Published March 17, 2017
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic are playing out the string of forgettable seasons, but they still have things they'd like to accomplish.
With center Nikola Vucevic back, the Magic are trying to regain the promise their starters showed after the All-Star break. With no landing point in sight during a free fall that has taken them near the bottom of the Western Conference, the Kings simply want to see what some of their young players can do.
For both teams, a victory in their game Monday night at the Golden 1 Center might qualify as a bonus.
Orlando (24-43), the NBA's fifth-worst shooting team by percentage at 44.1 percent, made only 39.6 percent of their attempts in a 116-104 home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday. They went only 4-for-21 from 3-point range.
But the Magic are eager to see if Vucevic's return improves things. Against Cleveland, he returned from a sore right Achilles' tendon and played for the first time in five games. Before that absence, he and starters Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton were outscoring opponents by 22 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, the best mark in the NBA, according to the league's official statistics.
Vucevic made 9 of 20 shots against Cleveland in his return, but the rest of Orlando's starters combined to go 18-for-49.
"We just need to continue to shoot confidently," Gordon told the Orlando Sentinel. "Get the looks, make the extra pass, go from good to great shots, expect that they're going in because they will."
Scoring remains a challenge for the Kings (25-41), who have lost eight straight games and fallen from 1 1/2 games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot at the All-Star break to six games back now. The losing streak is Sacramento's longest since the 2014-15 season.
Sacramento's latest defeat was a 105-92 decision at home against Denver on Saturday night and marked the fourth time in nine games since the break that they were held below 100 points. Twice, the Kings needed overtime to reach 100, and they've produced a 20-point scorer only three times. Second-year center Willie Cauley-Stein has two of them.
All of that has created a backdrop for coach Dave Joerger to see what his team's young players can give him.
Cauley-Stein is averaging 34 minutes, 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in nine games since Sacramento traded forward DeMarcus Cousins at the All-Star break. Backup Skal Labissiere is averaging 15.1 minutes, 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds.
Guard Buddy Hield, the focal point of the deal, is averaging 13.9 points in 26 minutes.
"These guys are playing," Joerger told the Sacramento Bee of the Kings' young core. "I played Cauley-Stein 35 1/2 (minutes against Denver), I played Skal 20. Could I play them 48 minutes? I don't think that's best for them."
The two teams faced each other in the season's first month, with the Magic prevailing 102-94 at home. Fournier scored 29 points and 10-for-15 shooting in that one, and Payton contributed 11 assists. Payton had back-to-back triple doubles against the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls last week.