The Sacramento Kings are a work in progress. You can’t expect 10 new additions to a roster to fit seamlessly into a system and instantly click. You also can’t expect to win with the injury bug hitting your core group of players like it has in Sacramento.
It will take time before we really know what this Kings team is capable of, but there is at least a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. After a rough 1-7 start, the Kings are 4-2 over their last six and they are trying desperately to build momentum and dig out of the monstrous hole they have dug for themselves.
Snatching a road win from the Orlando Magic on Saturday afternoon was another good building block for this team’s foundation. Once again, they were without a major cog in Rudy Gay (left shoulder strain), but George Karl tinkered with his lineup and came up with a winning combination.
In a surprise move, the veteran coach tightened his rotation to just eight players. While they struggled to shoot just 38.3 percent from the field, they played well enough on the defensive end to come away with a 97-91 victory.
“I felt like we did a good job defending, really making them not get into the paint,” Omri Casspi said. “DeMarcus (Cousins) was there to block shots and force them to take tough shots. He was contesting them when he can. And he did a good job defending.”
Karl has mixed and matched his defensive schemes all season long. On some nights he tries to take away specific players on a team. We saw this practice against the Detroit Pistons’ Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Kings hold off Magic in Cousins' return]
Other nights Karl attempts to take away specific things a team likes to do well and dare them to beat his team in a different way. A good example of this strategy would be when the Kings clogged the lane against the Toronto Raptors and allowed them to shoot away from long range.
While the Raptors knocked down 14-of-24 in the first three quarters and took a three-point lead into the fourth, the laws of averages eventually won out. Toronto shot 1-of-7 in the final frame and the Kings came away with the 107-101 victory.
The Kings implemented a similar strategy on Saturday against the Magic. While the guards pressured early, the main crux of the Kings scheme was to force Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton to beat them from the perimeter.
“(Rajon) Rondo and DC (Darren Collison) did a great job of putting ball pressure which we have not had in many games,” Karl said. “The other guys have been pretty good all year long in protecting the basket and they may have missed a lot of shots which create pace on our side.”
Payton finished the night with seven points on 3-for-12 shooting. He handed out nine assists in 38 minutes, but he also turned the ball over five times. Oladipo scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting. The duo combined to hit 3-of-7 from behind the arc, but took a total of two free throw attempts as the Kings sagged off them on the perimeter.
The Magic shot 4-of-14 in the first half from 3-point range and finished the night 9-for-31 overall. The dual point guard look seemed to disrupt the flow of the Magic’s offense and the post defense of Cousins, Kosta Koufos and rookie Willie Cauley-Stein was solid for most of the night.
The Sacramento Kings were a juggernaut at the free throw line last season. They led the league in attempts and makes, while ranking No. 10 overall in free throw percentage.
Somewhere along the way the Kings abandon the aggressive style that had them taking 29.3 freebies a game one season ago. It’s possible that they are going to the line less frequently because they have struggled mightily from the stripe, hitting just 69.8 percent.
The reduction in free throws might also may have something to do with Cousins missing five out of 14 games this season due to injury or suspension. Cousins averaged 9.2 attempts per game last season and in nine games this season, he is taking 11.6 from the line.
On Saturday against the Magic, Sacramento hit 28-of-31 attempts for a sparkling 90.3 percent. Orlando made 75 percent from the line, but had just eight attempts. In a six point contest, the Kings scored 22 points more than their opponent at the free throw line.
THE UNSUNG HERO:
Casspi continues to thrive under Karl’s tutelage. The 27-year-old forward played 32 minutes in Gay’s absence, coming away with 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting and chipped in 11 rebounds. His +18 in the plus/minus stat was second only to Marco Belinelli’s +22.
“Omri is having a great year for us,” Karl said. “There’s so many games after a game I look at how he played and I said I should have played him more, and that’s how well he’s playing and tonight with Rudy out you got probably basically what he deserves and maybe a lot of games he’s probably deserved as many or more.”
The Israeli-born shooter came into Saturday’s game averaging 10.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in 25.2 minutes per game and his 45.7 percent shooting from behind the arc ranks ninth best in the league.
“He’s working hard on our defense,” Karl added. “I think the film will show that he was a very good plug help defender and there’s certain things we need to get better at and I think Omri’s leading us in that charge a little bit.”
A pro’s pro, Casspi continues to do the little things to help his team win.
The Kings are a completely different team with Cousins on the floor. With Saturday’s victory, the team is 5-4 with their star big on the floor and 0-5 when he misses a game.
Cousins statline against the Magic - 29 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks in 40 minutes.
There are very few players, if any, that mean more to their team than Cousins means to the Sacramento Kings.