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Bucks vs. Kings Preview | Giannis Antetokounmpo returns to starting lineup in Sacramento?

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13/14 NBA Preseason
(13-56, 5-29 road)
(24-45, 14-20 home)
March 23, 2014
Sleep Train Arena | Sacramento, CA
5:00 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Brandon Knight PG Isaiah Thomas
Giannis Antetokounmpo (?) SG Ben McLemore
Khris Middleton SF Rudy Gay
Ersan Ilyasova PF Reggie Evans
Zaza Pachulia C DeMarcus Cousins
2012/13 Advanced Stats
91.8 (25th) Pace 94.5 (14th)
102.3 (26th) ORtg 105.9 (17th)
111.0 (30th) DRtg 108.5 (24th)

On the Kings: Sactown Royalty | Cowbell Kingdom | A Royal Pain

Three weeks after the Kings cruised to a 116-102 road win in Milwaukee, the Bucks continue their winless Western road trip in Sacramento today with an afternoon tipoff against the improving but still not-so-improved KIngs. While the Bucks trudge into the California capital On paper there's lots to be excited about in Sacramento: the Maloofs are gone, a new arena is in the works, DeMarcus Cousins keep getting better, Isaiah Thomas is earning himself a huge raise, and Rudy Gay suddenly looks like a guy worth of an eight-figure salary.

Cousins (22.1 ppg/11.8 rpg/54.9% true shooting), Thomas (20.5 ppg/6.3 apg/57.2% TS) and Gay (20.3 ppg/57.3%) all scored 20+ in Milwaukee in early March and that shouldn't be a surprise. The Kings are the only team with three 20 ppg scorers this season, and in fact the only team with more than one qualifying player above 20 ppg on the official NBA leaderboard. So with their ownership mess cleared up, attendance up (from 13,749 to 16,196), their top three playing better than ever...well, why are the Kings on pace to finish right around the 28-54 record of a year ago?

Consider it a lesson on the load road of rebuilding and the perils of optimizing a roster. While the Kings have no shortage of scorers, they rank dead last in the league in assists (19.0) and assist/turnover ratio (1.27), with Cousins, Gay and Thomas each coughing the ball up at least three times per game. They're also among the league's worst from three point range, which works against the excellent work they do getting to the line (3rd in free throw rate) and crashing the offensive boards (3rd). It all adds up to an offense that is capable of exploding on any given night, but overall ranks only a shade above average in points per possession.

Of course, what really ails the Kings is their defense. Though they rank among the league's best in defensive rebounding (4th), they're in the 21st or worse in each of the other three defensive four factors and 24th overall in defensive rating. Defense was a major talking point in Mike Malone's hiring last summer, but so far the Kings have only seen marginal improvements. The end result is a 24-45 record that places them squarely in the middle of the six-team Blob of Despair that starts with the Lakers (22 wins, 4th in lotto standings) and ends with the Cavaliers (26 wins, 9th).

Still, there is no reason to feel bad about things in Sacramento. A year after the franchise was in danger of being lost to Seattle, the Kings have an energized fan base, an all-star caliber big man to build around and are currently slotted 7th in the lottery standings. Though they're aiming to win sooner rather than later, Vivek Ranadive and the Kings' new ownership group have a long leash to get things right--nothing is guarantee, but odds are they will sooner rather than later.

Life after Naters. The loss of Nate Wolters (fractured hand) for the remainder of the regular season is hardly good news, though it will give Larry Drew an excuse to try some new lineups down the stretch. Early indications are that Giannis Antetokounmpo will return to the starting lineup tonight for the first time since January, with Ramon Sessions--the only point guard on the roster other than Brandon Knight--likely to continue coming off the bench.

However, the biggest beneficiary of Wolters' absence may be O.J. Mayo. Remember him? The Bucks' $24 million man has basically been MIA since a judo chop to Greg Stiemsma's throat earned him a one-game suspension in New Orleans, though the suspension seemed rather incidental to Mayo's return to Drew's doghouse. Via the Journal-Sentinel's Charles Gardner:

Drew also said O.J. Mayo likely will return to the backcourt rotation now that Wolters is sidelined. Mayo has sat out the last six games due to coach's decision.

"He definitely can get back," Drew said. "He's been working hard. I've got to give him credit. He's been working out twice a day."

Drew said he is not sure who will start at shooting guard but he indicated he prefers to keep bringing Ramon Sessions off the bench.

"Really I'm down to only two point guards," Drew said, referring to Brandon Knight and Sessions.

Drew has alluded to Mayo's conditioning issues repeatedly in recent months and the Bucks have scored a ton without Mayo since the all-star break, so it's not as though they've been missing his perimeter shooting. Still, there's an argument to be made for finding some way to make use of Mayo--if not now, then when?  Perhaps the Bucks have already given up on the idea of being able to dump Mayo's $8 million per season salary this summer, because letting him rot on the bench isn't going to make it any easier.

Whether more minutes is actually a good thing for Giannis at this point is debatable, though I would be in favor of seeing more lineups featuring Giannis, Middleton and Knight--ie the three non-bigs who have at least a shot at starting in Milwaukee long-term. Though the trio has struggled overall (-9.7 pts/100 in 441 minutes this season), they've been markedly better as a unit since the all-star break: 119.7 pts scored vs.116.5 allowed/100 possessions in 73 minutes, all while playing at an after-burner pace of 100.2 and scoring at a completely unsustainable 64% true shooting clip. Apparently playing fast can be both fun AND effective, eh?

Ersan vs. Evans. Ersan Ilyasova earned himself a one-game suspension for for shove-tackling the ever-obnoxious Reggie Evans the last time these two teams met, and they figure to renew acquaintances tonight. Drew said on Tuesday that he would rest Ilyasova and his sore ankle on the second night of back to backs the rest of the way, with tomorrow's game against the Clippers the first time that new tactic would come into play. More burn for John Henson? Huzzah!

That said, Ilyasova has quietly pulled himself together a bit since the all-star break. He's still not hitting threes, but 14.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg (on a PF-like 16.0% rebound rate) to go with 57% true shooting and just 0.6 turnovers per game is waaaaaaaay better than what we saw from Ersan the first three-plus months of the season.