The Kings' season-opening 100-91 win over the Los Angeles Lakers gave fans hope for an exciting and special season.
Coach Paul Westphal said after the Dec. 26 victory his team "played like men," holding off a Lakers rally and outshooting a team that usually contends for the NBA title.
Sixty-four games later, the playoff-bound Lakers are back for tonight's season finale. But Westphal, the excitement of opening night and hopes for a special season are long gone.
The Kings will end the season exactly where they didn't want to be last in the Pacific Division and on their way to a sixth consecutive NBA draft lottery. The familiar problems of poor shooting, bad defense and a general inability to execute were too much for the Kings to overcome.
Scouts and coaches around the league believe the Kings are better than their 21-44 record indicates. And among the players, there is still a sense of optimism.
"There's been some bumps and bruises throughout the (season), but I think there has been progress," forward Jason Thompson said. "We've got to finish out games and play all 48 minutes, but you can see upside. It's not a process you want to talk about you've got to be about. So that's the approach we've got to take (tonight) and then going into October."
Coach Keith Smart will have the offseason to prepare the Kings to play how he wants and fix their problems on defense.
After replacing Westphal seven games into the season, Smart was able to get the offense in order (99.3 points per game) but not the defense (104.8 points per game).
"The goal for this team is, can we get between the top 15, top 10 teams defensively next year?" Smart said. "Off the bat, that's what we're going to be shooting for. Can we get there? I don't know. Will we get there? I have no idea. Coming in, that's what the goal is."
The Kings will be about $15 million under the salary cap this summer to pursue players in trades or as free agents after failed moves to shore up the 2011-12 roster.
The Kings again need to fill holes they thought they had filled. The team thought it had filled a void when it traded for J.J. Hickson, who was expected to add athleticism to the frontcourt. But Hickson's contract was bought out last month after an underwhelming effort in Sacramento.
Rookie Jimmer Fredette came to the Kings with high expectations. Being asked to be the team's top shooter didn't pan out, but Fredette has shown improvement.
John Salmons was expected to help shore up perimeter defense and provide a positive offensive option at small forward. But he started the season in the worst shooting slump of his career and didn't turn things around until he was benched.
The Kings didn't find the defensive anchor to replace Samuel Dalembert. The team did not sign another shot blocker but did sign forward/center Chuck Hayes to be a defender and facilitator on offense. A preseason health scare and dislocated shoulder slowed Hayes.
Smart shook up the lineup, moving Tyreke Evans from starting point guard to small forward in place of Salmons. Denver coach George Karl said the move that put rookie Isaiah Thomas in the starting lineup brought "common sense" to the Kings' offense.
The Kings' shooting, scoring and assists all improved with Thomas in the lineup, and turnovers decreased, but problems remain.
The Kings still go into one-on-one mode too often and end up taking difficult shots, even when passing to a hot-shooting player is the obvious move.
"We've been up and down with it," Evans said. "To be good, we've got to be doing it all the time in all situations."
Evans has looked great to indifferent since the position change, but it's one the Kings needed to make to get Thomas on the court. Evans can still run the point, but the Kings were in need of another decision-maker on the floor.
Thomas flourished as a starter and the offense improved, but the defense is still the league's worst in points allowed and opponent's field-goal percentage.
"I think they've made a lot of good strides," Smart said. "When our team was completely healthy, there was a stretch where we were playing very good, defensively, so I know the capability is there. I'm trying to take some guys where the DNA of a defensive player is not there. It's not something they think about all the time."
They'll have all offseason to think about it.