Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sacramento's Crowd-Sourcing Strategy

As all of you NBA fans are aware, the league held its annual lottery last Tuesday night, and for the third time in four years, Cleveland won the prize and their choice of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Joel Embiid (or alternatively, for a team desperate to make the playoffs next year, trading the pick for an established veteran star who fills a need - say, Kevin Love?). This is shaping up to be one of the deepest drafts in years, with anywhere from four to eight future All-Star talents, and potential solid rotation pieces all the way into the first round. Because of that wealth of talent, several teams engaged in rather shameless tanking this year in order to get the best chance at hitting the mother lode. Thankfully, Cleveland was a team that was actually trying to win basketball games, and cashed in a 1.7% chance. They've been lottery regulars since LeBron left town in 2010, and they've had company along the way.

Sacramento has been a lottery regular for even longer, picking between fourth and twelfth every year since 2007. It's a shame to see the franchise now, after the Maloofs ran it into the ground before eventually selling it to Vivek Ranadive. Remember the Kings from a dozen years ago, when they were a title contender and pretty inarguably the most entertaining team in the NBA? The 2002 team, which was undone by Tim Donaghy and the Lakers, had a freewheeling style greatly helped by a starting five who could all shoot, pass, and dribble at a high level, even for the NBA.* Now Kings fans are used to suffering through unwatchable teams that can't guard anyone or play together; there's a good reason they've landed in the lottery for the eighth straight year.

*For all the n00bs out there, that starting five was Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, and Vlade Divac. Hedo Turkoglu, Scot Pollard, Bobby Jackson, and Lawrence Funderburke made up the rest of the rotation. That may have been the ugliest team in league history - I bet Webber never went out with the rest of those guys.

During the past seven lottery years, the Kings' performance has been...not great, Bob! Over that time frame they have made sixteen picks total, including their second rounders. This is why the Kings took the step of crowd-sourcing their draft strategy, by allowing anyone who wanted to take the time a chance to submit their own analysis and player rankings to the team's front office (through this past Monday). The top two submissions will get invited to be part of the team's entire draft process for the next month. Now, before we delve into my analysis, let's take a look at those recent picks in chronological order, shall we?

2007, round 1, pick 10: PF/C Spencer Hawes, Washington
2008, round 1, pick 12: PF Jason Thompson, Rider
2008, round 2, pick 42: PG Sean Singletary, Virginia
2008, round 2, pick 43: PF Patrick Ewing Jr., Georgetown
2009, round 1, pick 4: SG Tyreke Evans, Memphis
2009, round 1, pick 23: PF/C Omri Casspi, Israel
2009, round 2, pick 31: PF/C Jeff Pendergraph (now Ayres), Arizona State
2010, round 1, pick 5: PF/C DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky
2010, round 2, pick 33: C Hassan Whiteside, Marshall
2011, round 1, pick 7: PF/C Bismack Biyombo, DR Congo
2011, round 2, pick 35: SF Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA
2011, round 2, pick 60: PG Isaiah Thomas, Washington
2012, round 1, pick 5: PF Thomas Robinson, Kansas
2012, round 2, pick 36: PG Orlando Johnson, UC Santa Barbara
2013, round 1, pick 7: SG Ben McLemore, Kansas
2013, round 2, pick 36: PG Ray McCallum, Detroit

It's amazing that eight of the first ten picks were big men, and only two of those (Thompson and Cousins) are still in Sacramento (along with Thomas, McLemore, and McCallum). As far as legitimately good NBA players, judging by this list the Kings have gotten only one All-Star-caliber player out of their seven lottery picks (Cousins), and just two (Hawes and Robinson) who have made the rotation for a playoff team. Again, in case you missed it the first time; not great, Bob! And then it gets worse.

