Ailene Voisin: Team has undergone big changes – now what?
10/27/2013 12:00 AM
10/08/2014 10:56 AM
During their memorable, improbable, frenetic, at times mind-numbing offseason, the Kings as we know them were destroyed in a palace coup. This was a clean and very necessary sweep of the building, a blowtorch taken to an organization in desperate need of a different blueprint.
Change can be hard, but for Sacramento and the 2013-14 Kings, change was a lifeline.
There is a large and robust ownership group headed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive. There is a new general manager, Pete D'Alessandro, and a reconfigured front office. There is a first-time head coach, Michael Malone, and an interesting staff that includes a popular former player (Corliss Williamson). And two former All-Star players have roles with the team, Hall of Famer Chris Mullin as an adviser and longtime Kings nemesis Shaquille O'Neal as a minority owner.
Even the old barn has been given a facelift, though there isn't a plastic surgeon in the world who could stretch all the wrinkles out of aging Sleep Train Arena.
In a sense, the same can be said of these Kings. The personnel problems are almost a decade in the making. The damage inflicted by bad contracts, questionable signings and trades – some but not all by the financially strapped former owners – will take more than a few months to repair. And this new regime isn't immune from making mistakes or inviting serious debate, either.
Did the Kings really need to sign Carl Landry, a capable but undersized forward, for four years and $26 million? Was Luc Mbah a Moute, the Milwaukee Bucks' athletic but oft-injured small forward, the best alternative to fill arguably the team's weakest position? Was Ben McLemore the right draft choice at No. 7? Are Malone and D'Alessandro the wisest selections for coach and general manager? And what about trading Tyreke Evans for pass-first point guard Greivis Vasquez and rewarding DeMarcus Cousins with a maximum-salary, four-year extension?
Break out those cowbells. This will be a season to remember and a second-guesser's delight.
Malone has come to town preaching the proper message, the one about defense, ball movement, conditioning, unselfishness. But the Kings once again enter the season lacking frontcourt length, athleticism and consistent rebounding – and without a prototypical small forward to space the floor and convert open shots. The roster is guard-heavy, which isn't terminal if Malone can alter the me-first mindset and coax production out of McLemore, Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, Isaiah Thomas and Vasquez.
"We have an offense now," Cousins summarized when asked about his dominant preseason. "Guys have roles. It's not everybody shooting the ball. If we play together and play unselfish, we can be a lot better than last year."
Check back in December, January, February, March, April and, dare we say, May, because Cousins is the game-changer. If the Kings' most talented player maintains his playing/fighting weight of 275-280 pounds, adheres to his conditioning routine and cools it with the comportment issues – in essence, if he challenges contemporaries Mark Gasol, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe and even Dwight Howard for all-league honors – the Kings can break speed records for recovery time.
An All-Star-caliber season by Cousins would enable the Kings to win 32 to 35 games and make life miserable for teams challenging for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth. Anything better than that – anything close to 40 wins – should trigger another of those familiar downtown rallies at the park.
"If you dominate at that (center) spot," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, "you can dominate the game today. We grew up in the center era. Shaq, Mourning, Mutombo, Olajuwon, Parish, Ewing, Smits, David Robinson, to name a few. There's just not a lot of dominating guys out there.
"With DeMarcus, I love his talent. He's going to have to work to limit the emotional hijinks. Some take awhile; some never get it. But I have been telling our guys: 'Don't get caught up in his stare. He is a very smart basketball player.' "
After watching the team during the preseason, former Kings coach Garry St. Jean, now scouting for the Brooklyn Nets, praised Cousins for his improved conditioning and credited Malone for taking advantage of his immense abilities.
"DeMarcus is receiving the ball, not necessarily deep in the low post, but in the mid-post area," St. Jean said. "He's very comfortable facing up. He goes both ways. You cut him off at the angle, he spins back to the opposite shoulder.
"He just looks extremely comfortable, and he's letting the game come to him. He's not getting into a sumo match in the low post and getting upset. Tremendous progress."
Cousins can't dominate alone, of course, and he won't dominate at all unless he receives adequate support from his teammates, particularly Vasquez. The concept of playing with a pass-first point guard is intriguing.
And, if nothing else, the addition of Vasquez already has made the Kings eminently more pleasing to the eye.
"That's my guy," Vasquez said of Cousins. "His skills, his footwork. He's got every tool. To be honest? I played with Mark Gasol, but this guy has every tool to be an All-Star, and that's why I'm here. I want to be DeMarcus' little brother. I want to protect him, make sure I get blamed, not him. This is going to be good. You'll see."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin at (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.
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