When Nerlens Noel was signed in July, it looked like there was a good shot that he’d make the team and get his contract guaranteed to be in the mix at the backup 5. At the time, it seemed his competition was Neemias Queta and, to a lesser degree, Skal Labissiere.
Then they signed JaVale McGee last week and not long after that, James Ham reported that the team’s intentions are that Alex Len and McGee will make the roster and compete for backup minutes. Len is on a guaranteed standard contract, and as Ham went on to note, McGee “is part of the plan this season” for the Kings.
In all, this was very bad news for Noel’s roster chances. The same could’ve been said for Queta. And as for Labissiere, he was essentially being given a bus ticket to Stockton.
This is why it’s not all that surprising that the Kings waived both Noel and Queta on Tuesday.
According to Adrian Wojnarowksi, Sacramento made this move in order “to give them a chance to play elsewhere.” After all, Ham’s report was extremely disheartening news for Noel and Queta, who looked slated to participate in a battle for the spot that’s being handed to McGee.
To be fair, McGee is a proven veteran, which is an offering that’s antithetical to what the raw Neemias Queta can provide. Plus, last year could not be called an entirely lost season for him, unlike Noel, whose stint with Detroit and Brooklyn was just that.
But should they just be handing that roster spot out to a 35 year-old McGee weeks before camp has even started?
It was just last summer that the Mavericks gave him a two-year contract with a third-year player option tacked onto it. They intended him to be the starter, a set of plans that quickly fell by the waist side as he started just 7 contests and played significantly less games than Dwight Powell and Christian Wood, the latter of whom was another disappointment for Dallas.
As anyone could guess, there were reasons why McGee lost his starting job quickly and eventually fell out of the rotation almost entirely.
One Mavs analyst laid out that he struggled to stay in front of guys in Jason Kidd’s defensive scheme. After compiling an average defensive rating of 103 between 2017 and 2022, McGee’s rating soared to 112 with the Mavericks.
According to the same analyst, he also failed to form proper chemistry with Luka Doncic. This was a letdown because McGee is regarded as one of the best lob threats in the league, and pairing up with Doncic in the pick-and-roll seemed to foretell great things, all of which never materialized.
And what’s more, he continued being susceptible to needless fouls, averaging 5.5 per 36 minutes, something that’s always been a critique of the big man.
With a slightly different job in Mike Brown’s defense that will ask him to switch less as the center, and with a more specific role off the bench from the outset, there’s no question that McGee could just as well check all or most of the boxes the Kings expect him to.
It’s also fair to highlight that McGee is a three-time NBA champion, which signifies an invaluable source of winning presence on the bench and in the locker room. If he ends up being the third center behind Len, then he’ll be sure to provide something intangible even if he doesn’t see the floor a ton. As one reader suggested, if anything, he could serve a similar function that Matthew Dellavedova did as a de facto player-coach.
But it has to be raised that Alex Len played the final 8 games and the first part of the Warriors series as the backup 5. He was great and brought things to the table that Mike Brown had been looking for all season prior to Len’s chance.
How much did that have to do with being fresh?
Everyone knows that Alex Len just never got the opportunity until very late, and so when it finally came, he had the freshest pair of legs out of any of the rotational members.
Can he perform like that from start to finish this season?
It’s a fair question and the answer cannot be known for sure right now.
Let’s say Len wins the job over McGee, as he’s more than capable of doing, and then let’s say Len hits a few rough patches or, heaven forbid, he gets hurt, then McGee will have to step up. And if it’s the case that McGee takes another step back in on-floor performance (he’ll turn 36 in January) then the Kings could find themselves in another predicament.
Again, nobody knows for sure, but after the Kings settled on the fact that they couldn’t move Richaun Holmes and his contract a year ago—which slotted him behind Sabonis—it seemed like a near certainty that the depth at center would be among the strongest of all positional groups.
It did not work out that way as everyone knows.
With Sasha Vezenkov on the team, there’s an obvious solution to all of this in that Lyles could feasibly handle the backup 5 job almost all on his own. In fact, it may make for the best rotation if that were the case with his mixture of frame and shooting.
However, Vezenkov comes with questions too, and if his defense is such that it prevents consistent playtime, then that ties Mike Brown up a little because he’ll have to lean on Lyles more for the backup 4 than the backup 5.
Part of the reason these questions seem so pertinent is that just a few weeks ago it felt like the Kings were throwing the kitchen sink at the center depth. It appeared there would be multiple bodies competing for essentially one spot, that they weren’t settling on anything. It seemed like there would be a litany of potential solutions to carefully consider. But now it’s being handed to McGee.
This could turn out to have no issues. Everything could work out.
But what if it doesn’t?
If the Kings run into issues as it pertains to the backup center and any residual rotational impacts, then calling a halt to what appeared to be a boisterous camp competition before it had the chance to get going could stand out in retrospect.
Still lacking a crystal ball at this point in life, however, making conclusions is out of the question, but the question remains.