I mentioned that five of the sixteen players above have remained with the Kings through the end of this past season. Presumably that means that some of the others have at least fetched the team something in return, right? Well, that depends on what your definition of "something" is. "Something" could mean a legitimate piece that fits with your team and helps you move forward. "Something" could also mean an overpaid ball-stopper who had already been salary-dumped once before he landed on your team. Which do you think the Kings wound up with? Again, let's look at how each of the eleven players left Sacramento and what they brought in return. Careful, because NBA trade histories can take you down some rabbit holes.

Hawes: Traded in June 2010 with Andres Nocioni to Philadelphia for Samuel Dalembert. Dalembert left after one season as a free agent. Sacramento's existing ROI: zero.

Singletary/Ewing Jr./Casspi: Singletary and Ewing Jr. were traded along with Ron Artest in August 2008 to Houston for Donte Greene, Bobby Jackson, and a 2009 first-round pick (which became Casspi). Greene went to the D-League and eventually signed with Memphis. Jackson was released in 2010. Casspi was traded in 2011 (along with a future first-round pick!) to Cleveland for J.J. Hickson, who was waived nine months later. Sacramento's existing ROI: negative (outstanding first-round pick due to Cleveland).

Evans: Traded in July 2013 to New Orleans as part of a three-teamer (with Portland) that netted Sacramento Greivis Vasquez, a 2016 second-round pick, and a future second-rounder. Vasquez was traded to Toronto along with Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, and Chuck Hayes in December 2013 for Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray, and Quincy Acy. Gray is a free agent this summer, and Gay could be if he declines his $19 million player option (spoiler alert; not gonna happen). Sacramento's existing ROI: Gay, Acy, and two second-round picks.

Ayres: Immediately traded to Portland for Jon Brockman, Sergio Rodriguez, and cash for the VIP room at the Palms. Brockman was traded to Milwaukee a year later for Darnell Jackson and the second-round pick that became Thomas. Jackson left as a free agent. Rodriguez was part of a complicated three-team trade in February 2010 that sent him to the Knicks while Hilton Armstrong and Kevin Martin went to the Rockets. The Kings received Carl Landry and Joey Dorsey from Houston, and Larry Hughes from the Knicks. Dorsey and Hughes were quickly waived. Thomas is now a restricted free agent. Sacramento's existing ROI: matching rights on Thomas.

Whiteside: Waived in 2012.

Biyombo: Immediately traded to Charlotte as part of a three-teamer (with Milwaukee) that netted Sacramento Jimmer Fredette and John Salmons and also cost the Kings Beno Udrih (who went to the Bucks). Salmons was part of the Toronto trade referenced above. The Jimmer was waived back in February of this year and then signed with Chicago. Sacramento's existing ROI: Gay and Acy.

Honeycutt/Robinson: Traded along with Francisco Garcia to Houston in February 2013 for Cole Aldrich, Toney Douglas, and Patrick Patterson. Aldrich and Douglas left as free agents at the end of the season. Patterson was part of the same Toronto package. Sacramento's existing ROI: Gay and Acy.

Johnson: Traded to Indiana in June 2012 for cash, presumably for the Maloofs to throw a party in Vegas. Sacramento's existing ROI: zero.

Wow. So today, at the close of the 2014 season, the eleven draft picks no longer with the Kings have brought the team four players and two future second-round picks, while also costing them one more first-rounder at some point down the road. And one of those players (Gay) was a straight salary dump! Gray and Acy are marginal big men who averaged 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds combined for Sacramento after the trade, or slightly less that they got from Robinson before they sent him packing to Houston. One more time: not great, Bob! No wonder the Kings are asking the public to do their work for them.

