Sacramento’s front office has spent the past 15 years separating themselves from the crowd. Whether by chance or by accident, they’ve established a reputation for baffling personnel moves, which have caused even the most loyal fans to scratch their heads in disappointment and confusion. Just this past season, the best start in 14 years (source), the front office fired head coach Mike Malone just 24 games into the season. Even worse is that Malone seemed to be forming a solid mentorship with often-begrudged star center Demarcus Cousins.
This summer, after their 9th straight losing season, the front office has made some seriously creative personnel moves. To replace interim coach Tyrone Corbin, they brought in George Karl, known for his unique brand of coaching. They traded the longest-tenured King, last year’s first round pick and a group of role players in order to bring in new talent in Willie “Trill” Cauley-Stein and veterans ranging from sharpshooter Marco Belinelli to backup center Kosta Koufos. These personnel moves have made it seem like the Kings have been scrapping for parts – getting their hands on whatever assets they can find. On paper, this squad has potential for a run at the Western Conference’s 8th seed, but due to an assembly of crazy personalities, it could be yet another baffling mishap. All this has lead fans to ask once again – what the hell are the Kings trying to do? Despite the mayhem, however, there appears to be a method. Unbeknownst to many, it seems Divac may be attempting to form a modernized version of the early 2000s Kings roster, which was known as “The Greatest Show on the Court”.
Although their playoff success was brief, and over 10 years ago, what many forget is that the early 00s Kings squads were themselves labeled as a team of misfits. Chris Webber was known for his stint with the controversial “Fab Five” in college, and his disagreements with former coaches eventually landed him in Sacramento. Even pretty boy Doug Christie developed brief notoriety, upon upper cutting Rick Fox in a preseason game. Much like this year’s squad, the early ‘00s teams had a reputation as a sanctuary for the misguided.
Point Guard (Mike Bibby Vs Darren Collision)
Before even explaining my theory, let me get one thing straight — Rajon Rondo is not Mike Bibby. Unlike Bibby, a solid three shooter, Rondo posts an abysmal career three point percentage (26 percent). They play completely different games – Rondo aims to facilitate while Bibby played mostly to score.
Which is where Darren Collision, ESPN’s listed starter comes into play.
Over his six years in the NBA, Collison has nearly identical stats as Mike Bibby. Just take a look –
Statistically, the two are nearly identical, with Collison playing slightly fewer minutes, and thus posting more efficient shooting percentages. They have a similar playing style, encouraging a scoring first mentality. They both also have a reputation for average defense.
Point Guard (Jason Williams Vs Rajon Rondo)
Here’s where Rajon Rondo comes into play. Although Williams had moved on to the Memphis Grizzlies by the time the infamous ‘02 Kings/Lakers series went down, he was an integral part of establishing Sacramento’s identity during the late 90s. So, I added him in as a little bonus.
Both he and Rondo have been known as their crafty, creative style of play, and their flashy passing. On the flip side, both have also been accused of stat padding and a lack of motivation. Some fans even go so far as to say they only play hard on winning teams in front of a national audience. Lastly, attitude problems have plagued both parties. Williams frequently had verbal fights with fans and Rondo’s disagreements with both Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle have at times compromised the team’s success. In the correct system, however, both thrive and excel.
Statistically, Rondo is a much more accurate passer (8.3 vs 5.3apg), rebounder (4.7 vs 2.1rpg) and inside shooter (49 vs 46.7 2P%). On the other hand, Williams has the advantage in outside shooting (32.7 vs 26.3 3P%), FT shooting (81.3 vs 60.9%) and turnovers (2.1 vs 2.8). However, their style of play is aesthetically similar.
Shooting Guard (Doug Christie Vs Ben McLemore)
While both players fit into the “three and D” role, Ben McLemore is definitely still a work in progress. McLemore’s game is more centered on athleticism and he has nowhere near the defensive reputation as Christie had in his day. McLemore however, has only played three seasons in the NBA so his potential, paired with his improvements so far as on both sides of the court, could see him emerge as a more Christie-esque role.
Statistically, McLemore and Christie averaged similar scoring numbers (10.5 vs 11.2ppg) on similar 2 point (46.6 2P% vs 45.6 2P% ) and 3 point percentages (34.2 3P% vs 35.4 3P%). Their roles are similar, but McLemore needs to improve his defense and consistency to get to Christie’s level.
In the meantime, the pickup of backup Marco Belinelli is huge in McLemore’s development. Belinelli’s time in San Antonio has solidified him as a solid defender and a sharpshooter (39.2 career 3P percent, 2014 3 Point Shootout Champ) with championship experience. Belinelli can give the Kings a veteran presence from the bench, providing McLemore with some valuable lessons on both defense and shooting.
Small Forward (Peja Stojakovic Vs Rudy Gay)
This comparison is probably the weakest. Once again, Rudy Gay has a game that’s much more centered on athleticism. Such is the way of the modern NBA. However, both have established themselves as elite scorers in the league, posting nearly the same scoring averages throughout their careers.
