Checklist for Sacramento Kings to Finally Make the NBA Playoffs Next Season

Scott Burns@Follow @ScottInTheBayCorrespondent IIIMay 3, 2014

Checklist for Sacramento Kings to Finally Make the NBA Playoffs Next Season

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    Retaining Isaiah Thomas is one of the key moves this summer.
    Retaining Isaiah Thomas is one of the key moves this summer.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Sacramento Kings are remaining in town, have an exciting new ownership group and are close to building a new downtown arena, but the team needs to figure out how to finally make the NBA playoffs next season.

    The Kings used to be a shoo-in for the playoffs in the late 90s and early 2000s, but the days of Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Chris Webber are long gone.  The team hasn’t had a winning record since that last playoff season of 2005-06.

    The Kings have also gone through a myriad of coaches with none sticking for longer than three seasons.  Mike Malone hoped to make a strong impression in his first season, but the record remained the same as the previous season.

    With all of that information, is there actual hope in the franchise?  With such a tough Western Conference, can the Kings make that jump by next season?

    Let’s take a look at what needs to happen in order to get there.

5. Trade for an Impact Player

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    Kenneth Faried could be an option for the Kings.
    Kenneth Faried could be an option for the Kings.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Kings are up against the cap with a lot of good but not great players filling spots.  The team has potentially a solid three-man rotation to build around pending decisions in the offseason.

    Sacramento could possibly have DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas returning as the foundation of the team moving forward.  Those three players would be bringing an average of 63.1 points per game into next season.

    The Kings also look to be set at the shooting guard position with the up-and-coming Ben McLemore, who will be backed up by veteran Jason Terry. 

    The power forward position represents the biggest whole.

    The Kings traded for underperforming Derrick Williams during the season and have three other players who can substitute in that position.  Carl Landry would be a great backup 4, as he enters the second year of his four-year, $26 million contract.

    The team has some flexibility in 2015-16, even though it will be pushing against the salary cap this upcoming season.  The Kings have five players who can walk after the 2014-15 season, and they can use those players to trade for quality talent in exchange for future cap space.

    The Kings need to look for someone with escalating talent instead of a player on the downslope of his career.

    Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets would be a solid option, since he will be a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 season, and his name has been bandied about in rumors.

    The market will play out, and the Kings need to be ready to acquire that needed piece for expiring contracts or draft choices.  A proven power forward is a necessity to reach the next plateau.

4. Make a Great Decision in the Draft

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    The Kings hope to improve their position to select a player like Joel Embiid.
    The Kings hope to improve their position to select a player like Joel Embiid.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The 2014 NBA draft had been hyped beyond belief with teams purposely losing games to put themselves in position to snag one of the higher draft choices.  As the year ran on and teams learned more about the prospects, the draft class has become less attractive.

    The Kings are once again in the draft lottery, which takes place on May 20.  They are slotted seventh because of their record and have a 3.6 percent chance of winning the right to pick first.

    If the Kings move up to one of the top three slots, their focus will be on Joel Embiid, the center from the University of Kansas.  If they are stuck at seven or below, they will have a tougher selection with a less impactful player.

    The team can look at two areas to solidify the roster: point guard or the frontcourt. 

    If the Kings go the route of point guard, Tyler Ennis should be available.  He is a reliable ball-handler out of Syracuse University who has the height to shoot over other guards, he can defend, and he distributes the ball successfully (3.68-1 assist-to-turnover ratio).

    With a weapon like Cousins, the Kings could take advantage of the guard-center combo.  He could back up Thomas or play point and allow Thomas to play off the ball to create more opportunities.

    If the Kings choose to bolster the frontcourt, they will have the choice of NorCal product Aaron Gordon, who is a solid defender, but he is still limited with his offensive game.  He has a strong motor, but he looks to be at least a year or two away from settling in at the pro level.

    Another choice is Noah Vonleh out of Indiana, who is also a freshman power forward.  He has intensity, length and good rebounding skill, but he too will take a while to develop a post move and a legitimate offensive game.

    If the Kings want to return to the fast track and have any chance at the playoffs, they must pick the right player here.

3. Keep Isaiah Thomas

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    The Kings have a proven scorer and ball-handler with Isaiah Thomas.  He is a restricted free agent, meaning that Sacramento can match any offer that is received by an opposing team.

    The key part of the negotiations is the status of teammate Rudy Gay.  He has a player option for $19.3 million available, but the Kings might try to negotiate a long-term deal.

