Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings let their former rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans, leave in free agency. Despite losing Evans, though, the Kings had a pretty good offseason. How can I say that? Well, first, and most important, Sacramento got to keep its Kings, which was no sure thing. The threat of the team being stolen away from Sacramento and moved to, say, Seattle- who know a thing or twelve about stolen teams- was very, very real, so this offseason was a success if for no other reason than that the Kings remain Sacramento’s.

In addition, the Kings made some sneaky good moves. First, they were able to turn Evans’s departure into a sign and trade to land a quite useful player in point guard Greivis Vasquez. Then, the Kings were able to land a serviceable replacement for Evans’s wing slot by trading two second round picks for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Luc Richard is a disruptive defensive presence who struggled to convert inside last year, after a career of being pretty good at it. On the plus side, Mbah a Moute appears to have added some range to his arsenal as he hit 35%, right around league average, on his three point attempts, while firing one deep shot per 40 minutes. Previously, Mbah a Moute had been very reluctant to even try to shoot from outside, and seemingly for good reason, as he rarely made those shots when he did take them. All in all, Luc Richard is a pretty average wing, which is a pretty nice get for the relatively piddling price of two second round picks. The Kings must hope Mbah a Moute can return to the relatively strong finisher inside he has generally been, while retaining some of that added range to space the floor around center Demarcus Cousins. If he can do that, he might be even better than average, given how much he helps on the defensive end.

Finally, the Kings drafted Ben McLemore, who many scouts thought might be the best player in this year’s draft. I wasn’t as high on McLemore, simply because he didn’t do much statistically at Kansas that screamed dominant player, but he also wasn’t asked to do a whole lot and his own tendency to float was not sufficiently reined in by the Jayhawks’ coaching staff, so it’s tough to say just how good he will end up as a pro. In new coach Mike Malone, the Kings appear to have gotten a leader who will challenge McLemore to be the best version of himself on the court. McLemore will certainly be an interesting player to watch this season, to see which side of him wins out between his undeniable talent and his natural passivity on the court.

What do the numbers have to tell us about this year’s Kings squad?

After adjusting for the projected league context, the Kings’ projected Net Rating is -3.45, which would make them a 32 win team. That’s not great, but considering the Kings won just 28 games last year and lost a player of Tyreke Evans’s talent, it would be impressive for the Kings to improve their record by 4 wins. Most of the heavy lifting will be done, according to xRAPM, by Boogie Cousins. He has far and away the highest projected xRAPM at +2.3 and he projects to play a fairly high number of minutes.

It’s at this point that something about xRAPM as a stat should be pointed out- xRAPM uses boxscore stat based priors, but it also includes a prior for height on the defensive end, in order to increase predictive accuracy leaguewide. In general, this is a good thing to do, as big men tend to be much more important to team defense, so it’s unsurprising that adding a prior that grants big men proportionally more credit for positive offensive outcomes increases predictive accuracy. The problem occurs with big men who are decidedly bad defenders, so they get credit they don’t deserve. Boogie Cousins is just one such big man. Boogie is actually a double whammy of a problem for xRAPM. Cousins grabs a lot of defensive boxscore stats (read: defensive rebounds and blocked shots) and he’s very tall, as a result xRAPM thinks he’s a good defender– but he so, so isn’t. This almost certainly causes Cousins individually to be very overrated, but fortunately for the overall accuracy of the projections, the Kings return almost entirely the same roster with the exception of the previously mentioned Evans. If it were the case that Cousins was receiving defensive credit in xRAPM that Evans rightly deserved, it’s a very positive sign for the Kings that they acquired another strong wing defender, Mbah a Moute, to replace Evans in the rotation.

Jason Thompson returns as the starting 4 man alongside Cousins and should contribute well, too. It’s also possible that Thompson is a better defender than he’s been given credit for by xRAPM, due to playing with Cousins. But, because Thompson will be around again to play with Cousins, that shouldn’t effect the overall picture much. Finally, Former Mr. Irrelevant, the confusingly named Isaiah Thomas projects to be slightly above average. Thomas is a wonderful offensive dynamo, running as expert a pick and roll as you’ll find in the NBA. The averageness comes from his weakness on the defensive end. Most of Thomas’s defensive problems can be fairly attributed to his small stature. Thomas is simply too physically limited, both due to his height and his short wingspan, to help much on defense. He’s a good and useful player, though, and it’s a testament to his work ethic and skill that he has been able to make himself into a better player than the Kings’ lottery pick of Thomas’s draft class, Jimmer Fredette. Fredette’s also a pretty solid offensive player, but his defense makes Isaiah Thomas look like prime Gary Payton. Fredette is one of the absolute worst defensive players in the league. If he can get somewhere closer to average, he could really help the Kings, but these projections don’t see that happening. Ben McLemore projects to be an above replacement, but below average player, which is pretty average for a rookie, but if it happens that way, would surely represent a disappointment for the Kings. It is unsurprising, though, that a statistical projection would look harshly at McLemore’s only season at Kansas as he simply didn’t stand out.

The Kings have an interesting future with a new owner, a new face of the franchise, and a new, energetic head coach. This season is just the beginning of that future and there should be plenty of fun to be had, whether it’s the pure joy of watching little Isaiah Thomas run that pick and roll to perfection or the pure hilarity of watching Demarcus Cousins “try” to defend the opponent’s pick and roll. After facing an existential threat to their team, Kings fans have plenty to which to look forward.

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