In keeping with the new arena naming rights deal, along with the fact that the Western Conference appears more unpredictable and less intimidating than in seasons past, let's just get it out there.
The 2012-13 Kings can be sleepers.
The franchise that hasn't sniffed the NBA postseason in six years, that until last season seemed to forget that the main purpose of pro sports is to entertain the folks who buy the tickets and pay all those cable bills, has a chance to tweak the memories.
For a number of reasons, this is a season the Kings can delight and awaken their audience, becoming the NBA's next small-market team (see Utah Jazz) or even Northern California's latest club (see the A's) to make fools of all the experts and make the playoff chase infinitely more compelling. They can be decent. They even have a chance to morph from a team in constant crisis to a team with an identity, to a team on the rise at Sleep Train Arena.
Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie didn't execute any blockbuster trades during the summer, but he recovered from a miserable 2011 offseason by drafting promising rookie Thomas Robinson, acquiring Aaron Brooks and James Johnson, and re-signing veteran Jason Thompson.
Any appreciable improvement over last year's 22-44 record, of course, starts with the performances of DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans.
The immensely talented Cousins, who is older and slimmer and, one hopes, this also means wiser spent most of his offseason training with the U.S. Olympic team and sweating off pounds in the Kings practice facility. He is coming off a season during which he averaged 18.1 points and 11 rebounds, impressive numbers for a young center who only recently turned 22. He made dramatic progress after Keith Smart took over for Paul Westphal as the Kings coach, but he can be even better in terms of decision-making and demeanor, and significantly better as a passer. He isn't Vlade Divac, but he has a knack, a la Brad Miller.
Evans is the enigma. Now in his fourth season, he returned to the backcourt, which he prefers. Because his market value is unclear as he approaches a contract year, he approaches the year with a lot to prove, including whether he can hit a perimeter shot. But we still don't know him. Early in his career, he was terribly miscast as a scoring point guard and encouraged to dominate the ball, much to his own detriment as well as that of the team.
A reasonable expectation of Evans is this: That everyone accept the fact that Tyreke is a slasher, a natural scorer whose NBA career might well be defined by his ability to become a multi-dimensional performer, and particularly by whether he expands his game and becomes a premier backcourt defender.
But therein lies the issue with these Kings, the one that will determine whether they wilt in the West or improve significantly over last year's record. Will the Kings deeper with the additions of the frisky Robinson, Brooks and Johnson defend? Actually commit and collaborate defensively? It's a mentality, a culture, and not a familiar one around the old arena.
"We know that playing like we did last year is not going to work," Kings guard Isaiah Thomas admitted the other day.
In last year's lockout-shortened 66-game regular season, Kings opponents shot 47.6 percent and averaged a bloated 104.4 points numbers that will get most teams beat on most nights. The defensive deficiencies detracted from the noticeable progress in other areas, most notably ball movement, tempo, energy, and, yes, entertainment value.
Smart, who begins his first full season as a head coach, has reiterated the point throughout training camp: "We were the worst defensive team in the league last year. That's a great baseline to start with. But the one thing that scares me is that we don't have great size, that natural shot-blocker in traffic. We'll have to figure that out and find a way to defend the paint. On the perimeter we are athletic and versatile, so overall, I feel good about that."
This, then, should be the 2012-13 Kings: The speedy, long-armed Brooks harassing opposing ballhandlers. The diminutive but surprisingly strong Thomas using his powerful, undersized frame to bump guards off the post. Cousins rotating and helping and taking charges at opportune times. Evans, using his size and strength and athleticism to lock down opposing shooting guards. Thompson and Robinson reading and reacting. Johnson shadowing small forwards, stealing passes, blocking shots. Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette providing a boost off the bench. The Kings, en masse, capitalizing on their depth and creating transition opportunities, minimizing the size disadvantage and their still questionable outside shooting.
"People around the league are telling me they see a difference," Smart said, "and that's encouraging. You can't fake defense, even in preseason."