And what should that work be? Well, to start with, it would be helpful to look at the Sacramento roster as it currently stands for next year, looking at what each player brings to the table and what they take away. The Kings have a dozen players under contract for next season (again, assuming Gay exercises his option): Gay, Cousins, McCallum, Acy, Landry, Thompson, McLemore, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans, Willie Reed, Travis Outlaw, and Derrick Williams. Those twelve guys will make a little over $68 million next year, against a likely salary cap of $63.2 million, and that's before you factor in what their draft pick will make ($2-$3 million), plus filling out the remaining two roster slots. Yikes. On a more positive note, seven of those players are now expiring contracts: Gay, Williams, Outlaw, Terry, Reed, Acy, and Evans, for a total of about $38 million (half of which is Gay's insane option). And if they want to keep Thomas around without hitting the luxury tax, the Kings are going to have to get rid of one or more of those expirings, plus perhaps either Landry or Thompson, both of whom are overpaid at a position (power forward) where the Kings have too many players (those two, Williams, Evans, Acy, and Reed).

One would figure that with a dominant post player who requires frequent double teams, the Kings would get lots of wide-open perimeter looks. Yet they made a hair less than a third of their attempts, ranking a mere 27th in the league, ahead of only the following: Boston (who did NOT have a low post monster); Detroit (heavily affected by Josh Smith's and Brandon Jennings' reprehensible shot selection); and Philadelphia (only the most blatant tankers in years). Not only were they that bad as a team, but the Kings did not have a single player crack the top one hundred in three-point percentage, with Thomas checking in at 34.9%, good for 105th in the league (the league average, by the way, was 36.0%). On the other end, the Kings were equally bad at protecting the rim, finishing 27th in blocked shots with 318, ahead of only Brooklyn (O-L-D), Cleveland (whose only shot-blocker, Anderson Varejao, is hurt half the time), and Minnesota (whose frontcourt is anchored - pun intended - by the ground-bound Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic). Take away the 91 blocks by Cousins and the Kings barely had enough to outpace Serge Ibaka (219) by his lonesome.

The problem for the Kings is how to address those two glaring issues while not compromising the team's strengths; interior scoring from Cousins and rebounding (Sacramento was fifth on the offensive glass - they had a lot of misses - and eleventh on the defensive end). They also have to do that with just one pick (the eighth), by which point many of the serious impact guys will likely be off the board. NBA teams typically break down draft prospects into tiers, which I would break down like so, with players in each tier loosely ranked in order:

First tier (potential franchise centerpiece): Joel Embiid
Second tier (multiple All-Star appearances): Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Noah Vonleh, Dante Exum, Julius Randle
Third tier (lots of potential to be second tier guys, but need more work): Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Dario Saric
Fourth tier (definite rotation pieces): Gary Harris, Tyler Ennis, Doug McDermott, Adreian Payne, Nik Stauskas, Zach LaVine, Elfrid Payton, James Young
Fifth tier (probable/possible rotation pieces): P.J. Hairston, Rodney Hood, Jerami Grant, Jusuf Nurkic, Cleanthony Early
Sixth tier (sleepers/late first-rounders): Jordan Clarkson, Shabazz Napier, K.J. McDaniels, Clint Capela, T.J. Warren, Kyle Anderson, C.J. Wilcox, Jarnell Stokes, Glenn Robinson III, Nick Johnson, Mitch McGary, Patric Young, Joe Harris

If you just count the names, you'll see that the first two tiers should be cleaned out by the time the Kings draft, and unless a team ahead of them becomes infatuated with somebody lower down the list, they will have their choice of two of the three third-tier players or anyone in the fourth tier. Of the Gordon/Smart/Saric trio, however, none is an ideal fit for the Kings. Gordon would instantly make Sacramento a better defensive team with his ability to lock down three (and maybe four) positions and protect the rim, but at this point he can't shoot outside the paint at all, which certainly wouldn't help Sacramento's spacing. Smart would also be a huge asset defensively, and bring a lot of toughness to a team that needs it, but he couldn't even shoot 30% from behind the college arc in two seasons. Saric has been developing a good perimeter shot, which he showcased in the Adriatic Final Four, but he's only a middling athlete and won't really move the needle for the Kings on defense (additionally, he might not come across the pond immediately, and the Kings want immediate help).

