NBA season preview: Sacramento Kings

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Last Season: More of the same, for a club that has been truly terrible for the last six seasons. Paul Westphal was run out of town mid-season in favor of Keith Smart, who thus far has had much greater success relating to the team’s young players. DeMarcus Cousins showed significant improvement, and the speedy rookie Isaiah Thomas was a nice surprise. But the wins were once again lacking, and with the spectre of relocation hanging over the franchise, it could be another very tough season for the fans in Sacramento.

Key Departures: None that would be considered “key.”  Terrence Williams is gone, now in camp with the Pistons after averaging 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds while appearing in just 18 games for the Kings last season.

Key Additions: Aaron Brooks was added for some point guard depth, and the team selected forward Thomas Robinson out of Kansas with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Sacramento also traded for James Johnson, who was productive in Toronto but will now be part of a seemingly crowded frontcourt rotation.

Three keys to the Kings season:

1) DeMarcus Cousins: All-Star? Despite the poor attitude label that Cousins has had since entering the league, the reality is that he’s developing into a monster NBA talent. He finished last season tied for fourth in rebounding at 11 per game, with only perennial dominators of the category in Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, and Andrew Bynum in front of him. But in terms of total rebound rate, only Howard in that group was higher. All of this is to say that Cousins is a beast on the boards, and combine the skill he shows there with the fact that he’s unafraid to sacrifice his body defensively and plays with a chip on his shoulder that teammates love and opponents hate, and you’ve got a player primed to make a significant jump if he shows even a hint of improvement offensively.

2) Development of the core players: In addition to Cousins, there is talent present on the Kings’ roster. Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton are legitimate scoring threats at the guard spot, and Aaron Brooks may provide some depth there, as well. There should be minutes available for rookie Thomas Robinson off the bench, and the team made an investment in Jason Thomson, keeping him in place by signing him to a new five-year deal. Tyreke Evans is still around, but is floating positionally between the two-guard and the small forward spots. It will be up to Keith Smart in his first full season as head coach to develop this team and if nothing else, create a cohesiveness with the starters that the club can build upon moving forward.

3) Ignore the noise and just play. As tough as it will be at times for both the fans and the players, everyone needs to focus on improving the product on the court, wherever that court may eventually be in seasons to come. The relocation chatter will come and go, but it won’t be a surprise at this point, so the team needs to ensure that the distraction is kept to a minimum.

What Kings fans should fear: Relocation of the franchise. Because unlike Seattle which had its team taken from them, it’s tough to see Sacramento as a market attractive enough for the NBA to return to in the future if the Kings indeed end up eventually skipping town.

Prediction: If Cousins continues his progression and Keith Smart is the real deal, the Kings could be improved enough to see their win total creep up into the high 30s. Beyond that, again, the team is just looking for something to build upon for the future — one which, hopefully, will continue to be in Sacramento.

Team LeBron starts playing defense first, comes from 20 down to win All-Star Game

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s All-Star Game, Team LeBron started to care.

Down 20 at one point early in the third, Team LeBron came out of a mid-quarter timeout with a different energy. The “bench” guys on the court started defending with the kind of relative intensity usually reserved for the final minutes of this exhibition (when it’s close), the players on the bench were standing and cheering like it was a playoff game, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal started knocking down everything, and the game just shifted. It culminated when Damian Lillard tied the game up with a 35-foot three.

Team LeBron kept up the momentum, owned the fourth as Durant went 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in the quarter, and Team LeBron got the win 178-164.

“It was our second unit that came in — Dame, Klay, Brad Beal, LaMarcus, Ben Simmons, KAT,” LeBron said after the game about what turned the momentum. “They came in and just changed the whole complexion of the game. We got stops, and, obviously, Dame and Klay caught fire from beyond the arc, and that allowed us to get back in the game.”

Durant was named MVP, a clear choice with his second-half play in particular.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 38 points and 11 rebounds, while Paul George showed anyone that hasn’t seen him this season how well he’s playing — MVP conversation level — on his way to 20.

This All-Star Game opened with the level of defensive intensity we have come to expect in All-Star Games. Which is to say none.

Well, except when Stephen Curry was guarding Klay Thompson.

The one guy who was intense from the start was Antetokounmpo, who scored the first six points for Team Giannis. He didn’t slow down on his way to 20 first-half points, plus he had one of the game’s great highlights on a bounce pass alley-oop from Curry.

Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only Buck hot to start, Khris Middleton entered the game midway through the first quarter and drained three shots from beyond the arc in a row. In the first nine minutes of the game, the Bucks were beating Team LeBron 28-27.

The favorite crowd moment of the first half was when future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki walked on the court and splashed a couple of threes.

Dwyane Wade was the other Commissioner addition to the game, which means for one last time we got Wade throwing the alley-oop to LeBron.

Curry struggled late, going 3-of-11 in the fourth, but he still got to rub it in Thompson’s face a little.

“It was good to see Steph knock that shot down over Klay, because Klay is always talking trash to him,” Durant said after the game.

Team Giannis was in control most of the first half and was up 13 (95-82) at the half, not that 13 points is much of a deficit in the All-Star Game. Not when one team started to care.

Stephen Curry gets four-point play after Klay Thompson foul, Curry does some taunting

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry is enjoying going against Klay Thompson. Maybe a little too much.

In the first half, Curry was matched up on his Warriors’ backcourt mate and enjoyed that Thompson missed the shot.

Then in the fourth quarter, with the game tight, Curry drained the contested three and drew the and-1 on Thompson — and did a little taunting.

That’s some All-Star fun.

Stephen Curry bounces alley-oop way above rim, Giannis Antetokounmpo slams it down (video)

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CHARLOTTE – Stephen Curry bounced this so high!

I suppose it helps that Giannis Antetokounmpo has such ridiculous reach.

Dirk Nowitzki walks on All-Star court, quickly splashes three threes

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Maybe Dirk Nowitzki shouldn’t retire after this season.

Added to the All-Star Game by Commissioner Adam Silver (along with Dwyane Wade) in what is expected to be the final season for the future Hall of Famer, the greatest shooting big man of all time showed he still has the touch. Entering the game midway through the first quarter, Nowitzki proceeded to quickly splash a couple of threes.

And he was not done yet.

Nowitzki never officially said he was retiring….