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Kings season in review: Willie Cauley-Stein improved, but was it enough?

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Kings season in review: Willie Cauley-Stein improved, but was it enough?

Consistently inconsistent. It’s a tag that Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein can’t shake after four seasons in the NBA.

Incredibly athletic and mobile, the 7-footer should be perfect for the Kings’ uptempo style. He had plenty of moments where he fit in well on both ends of the court. He also had plenty of moments where he looks disengaged.

Cauley-Stein opened training camp saying he wanted to get paid. He made improvements in most areas of his game this year, but did he do enough to entice the Kings or any other NBA team into inking him to a long term deal?

Here is a long look at his 2018-19 campaign in Sacramento.

Offense

Stats: 11.9 points, 2.4 assists, 8.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 55.6% FG, 27.3 min

Cauley-Stein saw a slight downturn in his offensive output this season, though he improved his efficiency. The former Kentucky star improved his true shooting percentage from 52.9 percent last season to 55.6 percent.

The main reason for his spike in true shooting percentage came with the abandonment of the mid-range game. Cauley-Stein shot just 101 shots outside of 10 feet this season, down from the 184 he attempted last season.  

An aerial artist around the rim, Cauley-Stein shot 71.4 percent at the basket this season and 87.9 percent on dunk attempts. He finished the season with 182 dunks this year, 168 of which were assisted on.

The lob is Cauley-Stein’s friend, but he lacks a defined post move and he doesn’t have a counter attack when his initial move is stymied. In addition, he shot just 31 percent on 200 shot attempts from 3-10 feet away from the basket.

Cauley-Stein also stumbled at the free throw line for long stretches during the season, finishing with a career-worst 55.1 percent from the charity stripe.

While he’s steadily improved as a passer in his four seasons in Sacramento, he’s not a player you can run the ball through in the high post. He grabbed a career-best 2.2 offensive rebounds per game, but for a player with his length and athleticism, that is still below what you would expect.

Defense

Touted as a player that could defend positions 1-5 coming into of the 2015 NBA Draft, Cauley-Stein has been a bit of a disappointment on this side of the ball.

He’s long and athletic, which helped him post a career-best 1.2 steals per game. But he refuses to use that same length and athleticism as a shot-blocker around the rim. Cauley-Stein averaged just 0.6 blocks per game on the season and posted the lowest block percentage of his career.

Cauley-Stein failed to register a single blocked shot in 50 of his 81 games played this season.

Overall, the Kings’ starting center allowed a plus 1.6 field goal percentage against this season. He held his opponent to a negative 1.0 field goal percentage against inside of 10 feet, but that number jumped to a plus 2.9 percent on shots inside of six feet. He also allowed a plus 2.9 percent field goal percentage on 3-point attempts.

Coming into the season, one of the biggest knocks on Cauley-Stein was his lack of rebounding. He improved across board, posting 6.2 defensive rebounds per game and a career-best 15.8 percent total rebound percentage.

Overall

Four years in and there are still questions. Cauley-Stein has plenty of talent and he may not have come close to his ceiling. He also is very limited in what he produces on the court.

He’s not a great rebounder or rim protector, which is a major issue. He is a really good rim runner and finisher. He gets steals. He doesn’t get blocks. He improved as a passer, but not a major cog in the offense.

All of these pluses and minuses are confusing. Cauley-Stein finished the season with an offensive rating of 118 and a defensive rating of 108. He posted a PER of 18.0, which is well above league average. The numbers say one thing and the eye often says something completely different.

[RELATED: Nemanja Bjelica better than expected all over]

The Kings have a huge decision facing them when it comes to the 25-year-old big. They’ve spent years developing him and his qualifying offer is only $6 million this season. On the downside, a QO puts a $14 million cap hold on the Kings entering free agency, which could come back to hurt the club.

Will they let him walk for nothing, or will they make him a restricted free agent and wait to see how the market develops for the athletic big? This is one of the larger decisions facing Vlade Divac and the Kings this summer.

