Troubles for the Sacramento Kings this season can be blamed on a variety of factors. But one that can’t be overlooked is the underwhelming performance of the second unit.
“I think I need to strengthen the bench, clearly,” Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro said on KHTK 1140 last week. “We’ve seen that and everyone can see that. There’s certain positions where I think we need to get better.”
Glancing around the league, the NBA’s best teams all feature a strong set of reserves. There’s no greater example than the top-ranked Golden State Warriors, who bring former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee off the pine. Competitive rosters are usually 10 men deep, whereas the not-so-intimidating clubs are far thinner.
The anorexic Kings bench has major room for improvement. While they hold their own in rebounding, the reserves place 24th in the league in points and last in assists per game. Sacramento’s second unit is the NBA’s worst at making 3-pointers, and their defense ranks 26th in efficiency (hoopsstats.com).
An overview of the personnel explains why.
Ramon Sessions, strictly an offensive point guard, was suffering the worst shooting slump of his career before going down with a back injury. Second-year guard Ray McCallum has played admirable defense in his place, but the 23-year-old is struggling to score as well.
Rookie lottery pick Nik Stauskas has had a rough adjustment to the pros. Known in college as a lethal shooter, the two-guard is misfiring at 33.1 percent from the floor.
Former No. 2 overall selection Derrick Williams is trying to shed his label as a bust, but not doing so convincingly. The forward’s electric offense comes and goes, while his defense has been consistently poor.
Center Ryan Hollins has demonstrated he’s a stout defender, but effective in spurts. The same goes for Reggie Evans, who at 34-years-old is is struggling to make an impact against bigger pivots.
Two bright spots have been Carl Landry and Omri Casspi. Landry has become the bench’s most consistent interior scorer, and is heavily relied on when DeMarcus Cousins rests. Casspi reinvented himself as a fearless slasher and defender before a left knee bone contusion derailed his season.
But as a whole, the Kings bench is a target for opponents. Leads have slipped through Sacramento’s hands in the early second and fourth quarters multiple times this season, which has forced coaches Michael Malone (since fired) and Tyrone Corbin to alter their strategies.
It is now common to see a starter or two run with the reserves, but it comes at a cost. Through 37 games, the Kings rank 22nd in the NBA in bench minutes, which puts a heavier strain on DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison. As the year progresses, the Kings starters will likely fatigue, and the team will have no choice to lean more on reserves, though initial results have been discouraging.
“Just continue to play,” Corbin said in regard to improving the bench. “We’re mixing a lot of pieces. We want to make sure that we’re not losing a lot, (by) trying to mix the guys in, and try to keep some guys (starters) on the floor with a different combination of guys, so as they grow, we want to make sure we’re not losing momentum and actually increasing some advantage when the second unit is in the ball game.”
Barring a trade, Corbin and his staff will need to squeeze more out of this group. Along with staggering lineups, building confidence with McCallum, Stauskas and Williams is key, as is putting them in a position to make the most of their strengths. For now, it’s a trial by fire.
If basketball is a 48-minute effort, the Kings are falling short. A return to relevance will require the resurrection of a “bench mob.”