots as well. With that being the case, opponents have honored his dribble penetration just enough for the big men to get open out of the pick-and-pop.

If that stays the case, it’s hard to argue with him as a viable 20-minute option to create healthy offense in the NBA, even if his limitations as a three-point shooter and defender cap the ceiling of how much of an impact player he can be at that level.

CAVALIERS PUNTING ON THE DRAFT MIGHT END UP MATTERING

Cleveland had the 24th pick in the draft, despite reaching the Finals. The average player drafted in that slot doesn’t usually develop into much of anything but this was, nonetheless, a resource the Cavaliers could have used to add some talent to the backend of its bench.

Cleveland didn’t use that opportunity, though. It traded down with Minnesota for picks 31 and 36, drafting Cedi Osman and Rakeem Christmas. Osman is three or four years away from developing into a potential option for the NBA and Christmas always faced long odds of ever making the team, because by that point the front office was already planning to retain Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, while also having Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejão under contract. Three big men who don’t stretch the floor is the absolute maximum you should carry on the roster when you have LeBron James, who needs space and not size to prosper. Sure enough, Christmas was eventually traded to Indiana for a second-round pick in 2019.

Cleveland’s rationale to punting the draft is simple to understand. This team is a title contender now and there is very little chance a rookie drafted in the bottom of the first-round was gonna help move the needle right away.

But the thing is, relying on James Jones, Richard Jefferson and Sasha Kaun isn’t that much better of a safety net. Miami did this when it had LeBron as well, opting to rely on veterans such as Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem as the supporting cast around their trio of superstars and that worked, until it didn’t.

The Heat never really bothered preparing their next generation of viable role players and the moment those vets became too washed up to contribute on the margins, they didn’t have enough guys and San Antonio ran them over in the Finals. Then LeBron split.

Cleveland could have used those two second-round picks to add Anthony Brown and Jonathan Holmes, two 3D prospects with some potential to develop into real assets as contributors on the margins.

Brown has enough lateral agility that he could potentially be able to guard backup point guards in the future, where his six-foot-11 wingspan could make a legit impact, opening up the option of not needing to play Matthew Dellavedova or Mo Williams when Kyrie Irving rested.

Holmes has enough size and strength that one can consider him as an option to guard less threatening big men in the post, therefore making him a viable small-ball stretch-four.

My argument isn’t that these two players would be ready to help out if the Cavaliers had to start another seven-game series against the Warriors tomorrow, but that Cleveland had the chance to kick the tires on developing their next group of role players and didn’t. They will need to move on from most of their vets soon, which could be as soon as next summer in some cases. Cost-controlled young players trained within your system is the best way to do so. They had draft picks, prospects, roster spots and even minutes available, because Irving, Shumpert and Thompson are expected to miss a chunk of the season due to injuries and a contractual dispute, and James’ status is up on the air as well because of a back injury.

Maybe this won’t really matter this season, but it ended up doing so for Miami in the end. LeBron bounced the moment their situation to compete for titles didn’t look as attractive. Some speculate that if Miami hadn’t been humiliated so thoroughly by the Spurs that James might have even come back for another year.

Obviously Cleveland’s contention status is far more attached to Irving’s and Kevin Love’s presences than the seventh, eighth and ninth men in the rotation but we’ve seen the last five years that level of competitiveness at the top of the league is so high right now that those contributors on the margins matter.