This week, I wanted to use the same formula I did last week. I wanted to use a bit of “breaking” news as an opportunity to talk about a team that will likely look different next season. With that in mind, let’s take a look a Shaquille O’Neal’s recent addition to the ownership group that bought the Sacramento Kings.
Ex-superstars getting involved in ownership and higher level office positions of franchises has had mixed results in recent years. Larry Bird is responsible for much of the recent success in Indiana, Michael Jordan has proven himself to be a questionable decision-maker in Charlotte, and Isiah Thomas flamed out quickly in New York. What will happen with Shaq?
Say what you will about him, but Shaq is no dummy. Education has been important to him, and he’s pursued it for most of his life. He’s also charismatic, articulate, and very camera friendly. On the other hand, he hasn’t shown us much as analyst. Shaq’s commentary often reveals that while he might know something about how players tick, he doesn’t have a great sense of the bigger picture issues—coaching, player development, in-game adjustments, defensive/offensive systems, cost/benefit of player acquisition—that front office personnel need to have.
Of course, Shaq’s future involvement in the team is so far unclear. No one expects him to be quite as involved as the players listed above, but he’s also taken a personal interest in the Kings’ most important player: DeMarcus 'Boogie' Cousins. So, while I’m skeptical that Shaq can be much of a front office man, there is some promise to the idea of him being a public figure head (think Magic Johnson part owning the Dodgers) and a personal mentor to a young a big man.
More promising—but not airtight. I confess that with the Kings being largely irrelevant over recent seasons, I haven’t had the chance to watch too many Sacramento games, save when I hear Jimmer Fredette is going off.
From what I have seen, however, and confirmed by those who have seen much more, is that Boogie’s brutal on defense. His talent and promise on offense don’t even outweigh what he costs his team on the other end. He has led the league in fouls in two of this three professional years, and that’s nothing compared to the number of easy buckets he surrenders through mistakes in the pick and roll defense.
The good news is that most believe that Cousins is athletic enough to overcome these mistakes. In other words, it isn’t as though he’s trying to do everything right, but just isn’t fast enough, strong enough, or tall enough. Instead, Cousins has the tools to be a plus defender if he can only be coached up and put forward the requisite effort.
The worry then, is how much Shaq can really help with all that? Shaq was pretty typically a plus defender, but recall that a good chunk of his playing career (including his best defensive year, according to the Defensive Win Shares statistic) came before the defensive 3-second ruling. Despite their feud, I would be more optimistic that Shaq could teach Dwight Howard some post offense than I am that Shaq can teach defense.
As I say above though, maybe the key is simply to get into Boogie’s head. Consider the Cris Carter – Randy Moss relationship (at least when they were playing together). Moss just needed someone to teach him how to think competitively and how to focus on improving. No doubt that Shaq had a state of mind that worked very well for him over his years in the league.
Even with modest expectations for Shaq’s effectiveness, there is another big reason to think Cousins will look better on D in the upcoming season: New head coach Michael Malone. Malone was plucked from the highly regarded San Antonio Spurs coaching staff after reportedly being so valuable to the Spurs themselves, that they made him the highest paid assistant in the league.
A solid heuristic for other NBA front offices by the way is that if the Spurs value someone, then other teams should too. The Spurs are well known for the most effective implementation of “systems,” on both sides of the ball, across the league. Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system was able to cover up and improve the defensive of a slower, older, and less instinctive Carlos Boozer. Kings fans need to hope that Malone can have the same kind of effect on Cousins.
The rest of the Kings’ roster is a mix of blah and interesting. Boogie, even while posting a 20.21 PER, represents the team’s most promising avenue for improvement. But the second most intriguing spot is rookie Ben McLemore.
While experts did peg the 2013 draft class as pretty weak and had much disagreement about the top prospects, we might still call McLemore something of a steal falling to the Kings at No. 7, as many had him going as high as No. 2 to Orlando. McLemore can already shoot the lights out, and if Boogie can establish himself as dominant inside, the prospect of Fredette and McLemore getting open looks at 3s, playing inside/outside, is a little exciting.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (can we come up with a fun nickname for him? It’s too much to type) and Jason Thompson are minus players at their respective positions. What’s worse is that in the back half of their twenties, it doesn’t seem likely we’re going to see great improvement. They are, at least, not overly expensive and shouldn’t hold the team back from making upgrades down the line (though Thompson’s on the books through 2016…).
The Kings gave up over 105 points per game last season, by far the most in the league. With a defensive minded coach and (hopefully) an improved Boogie, this number can certainly go down.
The Kings also only won 28 games last year and despite all the tanking talk going around the league, I actually think this is likely to go up a few games as the defense improves. The real tanking candidates (Orlando, Phoenix, Charlotte, Utah) don’t have enough talent on their rosters to even “accidentally” win a few games like Sacramento does. Moreover, new coaches don’t like to get worse in their first year on the job.
All in all then, things are looking up for the post-Maloof Kings. (Could they look any worse?) We can finally see a way for them to improve. Two predictions then: (1) The Kings will more than 28 games in 2013-2014 and (2) Shaq’s impact will be felt more off the court, as figure head, then on it, as a mentor to Cousins.