There are, however, two players in the next tier down who jump out as players who could address both the Kings' shooting problems and their defensive weaknesses (although only one is a rim protector); Harris and Payne. Harris is an option if the Kings want to let Thomas walk as a restricted free agent; he would provide 80-90% of Thomas' offensive production and 150% of his defense. He's a good shooter with penetrating ability and can guard both backcourt positions, but the risk with him is that he's never played point guard before. He is, however, an uncommonly polished player at just 19 years of age, and a lot of NBA scouts believe that he can transition to the point as a pro. Payne, on the other hand, is a giant power forward (6'10" and 240 with a 7'4" wingspan) blessed with great hops and a pure shooting motion; he would go a long way towards solving both of the Kings' biggest problems at a stroke. He averaged a 16-7 with 42% three-point shooting while battling mono for half the season. His main weakness is that he's already 23 years old, so he may not grow much more as a player, but he is definitely ready to contribute right away. The rest of the fourth tier players can help the Kings, but maybe not on both ends. Ennis is only an okay shooter, while Stauskas and McDermott (the two best shooters in the draft) might struggle to defend at an NBA level.

Should the Kings only have the one pick, my recommendation would be to take Harris or Payne, who offer the most immediate help and would not be serious reaches with the eighth pick. However, as discussed earlier, the Kings possess a number of expiring contracts, several with positional overlap, and they might be able to move one or two of those players for additional picks. Phoenix, for example, is losing almost $20 million in salary this summer (or more if Channing Frye turns down his $6.8 million player option) and will have oceans of cap room. Some of those oceans are earmarked for matching whatever offer Eric Bledsoe gets as a restricted free agent, but there will still be lots of money left over. The Suns almost made the playoffs with P.J. Tucker as their starting (and really only) small forward, and they have made noises about a) wanting to upgrade that position and b) being willing to trade some of their draft picks to do it, particularly because they don't really want to add another young project to a potential playoff team when they already have Alex Len and Archie Goodwin to develop.

Now, I know that Phoenix owner Robert Sarver is a notorious tightwad, but even if they drop $10 million per year on Bledsoe,** Phoenix will still have approximately $22 million in cap room and a massive hole at the three (Tucker is also a restricted free agent, and his primary backup this year was Marcus Morris, who is more of a stretch four). So let's make a trade! How about Gay for Shavlik Randolph (salary relief), Phoenix's own pick (fourteenth), and either the eighteenth (Washington's) or twenty-seventh (Indiana's) pick? If Frye picks up his option (a debatable prospect) and the Suns renounce Tucker and Emeka Okafor, Gay would get them pretty close to the cap, but they'd also have a starting five of Goran Dragic, Bledsoe, Gay, Frye, and Miles Plumlee, with Gerald Green, the Morris twins, and Ish Smith off the bench, plus whatever Len and Goodwin give them in their second seasons. It's essentially the same team that went 48-34, only with Gay instead of Tucker. If Frye leaves as a free agent, they will have that money to spend on another piece or pieces (or for Sarver to stick in his pocket), especially because either Morris twin can step in and provide Frye's production (to a tee, more or less) at less than half the cost.

**Although GM Lon Babby has publicly stated that the Suns will match any offer, I doubt that Bledsoe gets a true max contract when he's not even the best point guard on his team, let alone top ten in the league - unless some other GM wants to make Sarver write a bigger check out of spite. Don't rule this out.

If Sacramento can make that trade, they would be comfortably under the cap after waiving Randolph (the cap holds for the three picks would probably come in at around $6-$7 million as opposed to Gay's $19 million option), meaning that they could potentially spend that money on a match for Thomas' offer sheet. Even without Thomas (and keeping Randolph), they would have twelve players under contract, plus the three draft picks, and a cap hold of somewhere around $57 million, leaving them $6 million-ish under the salary cap. Waiving Randolph would save another $1.2 million, and they would still have enough power forwards for three teams. $7.2 million per year should be enough to retain Thomas should they choose to do so, and that's before getting into the possibility of trading Terry, Williams, or Outlaw (the next three largest expiring contracts). What about trading Williams to the Wizards for Martell Webster or Otto Porter, freeing up future cash for Washington's inevitable overpays on Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat? Could they unload any of the three on the Heat for cash, since Miami only has six players under contract for next year if the big three all stay? Could they give one of the richer expirings (Terry or Williams) to the Clippers for Jared Dudley? Swap Williams to Golden State for the out-of-favor Harrison Barnes? These are all possibilities.

