The Los Angeles Clippers continue their pre-season tour of NBA Division II teams with a stop in Sacramento tonight and a trip to Phoenix to play the Suns tomorrow night. The Clippers are 2-0 so far in pre-season against teams that missed the playoffs last season, and there's not a top quality opponent coming up any time soon. The team, especially the starters, have looked great so far -- but the competition hasn't been the fiercest.
The Kings might be able to put up a little more resistance. It's a new era in the state capital, with new owners and a new coach and a new arena on the way. And although the Kings didn't make any huge moves this summer, they did make two moves that I suspect will turn out to be very, very good for them in the long run.
The Kings chose not to re-sign Tyreke Evans, the former rookie of the year who lost his way over the past three seasons, and while the loss of a player who was once so full of promise may be difficult to take, the Kings did manage to make the most of it. Invariably when these deals go the sign-and-trade route, the team losing the player settles for little more than a trade exception that they might use in the future. In this case, the Kings turned Evans into Greivis Vasquez, a very solid point guard who had a nice season in New Orleans last year and who immediately shores up a weak spot in the lineup. We'll see how it turns out, but if I'm general manager, I'd much rather have Vasquez making $2M this season than Evans making $10M. Heck, I might prefer Vasquez to Evans regardless of price. It's a sneaky good pickup for the Kings. Vasquez has yet to play this pre-season but is expected to be in the lineup tonight.
They also signed Carl Landry away from the Golden State Warriors over the summer (doing the Clippers a favor in the process). They might have overpaid slightly for Landry who has demonstrated over and over that he's a solid NBA backup, but not suited to be a starter. But if Patrick Patterson can be effective as the starter in Sacramento (which remains to be seen) then Landry will provide quality depth in the front court.
Despite the off-season moves for Vasquez and Landry and the general sense of optimism around the team, the Kings are still going to struggle this season. They're thrilled to have gotten Ben McLemore with the seventh pick in the draft and second round pick looked great in Las Vegas this summer, but realistically both are a few seasons away from making a difference.
The big question in Sacramento is DeMarcus Cousins, who has the talent to be the most dominant center in the NBA, but the maturity of a middle-schooler. Despite his myriad attitude and behavior problems both on and off the court, the Kings gave Cousins a maximum extension this summer. Handing $62M over the course of four years to Cousins is a calculated risk for the Kings -- if he responds and justifies the contract, then he becomes a cornerstone they can build around. From there, if they get lucky with McLemore or someone else, they could build a very good team. But if he continues to pout and feud with coaches (bear in mind, new coach Mike Malone is a first time head coach in the league) his new contract could be the anchor that keeps the Kings at the bottom of the conference for the foreseeable future despite all the optimism of the post-Maloof era.
We'll see how the Clippers approach the game tonight. So far Doc Rivers has played the pre-season straight up -- going with his normal starting lineup (less the injured J.J. Redick) and even bringing the starters back in the second quarter and to begin the second half. With tonight's game being part of three in four nights, will Rivers sit some guys, or will he want to see how they look on short rest, which is after all the reality of the NBA season? My guess is that he'll continue using rotations that are at least close to what he wants to do during the regular season. He's got a new team and they're putting in new systems on both ends of the floor -- they could certainly use the reps against live competition.
For DeAndre Jordan, who has been the Clippers best player of the first two pre-season games, the matchup with Cousins will be key. Robin Lopez and Enes Kanter aren't bad, but Cousins is on a different level. (In fact, Jordan and Cousins were both among the young big men competing for the US Select team in Las Vegas this summer.) If Jordan hopes to be an elite NBA defender as Rivers says he can be, his ability to be an effective help defender while also contending with a primary scorer like Cousins will be crucial to his development.