Last season: Another mired below mediocre for a Kings team that has been just awful for the past seven years. Sacramento finished with just 28 wins, good for 13th out of 15 teams in the West. The team was 29th out of 30 in defensive efficiency (only the Bobcats were worse), DeMarcus Cousins remained out of control emotionally, leading the league with 17 technical fouls and being suspended by his own team for internally struggling to fall in line with then-head coach Keith Smart.
The Kings fired that coach in the offseason, and gave Cousins a huge contract extension based solely on talent — which has been seen only in flashes, but is expected by most to materialize at some point in the future.
Last season’s signature highlight: A montage of Cousins being T’d up or ejected would be appropriate, but as always, let’s keep it positive. Fast forward to the 1:57 mark, and you’ll see what the Kings saw in Cousins to warrant that large contract extension — a raw and powerful skill set that allows him to get to the rim for powerful dunks seemingly at his choosing, no matter the defenders in his way.
Key player changes: The Kings appeared to improve from a personnel standpoint this summer, getting some young talent in place while ridding themselves of a former home-grown Rookie of the Year in Tyreke Evans.
- IN: Carl Landry was signed in free agency, in a move meant to add some much-needed frontcourt depth, but he will now be out three-four months following hip surgery. Point guard Greivis Vasquez came over in the trade that sent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was acquired via trade with the Bucks. Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum were respective first and second round draft picks this summer.
- OUT: Sacramento wisely gave up on Evans, dealing him in a sign-and-trade instead of matching the three-year, $44 million offer he got from New Orleans. James Johnson (he of the game-winner against the Knicks) signed with the Hawks. Toney Douglas is now with the Warriors, and Cole Aldrich is with the Knicks.
Keys to the Kings season:
1) DeMarcus Cousins: The new ownership group of the Kings has made it clear that they view Cousins as the future face of the franchise, and backed up that statement by extending the talented but troubled power forward for four years and $62 million this summer. Cousins has said all the right things since then, but historically he’s had trouble keeping his commitments once the ball is tipped.
Sacramento was in a no-win situation with Cousins, so the max contract was essentially mandatory — fail to offer it, and Cousins has a reason to be mentally checked out. Give him those guaranteed dollars based on potential, and he may feel like he has nothing to prove, and could be content with berating officials and opposing players rather than focusing on helping his team from a basketball standpoint.
The Kings won’t win a lot of games this season, but the version of Cousins they get will go a long way in the franchise being able to build for the future. Despite the lack of expectations at the team level, this is a huge season for Cousins.
2) Greivis Vasquez: The newest point guard in town, and the one likely to earn the starting nod is going to be instrumental in the development of the Kings’ offense under new head coach Mike Malone. If Cousins is to be believed (and in this instance, he almost certainly is not), he’s never played for a coach with an offensive system. Vasquez is a more traditional point guard than Evans was and Isaiah Thomas is, and his ability to distribute consistently will go a long way in determining just how competitive Sacramento can be in most games this season.
3) Patience: Sacramento is going to be sub-.500 for the eighth consecutive season, and there isn’t anything that’s going to stop that. But once again there’s reason for optimism under a new head coach, a new ownership group, a newly-minted franchise player and a talented rookie class. As long as there is development and a direction associated with the team as the season progresses, things will be considered to be moving along as planned. But if Cousins regresses (or even repeats last season) and the new pieces don’t quite fit, it’ll be tempting for management to scramble once again to make drastic changes to turn things around.
At some point, you have to put the building blocks for success into place, and stick with a plan for longer than a season and a half. More than ever, that time in Sacramento is now.
Why you should watch: It’s always fun to get in on a ground floor opportunity, and one of these seasons, that’s exactly what this Kings franchise will be. And despite his temperament, Cousins remains one of the more talented big men in the game who at times showcases a powerful skill set that is matched by only a select few players around the league.
Prediction: Pain, and it would be disingenuous to paint it any other way. Sacramento will be bad again in terms of pure wins and losses, but it isn’t about that this season. If the team can develop into a cohesive unit, if Cousins matures into a leader on the floor and plays at an All-Star level that most feel he’s capable of, and if new head coach Mike Malone gains his players’ respect by grabbing hold of the team and implementing a system that works, then for the first time in years, the Kings’ season will be viewed as a success.