    The Kings have his “Larry Bird rights,” meaning that the team can sign him to a new deal for a maximum of five years without any salary cap worries.  That option might entice Gay to opt out of his current deal to have the security of a longer agreement.

    Thomas could command up to $8 million per year, and that amount could be even greater if an opposing team makes a strong run at him.  Thomas is a proven scorer, who can also dish the ball.

    If this ownership group is serious about building a team that has a future, especially with a new arena on the horizon, it can’t afford to let him exit Sacramento.  He is too important to the franchise.

    He made huge strides this past season as he increased his point total from 13.9 to 20.3 per game, assists from 4.0 to 6.3 per game, and free-throw attempts from 3.6 to 5.7 per game.

    The team did rank last in assists, so Thomas and his backcourt mates will have to make a conceited effort to distribute the ball more.

    The Kings need to have Thomas as their backcourt leader for years to come.

2. Define the Message

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    Mike Malone will need to have his system ready to go.
    Mike Malone will need to have his system ready to go.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Mike Malone was hired because he is a defensive specialist and someone who could retrofit the rebuilding Kings into a respectable unit.  Last season, the Kings ranked 24th in defense by giving up an average of 103.4 points per game.

    If the Kings want any hope of advancing to the postseason, they need to trim that number to below the century mark.  The team can increase its win total significantly if it can win the nail-biters and beat the teams it's expected to beat.

    The Kings held a 4-9 record in games decided by three or fewer points.  On the other hand, they had an 11-37 record versus teams that were above .500. 

    Malone will be working his second season with the Kings, and hopefully, he will have the roster set by the start of training camp.  It is very difficult to set up a defensive system with so many pieces moving around like last season.

    Coach Malone will need to set the tone early in training camp with his defensive message.  The results won’t come easy, but if he can start building the foundation with this team, the numbers should go down.

    The Kings were torched by the three-point ball this season, as opponents shot 38 percent from downtown.  He has to focus on the perimeter and make sure he has more hands in faces than open looks.

    By using the correct defensive strategies and filling the lanes, the Kings can increase the turnovers they create, which in turn leads to fast-break points.  It also helps change the momentum in cases where opponents go on runs.

    This season, the team was ranked tied for 21st in the Association with 7.2 steals per game.  The Kings created only 15 points per game off turnovers, which slotted them 26th in the league.

    Coach Malone has his blueprint, but it will take a while to be successful on a continuous basis.

1. DeMarcus Cousins Needs to Maximize His Potential

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    DeMarcus Cousins needs to take it to the next level.
    DeMarcus Cousins needs to take it to the next level.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    DeMarcus Cousins had another solid season by putting up a great line of 22.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG and 1.3 BPG.  Most of his statistics were career highs, but he is still plagued by the perception that he is an immature player who loses his cool.

    He picked up his 16th technical foul before the season ended and as a result, he missed the Kings’ final home game.  He had not received a technical foul since February 25, which was the longest stretch of his career.

    He has the potential to be the best center in the game, but he has a lot of holes to cover before he gets there.  The first one is his attitude, which he is making major progress on.

    He states that he has his coach’s back, and Coach Malone has his.  He needs to stay on board with that premise and significantly reduce his technical numbers.

    He needs to really exemplify the leadership role on the team and push Coach Malone’s strategies and messages to the rest of his teammates.  Once they start winning consistently and start beating the above-.500 teams, his job will get easier.

    The growth process is a stubborn one, but he is in the process of climbing to the next plateau. 

    General manager Peter D’Alessandro had these comments to say about Cousins' ability to make players around him better, courtesy of Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, via Cowbell Kingdom

    When you play with DeMarcus Cousins and that level of talent, (it) makes other players around him better.  I really believe that.  I think he draws so much attention for his skill-set and what he does, that talented players can thrive off of that.  And it’s all about what goes on on the floor.  To me it really it is.  And as a guy who represented players, you want to see your guys in positions where they can thrive.  And I think having a DeMarcus Cousins puts our other players in positions where they can thrive.  The guy can pass the ball and will.  The guy can handle the ball and does.  There’s so many things that he does besides being just the beast that he is.  I believe part of, talking about the sales pitch of (getting players to play here), is come play with DeMarcus Cousins.

    If Cousins can play to that type of potential with no distractions, he will greatly improve the four other teammates on the court.

    Looking at the big picture, the Kings are a team that will surprise a lot of people next season.  If Coach Malone can establish a defensive system that players can execute and produce, the team is that much closer to reaching the playoffs. 

    However, winning comes down to doing more right things than the opponent each game.  If that philosophy can be branded into the minds of the Kings, Coach Malone might be playing into May next year.