PORTLAND - For five and a half quarters, these were the new and improved Sacramento Kings, victors over the Los Angeles Lakers on opening night and owners of a double-digit lead over the Portland Trail Blazers on the road. Then reality interceded, in the form of the Blazers awakening from their slumber and outscoring Sacramento 69-35 the rest of the way By the time the Blazers had completed a 22-point victory, it was hard to distinguish these Kings from their cellar-dwelling predecessors.
Ill-advised turnovers? 20 of them, leading to 13 Portland points in the fourth quarter alone. Costly fouls? John Salmons picked up five by the midway point of the third quarter, while DeMarcus Cousins also sat for an extended stretch because of foul trouble. Poor transition defense? Well, Kurt Thomas beat everyone back for a layup. Enough said. Forced shot attempts from the perimeter? Too many to count.
In short, Sacramento played losing basketball, which comes as a disappointment after last night's performance against the Lakers. But that might be the nature of a young team during this shortened season. As a result, Kings coach Paul Westphal was even-keeled after the game, calling it a "painful" step in the team's development that might have been inevitable against a quality opponent.
At times, we saw both why Sacramento could be difficult to play some nights and also why the Kings will struggle badly on others. Sacramento upgraded its frontcourt dramatically over the offseason, and when Westphal sticks to a tight rotation--he used just eight players for essentially the balance of the first half--everyone in the group is a credible NBA contributor. Still, the backcourt is severely lacking in players who can create for their teammates, which will be a problem for the Kings all season long.
Sacramento is heavily dependent for scoring on guards Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton creating in one-on-one situations and out of pick-and-rolls. That worked well against the Lakers, who struggle to defend the backcourt, when both players had their shots falling. Not so Tuesday night, as Evans (four points on 2-of-8 shooting, five turnovers) was practically invisible and Thornton (14 points, but 15 shot attempts) forced too many attempts with a hand in his face.
In the first half, the Kings got good minutes from Jimmer Fredette, who used his shooting ability to break down the Blazers defense. The adjustment for Fredette will be taking advantage of those opportunities with more regularity, whether that means finding a teammate or a lane to the rim. Fredette sometimes seems to search out off-balance attempts. At this point of his career, he's still better at making difficult shots than he is a standstill shooter.
After halftime, Westphal called on second-round pick Isaiah Thomas, the closest thing Sacramento has to a true playmaking point guard. That meant shifting Fredette to the two, which proved disastrous. With Portland playing 6-6 Jamal Crawford and 6-8 Nicolas Batum together in the backcourt, the 5-9 Thomas and 6-2 Fredette were both asked to defend players at least six inches taller. Batum repeatedly abused Fredette down low before Sacramento was forced to bring help, while Crawford also converted a rare post-up over his close friend Thomas.
The situation is better in the frontcourt, where Westphal has a reliable four-man rotation. In time, veteran Chuck Hayes will solidify this Kings team with his presence and experience. He also contributed 11 rebounds in 26 minutes as Sacramento played a Portland team that usually dominates the glass to a draw. Cousins is ... well, Cousins. His matchup with the 37-year-old Marcus Camby pitted guile against athletic potential. Cousins got a couple of easy buckets on spin moves that left Camby flat-footed, but when Camby maintained position he was able to stonewall Cousins. Later in the game, Kurt Thomas blocked Cousins twice on one possession. Plays like that caused Cousins to finish the night 7-of-18 from the field. He does already seem to be learning by osmosis from Hayes, as evidenced by the pair of charges he drew.
In the past, both J.J. Hickson and Jason Thompson have been stretched as starters, and in Hickson's case as a go-to player in the frontcourt for Cleveland last season. Coming off the bench, Hickson and Thompson are assets, and they combined to score 21 points 10-of-12 shooting.
If there's a problem with the Kings' frontcourt depth, it's that it forces Travis Outlaw to play small forward. As documented in the book, Outlaw has historically been far more effective when facing bigger defenders as a four. Tuesday's small sample size continued that trend, as Outlaw offset seven rebounds by missing all five of his shot attempts. Sacramento got a combined four points in 44 minutes from Outlaw and Salmons.
These Kings should be improved from last year's 24-58 squad. There's too much talent for Sacramento to be so uncompetitive on a regular basis. The Kings also did play sound half-court defense when they got back in transition and weren't dealing with enormous matchup problems. Still, the visit to the Rose Garden was a reminder that rebuilding is a process, and one whose results aren't always pretty. More than wins and losses, the key to this season for Sacramento will be ingraining positive habits to replace the poor ones the team's young players have learned in the past. That's the kind of progress we should expect from the Kings.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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