On Wednesday night, amid a Western Conference struggle between the Sacramento Kings and the Minnesota Timberwolves which would yield 271 points in regulation, Willie Cauley-Stein was locked in a struggle of his own. With 4:09 left in the fourth quarter and the Kings clinging to an 11-point lead, the Timberwolves engaged in one of the savviest and unwatchable strategies in the league, Hack-A-(insert bad free throw shooter here).
Cauley-Stein is a notoriously poor free throw shooter (career 61.7 percent shooter), but this season has suffered even more mightily, converting on only 47.8 percent of his trips to the charity stripe (and only 40 percent over the past ten games). He stepped to the line and clanked the first one, air-balled a second, and a possession later missed a third and a fourth, which forced coach Dave Joerger to sub him out.
After return on a dead ball minutes later, Cauley-Stein found himself at the line again, but this time he sank three out of four to help the Kings ice the game.
Suffering to vindication in 2:42.
Such is the up-and-down nature of the fourth-year big man. One game he can be the best player on the floor and then he can go a week-long stretch where he misses every rotation and can’t seem to protect the rim. During a particularly hot stretch from October 24th to November 1st, he was an insane plus-85 in five games. But against smart teams who utilize a lot of cutting and screens to force switches, he is often forced to switch onto cutters where he often fouls:
Unluckily for the Kings, this mercurial play comes at a juncture where the franchise must consider his future.
This summer, Cauley-Stein hits the restricted free agent market and while the franchise controls many of the variables regarding his future, the team may only really be competing with themselves. A young franchise on the rise is a dangerous place to be for a front office hungry to field a competitive roster. Spend your money the wrong way and your chances of netting a big name talent to pair with homegrown stars dries up like a raisin in the sun. Vlade Divac and company have nearly $58 million dollars to add to their young core with five of their most effective producers (Fox, Bagley, Hield, Bogdanovic, and Bjelica) already locked up.
During the Kings’ preseason media day, the young big man stated he was “ready to get paid”. But what does Willie Cauley-Stein do to warrant a big check which could potentially handcuff the improving roster?
With De’Aaron Fox blossoming into an electric pick-and-roll point guard, Cauley-Stein has found a nice niche as a screener and offensive rebounder. He is averaging a career-high 14 points per game while shooting 53 percent. His length and athleticism allow him to convert on 61.5 percent of his looks within five feet. He is an explosive leaper and has about one highlight dunk per game:
But despite all his success, Cauley-Stein might find himself superfluous if Marvin Bagley can use his rookie season to become a better screener. Bagley and WCS fit into the same niche on offense as a high energy player who will roll effectively, create vertical gravity, and clean the offensive glass. This season, Bagley has even been more effective inside the restricted area, scoring on 70.5 percent of his attempts to Cauley-Stein’s 64.2 percent.
And Bagley is a more effective floor spacer, shooting 34.6 percent on three-pointers and opening up more lanes for De’Aaron Fox to slash into the teeth of the defense. Many Kings fans are calling for lineups which pair Bagley and Bjelica together in a frontcourt which can maximize spacing, but the line is only plus 0.8 (compared to plus 9.1 when Bjelica and Cauley-Stein share the court)
The redundancy of his offensive skill set doesn’t cast an optimistic view of Cauley-Stein’s future as a King. But he has played well this season and shows up in nearly all of the Kings most highly rated five-man lineups. If the franchise can stay on a consistent offensive path and can make a push for .500 or better, he will have a case for his role in the franchise’s improvement.
The center position is at an odd crossroads in 2018. Once considered the most important player on the floor, centers often find themselves relegated to the end of the bench in tight playoff matches. Opposing guards will search out these big men who have limited capabilities guarding the perimeter and coaches will have to pull talented players off the floor in favor of quicker, smaller defenders. Even players like Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert (two of the best rim protectors in the league) have been exposed in high-pressure playoff situations.
Cauley-Stein’s stats have looked good on paper. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Kings are 9.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor and opponents are 5.4 points worse, giving him a 15.1 on/off differential (good for 95th percentile). And when you see plays like this, those numbers are easy to stomach. Watch how quickly Cauley-Stein rotates to help Fox after Middleton slips by him:
However, those team-based numbers belie some of Cauley-Stein’s defensive shortcomings which show up on a nightly basis. His block numbers are down to 0.9 percent (28th percentile), his foul rate is up to 4.3 percent (40th percentile) and he only makes opponents 3.1 percent worse when shooting around the rim (25th! percentile).
He is a fantastic leaper and incredibly quick in side-to-side movement, but he often overextends to get blocks. Watch him rotate onto Durant here and reach out and over Durant’s arms to pick up the foul:
Surface-level opinions oscillate wildly toward the sign him or let him walk poles of the argument, and looking at the tape and the numbers only muddy the restricted free agency waters. The best case scenario is for another team to extend an offer to Cauley-Stein this summer. Whether or not they choose to let him walk would then reside on a market value, giving Vlade and Co a much easier decision than having to set that number themselves.
Developing homegrown talent has become the cheapest and most efficient way to field a competitive roster, but the Kings have to be careful. If they can show promise (or even make it into the playoffs) they might become an enticing free agent destination with a young and exciting core. But playing the free agency game is dangerous when so many teams have cleared the decks for the impending free agency deluge.
Which leaves the Kings at an unsavory impasse with their young center. The franchise wants to maintain flexibility and Cauley-Stein wants to get paid.
Willie or won’t he?
(I am so sorry)