NBA Position Battles: Which Way Should the Kings Go?
It's been a few weeks since the last installment of this series. Over those 20 days, a lot has happened in the NBA world.
In the West, the Houston Rockets owned the best record, the Utah Jazz were .500 (13-13) and the Oklahoma City Thunder were outside a playoff spot. On the other side of the league, the Indiana Pacers were 15-11, the Philadelphia 76ers were the 8-seed and the Chicago Bulls (at 4-20) resided in the dungeons of the Eastern Conference. Things have changed.
Something that hasn't really changed? The Sacramento Kings.
Back on December 9th, the Kings were 8-17 and in a tie for the second-worst team in the Western Conference. Today, they're up a couple spots, but they're still just a game out of last. More importantly, they're still struggling to find a happy medium between rebuilding with youth and competing with talent.
What's the solution? Which players should start and which should take a role with the second unit?
Identifying the Kings' Best
On the year, coach Dave Joerger has sent out a total of 15 different starting lineups in 35 games. According to NBA.com, only two lineups have appeared in more than five games together, and those lineups have yet to reach double-digit starts.
Here are those two lineups and how each has performed -- in all minutes together -- over a span of 100 possessions.
|Lineup||Minutes||Off Rating||Def Rating||Net Rating|
|Hill, Temple, Bogdanovic, Randolph, Cauley-Stein||138||102.3||118.3||-16.0|
|Fox, Hill, Temple, Randolph, Labissiere||123||95.0||110.3||-15.3|
Despite playing in a total of 13 and 10 games, respectively, these two five-man sets haven't played too many minutes together. In fact, for comparison's sake, the Golden State Warriors' usual starting five have played 229 minutes together, and that's with 33 combined absences between them.
It's quite obvious consistency is an issue in Sacramento, but those net ratings tell us that the Kings' two primary lineups would probably just be consistently bad over a larger sample size. On the flip side of that same coin, which lineups should be getting more run, based on the numbers?
|Lineup||Minutes||Off Rating||Def Rating||Net Rating|
|Fox, Hill, Temple, Randolph, Cauley-Stein||20||108.4||86.6||21.7|
|Hill, Hield, Temple, Randolph, Cauley-Stein||35||113.3||94.9||18.3|
|Fox, Temple, Bogdanovic, Labissiere, Koufos||29||123.1||107.6||15.5|
|Mason, Hield, Bogdanovic, Cauley-Stein, Koufos||88||105.4||96.7||8.8|
|Mason, Hield, Jackson, Labissiere, Koufos||20||93.1||86.5||6.6|
Of all lineups to log at least 20 minutes together, these five have been the best. What we find at the top is very clear: Zach Randolph and Willie Cauley-Stein make up Sacramento's best frontcourt duo when paired with the right trio of players.
From these lineups, we can surmise (and not so surprisingly) that George Hill is the Kings' best option at point guard. His experience and efficient three-point shooting (46.1%) helps to stabilize the youth and lack of shooting from guys like De'Aaron Fox and Cauley-Stein. It also appears that there's a notable offense-defense tradeoff with Fox and the sharpshooting (2.0 threes per game) Buddy Hield.
Ideally, the Kings should send out Hield with the first unit. Fox could then run the second unit, consisting of Garrett Temple and a trio of new faces in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Skal Labissiere and Kosta Koufos. Based on the data, it just makes sense. And it could only improve the Kings' 29th-ranked offense (102.7 offensive rating).
In dumpster fire situations like Sacramento, it's hard to find the right players for the right positions, but by looking at actual combinations, we can find the optimal blend of experience, youth and talent -- even if it's a longshot for the Kings to reach the postseason.
5 Quick Hits
The Portland Trail Blazers are another team that hasn't seen a lot of movement over the last three weeks. They've moved down just one spot in the standings, and they're still having issues with the small forward position. After starting Pat Connaughton and Maurice Harkless for the majority of the first 24 games, Portland has opted to go with Evan Turner for the past 10. The team has gone an even 5-5 with a net rating of -2.2 in that span. Turner himself is a -13.3 net rating while both Connaughton (4.6) and Harkless (15.5) boast positive marks. The mystery remains unsolved.
The Atlanta Hawks have proven that they're one of the worst teams in the NBA. They have a league-worst nine wins and rank 27th in our most recent power rankings. That was to be expected with their roster turnover and incoming youth, but a logjam in the frontcourt has made it even more of a struggle. The absence of Dewayne Dedmon has forced coach Mike Budenholzer to start Miles Plumlee in all but one game in December. He and starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova have been exploited on the defensive end to the tune of a 108.3 defensive rating and resulting -4.7 net rating in 174 minutes. When Plumlee's replaced by rookie John Collins, they're still a poor defensive pairing, but Collins gives their offensive rating (120.7) the boost necessary to improve to a 9.5 net rating. So, if Atlanta's going to lose games, they could at least do it in style -- it can't possibly hurt their attendance numbers.
Speaking of losing in style, the Phoenix Suns are actually 4th in the league in pace and 13th in points per game. They've also won five of their last seven -- and that just so happens to be the same number of games Isaiah Canaan has been with the team. Coincidence? The numbers don't lie. Over the last seven, Tyler Ulis owns a -18.8 net rating on the court, with the Suns' net rating moving to 14.8 with Ulis off. Canaan has been a big part of that, with a 10.9/-12.7 on/off split. Canaan is averaging 11.4 points, 5.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 threes with Phoenix. It should only be a matter of time before he draws a start or two over Ulis.
Coach Luke Walton and the Los Angeles Lakers have finally made a full investment in Kyle Kuzma. Around Thanksgiving, Larry Nance Jr. returned from injury and started nine straight for L.A. But that came to an end 10 days ago with Kuzma getting the nod in a win over the Houston Rockets. In that game, he put up 38 and proceeded to score 27 and 31 in two of his next three games. He's cooled off with a recent injury, but with a team-high 2.4 win shares there's no denying Kuzma as the Lakers' power forward of the future.
In dealing with injuries to Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia, the Warriors have been forced to alter their starting lineups and rotations from night to night. One of the beneficiaries has been rookie Jordan Bell, who has started eight games and played an average of 22.3 minutes over the last 11. During that time, he's led the team with a net rating of 14.0 and has done his best to stuff the stat sheet with 7.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. And if there was any doubt about his ability to play center, the 6'9" Bell averaged 11.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in his last three starts at the position. Don't expect a sudden hook for Zaza, but a phasing-out period looms.