To my surprise, the biggest difference between these two statistically is their efficiency and assist numbers – in which Rudy Gay has the advantage. Gay has a reputation as a shoot first, high-volume/low-efficiency “chucker”, but it seems he has played to his advantage later in his career. Recently he’s realized his strengths in the post and off the drive, which has led to better efficiency. And although he has a reputation as a black hole on offense, his assist numbers have gradually increased in his time in Sacramento.
Peja on the other hand has the clear advantage on the three shooting side (+5% on +2.5 3PA/game) while Gay remains fairly average on fewer attempts. Hopefully Gay can refine his shooting as he begins to age, but as is stands, the two are statistically quite similar.
Power Forward (Chris Webber Vs Demarcus Cousins)
Although Demarcus Cousins is technically listed as a Center, the low-post positions are practically interchangeable with 7’ rookie Willie Cauley-Stein on the floor. And Cousins’ skillset makes him more comparable to Webber. His passing, while statistically worse than Webber’s, is unusually skilled for a player of his size.
Additionally, with the right spacing, he can step outside and hit a midrange jumper at about the same rate Webber. Additionally, he’s an all around contributor and is also one of the few stars Sacramento has picked up in the past few years — just like Webber in his time. All that at just 24 years of age makes Cousins probably the closest we’ve seen to Webber in a long time.
This comparison is a bit bold — comparing a player who’s logged 0 professional minutes to one of the most durable European centers in NBA history. But stay with me here, as I stated before, there’s a method to the madness. Finding a solid two-way player who works well alongside Demarcus Cousins has proved to be a challenge – pinning Jason Thompson next to Cousins was like forcing a square peg through a round hole for five straight years.
So Sacramento’s front office finally learned geometry and found the next best thing – a potentially elite one-way player. Finding a new age Divac for Cousins to play alongside is an increasingly challenging task in a league with fewer and fewer skilled big men. Divac thus pounced on the closest he’s found to himself in Cauley-Stein.
In the same way Divac served as the defensive anchor of the Kings’ teams, Cauley-Stein has potential to serve the same role. He seems to have the skills, speed and athleticism to become a consistent defensive big man in the league. He competently guarded all five positions while at Kentucky, which could translate tremendously at the NBA level. Granted he’ll likely struggle to keep up with NBA caliber guards but his versatility is an impressive attribute.
His shooting touch is a bit shaky – in Kentucky’s system last year he played a role more akin to an outside hitter in volleyball, spiking the ball into the hoop whenever it was tossed in his area. However, he’s got the touch to hit an occasional outside jumper. In that aspect, he’s got a fair amount of potential to be a poor man’s Divac.
Unfortunately, his passing is nowhere near Divac’s. If he could somehow develop his passing skills and vision under the mentorship of DeMarcus Cousins, he could become a very powerful and competent force at the center position.
The lack of passing in this offense, specifically in Cauley-Stein is possibly the biggest missing link between the two generations of Kings basketball. However, Sacramento’s front office wisely picked up the next best thing with their high draft pick.
Coaching (Rick Adelman/Pete Carril Vs George Karl)
One of the biggest keys to the early Kings’ success was their coaching. Although Rick Adelman gained a spot at the helm, Pete Carril, the founder of the “Princeton offense” was an assistant for the Kings during their fantastic run. The college level of this offense is designed to be slow and methodical, but the older Kings teams modified this offense to add pace, commonly leading the league in scoring. Frequent cutting, off-ball movement and passing are the tenants that make this system run. As a result, in 2002, they ranked second in pace, sixth in offensive efficiency and tied for second in assist ratio (1 2).
On the other hand, newcomer George Karl has been known to adapt his system to the team he plays with. In Seattle, his teams were known for their defensive presence, and in Milwaukee they seemed to be one-dimensional, focusing too much on offensive execution. However, in his most recent stint with Denver he ran a slightly different system that may be a better fit for the modern NBA. His system known as “Random Basketball” also encourages frequent ball movement and a quick pace. In addition, it also takes into account the analytics perspective – as his teams in Denver lead the league in layups, placed second in free throw rate and last in long two attempts (source). Both the Kings’ Princeton offense and Karl’s earlier system have some similarities, encouraging the same levels of floor spacing and passing. How Karl adapts to his revamped roster could determine this team’s success.
As you can tell, the pieces don’t exactly fit in all the right places but Vlade Divac and the Sacramento front office seem to be attempting to create a modernized version of the teams that last brought them success. Player development and a sparkplug 6th man akin to Bobby Jackson, paired with a more pass-oriented offense could slowly see this team creep even closer to their predecessors.
Developing a team like the ‘00s Kings with such a unique amalgamation of offensive pieces is nearly impossible but it seems as though they’re up for the challenge. In his brief time at the helm in Sacramento, Divac’s taken an unorganized squad of ill-fitting parts and transformed it into something with potential. Whether it pans out in the long run, we’ll have to wait and see. For the good or the bad, it’ll be an exciting ride.