PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
Can DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, and George Karl get along well enough to lead Sacramento back to the playoffs?
The last time the Sacramento Kings took part in a playoff game, you were walking around singing “So Sick” from Ne-Yo and were meeting your friends to see “Phat Girlz” at the theater. Well, maybe not because nobody really went and saw Phat Girlz at the theater. But you get the idea, it’s been a while. Nine seasons to be specific.
On paper, the Kings have the talent to keep that from becoming 10. DeMarcus Cousins is the best traditional center in the game today, he’s a beast who averaged 24.1 points and 12.7 rebounds a game last season. Rudy Gay is a 20 point a game wing player. Rajon Rondo is a former All-Star point guard who even last season led the league in assist chances per game — he can still dish the rock. There are quality rotation players such as Marco Belinelli, Darren Collison, Kosta Koufos, Caron Butler, and Omri Casspi, plus an intriguing rookie in Willie Cauley-Stein. All coached by one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, George Karl.
Or, the entire thing could blow up.
There seems to be no middle ground with the Kings this season — either they are a playoff team (or close to it, the West is deep), or things get ugly fast.
It all comes down to one simple question: Can some headstrong players and a stubborn coach all get along?
Kings players were bonding all summer (Cousins even went to Israel with Casspi), and a lot of that was done without Karl around. Sources around the Kings think the players have started to bond, in part over their dislike of Karl — and that could bring them together and make it all work.
There’s the other simple fact of NBA life: Winning solves a lot of chemistry problems. If the Kings can get there.
Cousins has been understandably frustrated with ownership’s constant changing of directions in recent years. Last season he formed a great bond with coach Mike Malone, who had changed the culture in that team’s locker room. Then Malone was fired mid-season, reportedly because owner Vivek Ranadive wanted to run more. They got Karl to put in that up-tempo system.
Karl and Cousins have already had a feud because Karl reportedly pushed to trade Cousins (something Ranadive and GM Vlade Divac oppose, so don’t expect it). Cousins responded on Twitter calling Karl a “snake in the grass.” Now the two have sat down and talked, but the underlying tension has not gone away.
“All our guys are hungry for winning, but Cuz is our best player, most talented kid,” Karl told PBT this summer (before he met with Cousins). “We need him to feel like there’s a commitment from both sides. He to us and us to him.”
Then there is a headstrong point guard in Rondo who likes to call his own plays — just ask Rick Carlisle — trying to mix with Karl, a coach who has feuded with more than one of his former stars. Add in the fact Rondo is on a one-year contract, so he could have an eye on his numbers, not just the win column.
“He’s a very basketball high IQ guy,” Karl said of Rondo. “He’s going to challenge us as coaches because I think he knows the game and he’ll have some things; we’ll probably some give and take on. But this kid’s an All-Star, he’s a triple-double machine when he’s playing well. He likes to lead teams, he leads teams with a spirit that has some toughness to it.
“He’s a pass-first point guard, which I think is important. In the end, he and Darren (Collison) really excite me. We’re going to have two guys who can take control of the team, play together, and keep the pace of the game where we can play with a lot of freedom and creativity, and also play without turnovers…
“I think it’s going to be fun coaching (Rondo). I think he wants to lead our team, but he also wants to be a part of the decision making. That can be somewhat combustible, but that also can work at a high level.”
Combustible is a good word for these Kings.
These Kings could use that combustible fuel to jet higher up in the standings than anyone expects, or they could just explode.
In recent years, Sacramento has not been the kind of stable environment you want for handling volatile compounds. It leads to doubts about how good this team will be; there’s a feeling that things could just be shaken up at any time. Or, maybe the Kings have started to figure it out — they have to prove that, but maybe.
The bottom line, because they are combustible, they are must watch TV.