In any case, let's roll with this Phoenix trade and assume that they get the fourteenth and eighteenth pick in addition to their own (eighth). If they play their cards right (and get lucky with the picks in between), the Kings could get two or even three players who can step in and help the team correct those major weaknesses. Let's assume that Embiid and all of the second tier players are gone by the time the Kings make their selection, although on the off chance that Vonleh is still around they should jump all over him. And let's also assume that Gordon is the one third-tier guy who goes in the top seven. I've already recommended that the Kings pass on Smart and Saric in favor of Harris or Payne. But which one of those two? They might conceivably get their hands on both players depending on what the Hornets, Sixers, Nuggets, Magic, and Timberwolves do between eight and fourteen. The questions to ask are a) who fills a bigger need and b) who is more likely to still be around at fourteen? Payne is probably the answer to both questions; I can't imagine the Sixers passing on Harris at ten if they've already picked up Wiggins or Parker with the third pick to play small forward, if indeed Harris gets past Charlotte at nine. Let's look at likely scenarios for those five picks.

Scenario A (Kings draft Harris): 9-Saric, 10-Stauskas, 11-LaVine, 12-Ennis, 13-Payton
Scenario B (Kings draft Payne): 9-Saric, 10-Harris, 11-Stauskas, 12-LaVine, 13-Ennis

In scenario A, Payne might also go to Orlando at twelve (assuming they grab Exum at four), but I think that's the only other team that Sacramento would have to worry about. So why not gamble that Payne would still be around at fourteen and take Harris? That depends on how much the team wants to keep Thomas around as the starting point guard. If they plan to let him walk, take Harris and hope that Payne is still around at fourteen. If they plan to keep Thomas, take Payne and address a different need with the fourteenth pick. That need? Small forward, where presumably the team would be down to Outlaw and Williams (better off at the four). They could still use more shooting, so that would be the spot to perhaps take McDermott, who would immediately become the Kings' best shooter. He will definitely not be around at eighteen (nor would Payne), but picking McDermott might also give Kings fans nasty flashbacks to the Jimmer Era.

Since it's more likely that Payne will be around at fourteen, let's make the move to draft Harris and Payne now and worry about the Thomas situation later. Now there's still the eighteenth pick, and with McDermott, James Young, and either Rodney Hood or P.J. Hairston likely to go 15-16-17 (let's assume it goes Young-McDermott-Hood), the Kings would be left with Hairston, Grant, Nurkic, Early, or someone from the next tier. Since the Kings already have one quasi-head case in Cousins, drafting Hairston might be unwise. Grant doesn't provide shooting and Nurkic doesn't complement Cousins at all (it's also possible that Orlando or Atlanta takes a flyer on the Bosnian big man in the lottery). That leaves Early, who is a terrific athlete that can shoot and defend the three. Presto! Now let's take a look at an amended depth chart.

PG: Thomas?, Harris, McCallum
SG: McLemore, Harris, Terry
SF: Early, Outlaw, Acy
PF: Payne, Williams, Evans, Acy, Landry, Thompson, Reed
C: Cousins, Payne

It might seem odd to put three rookies in the starting lineup for a team that wants to compete for a playoff spot this year, but look at the guys they would be replacing (apart from Thomas, potentially). There's a lot of work to be done on this roster in order to make it legitimately competitive in the deep Western Conference. I think this is the way to go - getting immediate returns from players who can fix the holes in their stat sheets, and who should all bring toughness and character to a franchise that needs it. Thoughts? Rebuttals? Feel free to comment below.