NBA rumors: Kings on shortlist for potential playoff play-in tournament

NBA rumors: Kings on shortlist for potential playoff play-in tournament

Momentum is building for the return of NBA action. After honing in on Orlando as the most likely venue to host the end of the 2019-20 schedule and postseason, it appears the league is preparing to get creative with how they move forward.

Details still are being worked out as to how the league will move forward, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Kings might make the shortlist of teams invited to the Magic Kingdom to participate in the action.

According to Wojnarowski's source, “teams have become increasingly skeptical of the league bringing back all 30 teams to complete the season.”

[PURPLE TALK PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

While nothing is confirmed, the plan appears to be inviting the 16 teams that currently would qualify for the postseason and then a quartet of Western Conference clubs that are fighting for the eighth seed. The league has yet to decide on the exact path moving forward, but a play-in tournament, pool play bracket and a continuation of regular-season games all are under consideration.

When the league suspended play on March 11 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Kings were preparing to host the New Orleans Pelicans in one of the most important home games in Sacramento in over a decade.

In a virtual tie for the ninth spot with the Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers and three-and-a-half games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final postseason berth, the Kings had 18 remaining to make a move.

Memphis was facing the toughest schedule in the league down the stretch and already had lost tiebreakers against both the Kings and Pelicans. The Kings and Blazers split their season series and the Kings trailed the Pelicans 0-1 with two more games still on the schedule.

The Kings was playing their best basketball of the year at the time of the shutdown. They were 13-7 in their last 20 games. Richaun Holmes was playing his way back into game shape after missing 25 games with a shoulder injury and Marvin Bagley was on the mend as well.

The Kings aren’t the only team that was playing well. Memphis and New Orleans both were 11-9 over their previous 20 games and the Blazers were at an even .500 over that stretch.

In addition to the Kings, Pelicans and Trail Blazers, the San Antonio Spurs were just four games behind the Grizzlies at the time of the shutdown. Gregg Popovich’s crew was scuffling a bit, posting a 7-13 record over their previous 20.

The Kings have yet to make a statement on a potential return, instead deferring to the NBA’s spokesman for comment.

[RELATED: 20 Kings Questions: Can Holmes and Bagley play together?]

Roughly half of the team currently is in Sacramento and according to a league source, most of those players have been at the practice facility for scheduled individual workouts over the last few weeks.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, there is hope that teams will hold in-market training camps in July with a potential restart set for late July or early August in Orlando.

Players who were currently outside of the United States will be allowed back in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said, according to Charania.

Nothing is written in stone, but there is positive movement for a return of NBA basketball. It won’t include fans, but there is growing optimism that the Kings will be part of any ramp-up.

20 Kings Questions: Can Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley play together?

20 Kings Questions: Can Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley play together?

Editor's note: This is the ninth installment of NBC Sports California's "20 questions facing Kings" series that will look into pressing matters for the team once the NBA returns.

During the summer of 2019, which seems like a long time ago at this point, the Kings spent big money on Dewayne Dedmon because he was a player the team believed fit next to Marvin Bagley.

The plan dramatically backfired. Bagley went down with a broken thumb in the fourth quarter of the season opener. Dedmon never found his niche with the team and was sent packing at the trade deadline.

Instead of watching the combo of Bagley and Dedmon, Kings fans got to see a different pair of bigs find synergy on the court in Nemanja Bjelica and Richaun Holmes.

When Bagley did make it back from injury, he didn’t slide back into the starting lineup. In fact, he didn’t even spend much time at the power forward position.

Looking for the right combination of players, coach Luke Walton split time between Bagley and Holmes at the center position, rarely playing the two together in the same lineup.

With Bagley being the future and Holmes being another player the Kings can build around, something has to give. Can the duo play together, or are they an ill-fitting pair that will need to take turns in the rotation?

Nuts and Bolts

Dedmon received a three-year, $40 million contract from Sacramento, leaving only a two-year, $10 million “room mid-level exception” contract available for Holmes.

Despite Dedmon being off the books, the Kings can’t negotiate a new contract for Holmes until the summer of 2021, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Bagley is in the second year of his rookie-scale contract. He’s eligible for an extension in the summer of 2021 and is under team control for another two seasons at a minimum.

