Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings host suddenly streaking Cavaliers

Cavaliers vs KingsThe Cleveland Cavaliers are suddenly an exciting team to watch. Just like that, after a trade for a two-time All-Star and a double-digit road win – just the third in four seasons – and the season has turned around again.

Tonight, they continue their five-game Western Conference road trip in Sacramento. The Kings are 12-22, even with the 13-23 Cavaliers in the overall NBA standings, and they also had a major trade for a small forward earlier this season. They’ll likely have a much more difficult road to postseason contention over in the West, however.

On the year, Cleveland remains just 3-15 on the road. They have just five three-game winning streaks in four seasons and zero four-gamers. Here’s a preview of what to watch over at the humorously named Sleep Train Arena.

How’s that Rudy Gay fellow been doing?

Here is what the Kings looked like in the season’s first 20 contests:

6-14 record (14th in Western Conference)
101.9 Offensive Rating (15th in NBA)
105.1 Defensive Rating (28th in NBA)
-3.1 Net Rating (22nd in NBA)
95.94 Pace (17th in NBA)

They were a bad team and on the road to nowhere. Already, the Kings have selected in the top 10 of the NBA Draft in five straight seasons. That wasn’t looking any different based on the results of the first quarter of this year1. Thus, change: a major trade that brought over 27-year-old Rudy Gay, a favorite critical target in NBA stats circles. Many were happy, such as WFNY’s Ben Cox, he didn’t end up in Cleveland.

But Gay actually has been a far improved offensive player with Sacramento. In 18 games this year with Toronto, he had a .468 efficiency field goal percentage. That led to all of the ridicule and perhaps the Raptors’ improvement by subtraction over the past month. With the Kings, Gay has a very, very impressive .536 efg. He’s shooting 56.6% on two-pointers and averaging 20.6 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Michael Malone’s squad has now played 14 games with Gay. Here are those stats since and through Friday’s NBA games:

6-8 record (T-12th in Western Conference)
105.7 Offensive Rating (11th in NBA)
108.7 Defensive Rating (28th in NBA)
-2.9 Net Rating (19th in NBA)
98.55 Pace (10th in NBA)

Altogether, they haven’t been a significantly better team. They’ve been a different team, certainly. They are running much more, the offense is 3.8 points per 100 possessions better and the defense is 3.6 points worse. The results have been tantalizing – the wins are over Houston (twice), Orlando (twice), Portland and Miami – but the defensive regression is troublesome nonetheless.

Who else do the Kings have anyway?

Isaiah Thomas, Tristan ThompsonBefore this season, there was a little thing about minute Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas perhaps being better than Kyrie Irving. Not exactly certain why. It happened. But Thomas, the soon-to-be 25-year-old who was the Mr. Irrelevant of the 2011 draft, actually has been quite good this season.

He’s averaging 19.1 points, 6.3 assists and 1.4 steals in 34 games. He has a 22.1 PER and .522 efficiency field goal percentage. He’s a deserving NBA starter, hence the departure of Greivis Vasquez in the Gay trade. Thomas certainly plays a different game than Irving, but undoubtedly has been a very good point guard.

Remember DeMarcus Cousins? The guy who was a rumored Cavaliers trade target this past summer? Well, he’s been playing (mostly) out of his mind of late. His last eight games: 26.9 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.4 steals in 36.2 minutes. There just aren’t many NBA players that can do that during any extended stretch. Let alone 23-year-olds.

The reason for the caveat of him still perhaps being a fringe All-Star: The Kings are kind of dysfunctional. The defense is so bad that Grantland’s Zach Lowe called it “pooptastic” earlier this week. They had a players-only meeting last weekend. They’re in the market for more and more trades to bring in veteran leadership, such as disgruntled point guard Andre Miller. A culture change is just slowly beginning. Is Cousins at all at fault in this? It remains to be seen.

Cousins, Thomas and Gay all average over 19 points per game. No one else on the Kings roster is in double-digits; none are even averaging eight points per game since Gay arrived. Their next-best players are big man Jason Thompson, rookie shooter Ben McLemore, still-quite-young Derrick Williams and scoring guard Marcus Thornton. This is a very streaky team, but more likely than not, they’ll rely heavily upon that three-headed scoring monster.

Is the Cavs offensive improvement sustainable?

I’ve updated this stretch-by-stretch chart several times this season. It’s pretty fascinating to see the offensive inconsistency of this Cavs roster:

First six games: 2-4 record, 91.3 Offensive Rating (29th in NBA)
Next ten games: 2-8 record, 94.6 Offensive Rating (28th in NBA)
Next nine games: 6-3 record, 106.4 Offensive Rating (9th in NBA)
Next nine games: 1-8 record, 92.8 Offensive Rating (30th in NBA)
Last two games: 2-0 record, 115.6 Offensive Rating (2nd in NBA)

My expose on the team’s terrible, horrible offense was in The Diff two weeks ago. As I shared then, this is a team that has had a bottom three offense for three-fourths of this season. But, again, they’re showing flashes of perhaps a competent offensive team.

A huge factor is C.J. Miles’ incredible five-game hot streak. His averages: 21.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 30.2 minutes per contest. He has a .677 efficiency field goal percentage; it was .420 in his previous 21 games. Heck, I wrote a WFNY Stats & Info post back on Dec. 29 about his extended slump. But this is insane production. It’s also not sustainable.

Importantly, as a team, they’re shooting 63.9% in the restricted area (50.6% previously) and 47.6% from three-pointers (35.5% previously) over this last two games. The statistics are certainly inflated by the insane third quarter of Friday’s 113-102 win over Utah: 154.0 offensive efficiency, .783 efficiency field goal percentage and 7 assist-to-turnover ratio.

The obvious caveat to the two-game numbers: How good defensively are Philadelphia and Utah? Hint: Not good. The 76ers are No. 27 and the Jazz are No. 30 in defensive efficiency. But the obvious good news: Sacramento ranks No. 29. They’ve been even worse since employing Rudy Gay. There are hopes Cleveland could give an even better all-around performance when Luol Deng plays more than just 21 minutes.

This is a huge opportunity for the Cavaliers as they now sit only 1.5 games behind Brooklyn for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. The season is just now starting to get interesting. Let’s hope Mike Brown’s squad doesn’t let down fans right as they start to pay attention.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

  1. much to the chagrin of Chicago Bulls, who acquired that heavily protected Kings first-rounder from the Cavs in the Luol Deng trade. The crazy protection: top 12 in 2014; top 10 in 2015-17; else 2017 second round pick, also protected 56-60. So unless the Kings suddenly become competitive, the Bulls could be getting a second-rounder. []