Entering the All-Star break, only three NBA teams were allowing opponents to shoot a higher percentage from the floor than the Kings, against whom teams have made 46.4 percent of their shots. In their 21 games between Jan. 7 and the break, though, the Kings trimmed that number to 44.8 percent – the league’s eighth-best mark over that stretch.
It’s that kind of progress – and not necessarily wins and losses – on which head coach Michael Malone said he will judge the final 29 games of this season for the Kings, who reconvened Monday for their first practice after All-Star Weekend.
The Kings share the worst record in the Western Conference with the Los Angeles Lakers at 18-35 and must win 11 games in the second half – which begins Wednesday against Golden State – to eclipse last year’s win total. Asked what would define a successful end to the season, though, Malone took a grander view.
“We have 29 games to establish our identity,” he said. “This is not 29 games to stare out the window.
“Every time we play, we have an opportunity to establish our identity as the Sacramento Kings, and that’s still to defend, rebound, value the ball and run with discipline. And I’m going to hammer that home every game, every practice that we have.”
For the season, the Kings rank in the bottom third of the NBA in most major defensive categories, including points allowed (26th) and opponents’ three-point shooting (28th) and assists (25th). So Malone acknowledged that what improvement there has been in the past month is relative – but something he hopes to build on in the spring and beyond.
“Are we getting better?” Malone said. “Are we defending, rebounding, communicating, playing together? If we’re doing all those things and taking a step in the right direction, and our defense continues to improve, then I’ll say (at the end of the year) these 29 games have been a huge success for us.”
That said, with the Kings likely to miss the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, Malone made it clear Monday the second goal for the second half is assessing personnel. That likely will mean more consistent minutes for players who didn’t get them before the break, with Malone citing rookies Ray McCallum and Ben McLemore in particular.
McCallum has appeared in just 16 games for the Kings, mostly in late-game situations. “He needs an opportunity to play, and more importantly we need to see what he can do,” Malone said. “We’ve made an investment with him.”
To balance those two objectives, Malone said he challenged Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins to take an active role in ensuring the Kings “play the right way, to lay the groundwork and a strong foundation for next season.” Thomas said doing so for the Kings involves an element of pride.
“He’s giving other guys opportunities; you’ve got to take advantage of it,” Thomas said. “We’ve got however many number of players that can help this team ... so I don’t think that’s a bad thing (Malone) said. I just think it means the opportunity is going to be there for someone else.”
Injury report – Cousins (left hip flexor strain) and guard Jimmer Fredette (illness) did not practice Monday. Malone said Cousins had an MRI on the hip Monday and the Kings expect the results today.
Cousins was injured late in the fourth quarter in the Kings’ final game before the break in New York and left the game without returning. Malone said he does not expect Cousins to practice today and that Cousins is “very questionable” for Wednesday’s game.
Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015.