Holmes already has gone on record saying he would love to stay in Sacramento long term, but a lot can happen in the span of a year.

[PURPLE TALK PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Why it works

If Holmes is the Kings’ starting center and Bagley is the starting power forward, the Kings have one of the most athletic four/five combos in the league.

Both are considered high motor players who can rebound, block shots and, depending on the play design, score.

Holmes prefers to play in the pick-and-roll and rarely works as a true back-to-the-basket post player. He scores on lobs, putbacks and, on occasion, he gets crafty with his push shot and extends outside of 10 feet.

Of Holmes’ 322 shot attempts this season, 186 came at the rim, where he shot 73.5 percent. He took a total of eight shots this season outside of 16 feet.

Bagley is more versatile as a scorer, but due to limited court time, he has yet to fully extend his range to the 3-point line at the NBA level. Where Holmes rarely dribbles the ball, Bagley can back his opponent down, take him off the dribble or elevate and shoot over the top.

Walton used both players at center, but they ran completely different plays much of the time. Holmes loves the two-man game and Bagley likes to flash to the lane, get position low and call for the ball.

On the defensive end of the court, Holmes is fluid in space, plays the pick-and-roll well and can even contest on the perimeter. He is the Kings’ best low-post defender, although he has issues on occasion against some of the bigger fives in the league.

Bagley still is a work in progress on the defensive end. He makes up for a lot of his technique issues by relying on pure athleticism, but he has potential as a defender as he gets more comfortable on the court.

While neither Holmes nor Bagley has the strength to hold off players like Nikola Jokic or Steven Adams, they are both super athletes that can switch and play either power forward or center.

Why it doesn’t work

There is a reason Walton has shied away from using Holmes and Bagley on the court together. The modern NBA requires spacing, which means you need as many perimeter shooters on the floor as possible.

With Holmes and Bagley both preferring to do their damage down low, they will clog the lane, where point guard De’Aaron Fox likes to attack.

There are decades worth of tape of teams playing with two bigs on the court at the same time, but the league has almost entirely gone away from this look in the last few seasons.

The plan always has been to put Bagley alongside a floor spacer, which is why Dedmon was brought in. Having a player like Bjelica on the roster has helped tremendously; if for no other reason, he gives the Kings a player-type to test with their other players.

[RELATED: Can the Kings keep both Bogi and Buddy on long-term deals?]

In his second season in the league with the Philadelphia 76ers, Holmes shot 35.1 percent from 3-point land on 1.4 attempts per game. He has been working on extending his range, but there is a difference between being able to hit a three on the practice court versus in a game. He has to become proficient enough from the perimeter that teams go all the way out to guard him.

Bagley shot 31.3 percent from distance as a rookie, but injuries have stopped him from finding his rhythm in year two. When Bagley does hit 3-pointers, it usually is as a trailer from the top of the key.

If either player can develop into a consistent threat, especially from the corner, it would dramatically help open the floor.

In addition to struggling from the perimeter, neither player possesses the ability to play-make for others on a consistent basis. When the season was put on ice, Holmes ranked 16th on the team in assist percentage and Bagley was 18th. To compound matters, starting small forward Harrison Barnes ranked 11th in assist percentage.

Can you put three players on the court together who don’t create opportunities for others? That might be a bigger issue than the lack of 3-point shooting.

Prediction

Walton has no option but to try the pairing. Holmes is the team’s best interior defender and he earned the starting position. Bagley still is considered a building block for the franchise despite his injury setbacks. Both project as players that play 30 minutes or more per game for Sacramento.

The team needs to extend the range of both players, but they also should start using the pair in high-post situations to see if one or both has the ability to create.

Turning up the tempo also would help mask some of the issues. Both Holmes and Bagley are exceptional athletes who can get out and move in the open court. Holmes is more of a rim-runner than Bagley, but Bagley also can lead a break with his ball-handling skills.

If and when the league returns, it’s too late to experiment with Holmes and Bagley together now, especially if there are postseason implications for the Kings. But Walton has a tall task of finding ways to mask their deficiencies while molding these two during the offseason, because this should be the team’s starting frontline for the 2020-21 season.