It can be difficult to accept baby steps after 10 consecutive losing seasons.
Who wants to hear a coach praise professional athletes for competing, something that’s supposed to be a given?
But if you don’t understand why Dave Joerger does that, you haven’t paid close attention in recent years when focus, dedication and effort could be questioned far too often as losses piled up.
But if the Kings are to correct their issues and begin turning around a franchise synonymous with losing and dysfunction, they must embrace small victories.
The Kings on Wednesday routed the Dallas Mavericks 120-89 at American Airlines Center.
Their 8-13 record doesn’t inspire playoff dreams, but Joerger’s teaching does. And the Kings must develop the traits of a playoff team before talk about the postseason is more than just funny.
The Kings show the willingness to play defense. And even amid stretches of stagnant offense or as missed shots accumulate, the effort has been there, even if wins haven’t followed.
“We’re competitive,” Joerger said. “The spirit’s good, the chemistry is good, different guys have been in and we’ve had a chance to look at different guys in the rotation and we’ll continue to do that going forward. ... Certainly we want to get more wins and we’re into getting the results we’re looking for as far as wins and losses, but I like where we’re going.”
Joerger pointed out that the Kings, entering Wednesday, were allowing the third-fewest points in the paint at 38.5 per game as part of the team’s improving defense.
The Kings were also giving up the fourth fewest second-chance points (11.7). And even with their bouts with isolation basketball, the Kings were ninth in passes per game (312.7), but just 17th in assists at 21.8 per game.
“So there are areas we’ve focused on that we’ve gotten better at,” Joerger said. “Transition defense is an area that we’ve tried to focus on and still needs some improving.”
The Kings give up 15.2 fast-break points per game, fourth most in the league. The Kings give up the 3-point shot too much.
But the willingness to compete is the biggest area in which Joerger must continue to improve, especially for the players who have spent their entire careers in Sacramento.
Except for Team USA, DeMarcus Cousins has never been in an environment as a pro that’s fostered a winning atmosphere, whether due to ownership instability, coaching changes or questionable decision making by the front office.
Cousins’ play this season has him in line for a third straight All-Star selection. He entered Wednesday third in the NBA with 29.1 points per game.
But Cousins’ supporting cast remains a question, as the team has struggled to figure out how to build a winner around a center considered the best offensive big man in the league.
Joerger has mixed lineups this season with Cousins and forward Rudy Gay being the only constants. The latest change came Wednesday with shooting guard Ben McLemore earning his first start of the season ahead of Arron Afflalo.
Early on, the Kings’ offseason additions haven’t pushed the team over the top, but Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson have helped form a solid second unit that also includes Omri Casspi and Willie Cauley-Stein, who has worked his way back into Joerger’s rotation.
Joerger said months ago it would take perhaps all season for his changes to be fully implemented. So their record, while not impressive, shouldn’t cause panic.
The team must figure out how to start games stronger. The 3-point shooting must improve in a league where it is paramount to success.
The Kings have to do better at finishing and mixing it up on offense. We know the game will run through Cousins and Gay late, but when that leads to the rest of the team staring at them, the Kings are easy to defend, and it leads to tough shots for a team that already struggles to score at times.
Those are big-picture goals. To get there, the Kings must embrace the process. Learn to love the details of the game, and most of all, compete.