With Wednesday night's thrilling victory over the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Clippers firmed up their hold on the unofficial title of the NBA's most exciting young team. In addition to the highlight-reel exploits of Blake Griffin, the Clippers have proven surprisingly successful, winning 11 of their last 23 games since starting the season 1-12.
There was supposed to be another young team from California that would demonstrate its promise by competing ahead of schedule on the strength of a pair of elite prospects, one of them a guard and the other a big man. But while the Clippers have come together, the Sacramento Kings have collapsed. At 8-28, the Kings have the Western Conference's worst record. That's a long from the .500 season SCHOENE projected, a wildly optimistic guess that was overshadowed by other SCHOENE projections, most notably a playoff season for the Golden State Warriors. Based on the difference between projected point differential and actual differential adjusted for schedule, Sacramento has been the league's second-biggest disappointment in the eyes of SCHOENE.
Team Pro Act Diff
Cleveland -0.6 -9.8 -9.2
Sacramento 0.9 -6.8 -7.7
Golden State 2.9 -2.7 -5.7
New Jersey -0.4 -5.7 -5.3
Portland 5.5 1.0 -4.5
I've already explored why the Cavaliers have missed LeBron James so much more than the numbers imagined. Now it's worth investigating what has gone wrong for the Kings.
SCHOENE was accurate when it came to projecting Sacramento's defense, which was expected to essentially hold steady at 23rd in the league. In fact, the Kings have improved ever so slightly to rank 19th in the NBA in Defensive Rating. For all its flaws, Sacramento is still defending far better than it did before the arrival of Paul Westphal on the scene.
Instead, the Kings' issue has been putting the ball in the basket. Sacramento was 22nd in Offensive Rating a year ago, but SCHOENE saw the development of Tyreke Evans, the addition of DeMarcus Cousins and a full season from Carl Landry providing a huge lift, pegging the Kings as the league's eighth-best offensive team. That's where Sacramento has gone bust, averaging 4.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than the NBA as a whole to rank 25th.
Looking at the numbers shows an obvious, unexpected culprit: the Kings can't make two-point shots. They've hit just 45.7 percent of their attempts inside the arc as a group, a mark just one other NBA team (the Milwaukee Bucks, at 43.6 percent) has failed to reach. It's hard to see how that is for lack of talent. SCHOENE projected that Sacramento would shoot 49.7 percent on twos, better than league average, and the Kings made 48.3 percent of their twos a year ago.
Going through Sacramento's rotation, virtually every key player has fallen victim to the two-point malaise, shooting worse than anticipated by SCHOENE. In most cases that has affected their offensive and overall performance:
2P% TS% Win%
Player pro act pro act pro act
Casspi .495 .411 .548 .539 .492 .500
Cousins .463 .436 .499 .477 .514 .418
Dalembert .525 .416 .559 .442 .502 .435
Evans .498 .416 .544 .461 .599 .441
Garcia .492 .519 .560 .588 .494 .543
Landry .557 .484 .610 .532 .500 .413
Thompson .498 .497 .535 .533 .459 .429
Udrih .506 .533 .548 .579 .475 .513
Two of the Kings' veterans, Francisco Garcia and Beno Udrih, have managed to stay above the fray and exceed expectations--starting with their two-point accuracy. Forward Jason Thompson is also shooting twos just as well as we would have expected. Everyone else has fallen short of the mark, and in many cases significantly so. Evans and Landry, two of the offense's building blocks, have proven unable to make twos, dragging down their overall level of performance.
Let's start, not unlike the Sacramento offense, with Evans. The difference between his projected and actual winning percentages ranks among the league's 10 biggest, and only one other starter--Portland's injury plagued Brandon Roy--has similarly underperformed. Instead of developing into an All-Star-caliber player, Evans has been barely better than replacement level. His individual numbers suggest that alone has cost the Kings nearly four wins this season.
Evans has been limited by plantar fasciitis that has forced him to consider surgery, and the effect of the injury is apparent throughout his numbers. Most critical, per Hoopdata.com, is that Evans has attempted 2.9 fewer shots a night at the rim than in 2009-10. Unable to get into the paint for those easy looks, Evans has been forced to settle for low-percentage attempts. He's also reaching the free throw line less frequently, another crushing blow to what was already middling efficiency.
Without Evans creating as much offense as he did a year ago, Sacramento has few alternative options. While Udrih is capable of getting shots off the dribble, he struggles to produce opportunities for teammates. Cousins uses possessions prolifically, but only by settling for marginal shot attempts. The Kings' offense does not generate easy looks, and the team has few skilled passers (relative to position, Cousins might actually be the team's best distributor). The result is the league's lowest ratio of assists per field goal.
More than anyone else, the Sacramento offense has been troublesome for Landry, who has good touch around the basket but is often unable to create good looks because he is undersized for the frontcourt. In two-plus seasons with the Houston Rockets, Landry never shot lower than 54.7 percent from the field. That dropped slightly to 52.0 percent when he joined the Kings after last year's trade deadline, then has slid again to 48.0 percent this season.
Again, Hoopdata.com's numbers eloquently tell the story of Landry's decline. For the first time in his career, fewer than half of his field goals have been assisted this season. That has been accompanied by a corresponding drop in attempts at the rim.
In addition to Landry, other role players like Casspi and Dalembert have also suffered, part of a domino effect started by Evans' inability to play his game.
Despite SCHOENE's optimism, it is not entirely clear that Sacramento could have built a good offense around a healthy Evans. While the correlation between assists and offensive efficiency is far from perfect, it takes a great deal of individual talent and ability to create unassisted baskets (for example, via offensive rebounds, one area the Kings have thrived this year) to succeed with ball movement as poor as Sacramento's.
However, with the main cog around which the offense was designed badly limited, the Kings never had a chance to be competitive on offense. In the long term, this is somewhat good news. Whether through surgery or rest during the offseason, Evans should be able to shake plantar fasciitis in time for 2010-11. Cousins, meanwhile, is beginning to show signs of promise during what has been a disappointing rookie season. Sacramento will ultimately go as far as those two young stars take them. Last week's 122-102 win over Denver on national television showed how dynamic the Kings can be when both Cousins and Evans are playing well. For now, however, it appears such performances will be the exception and not the rule.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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