The Kings officially ended their season Wednesday night with a 122-99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.
But the Kings’ season really ended Dec. 14, when a front office eager for change despite a good start that surprised nearly all NBA observers, fired coach Michael Malone.
At that point, the Kings were 11-13, closer to the top eight in the Western Conference than the bottom. But they might as well have been eliminated from the playoffs when Malone was dismissed.
The decision sent the locker room into a tailspin and began a parade of three coaches, lackluster effort and a product on the court that exemplified all that’s been wrong with the team for nearly a decade.
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So instead of a season of progress, the Kings are exactly where they’ve been for nearly a decade and where they were when Vivek Ranadive purchased control of the team.
The front office has to wonder if its best players can be convinced to buy in to a plan that became rudderless. The locker room culture Malone and his staff worked to scrub of dysfunction again needs repair.
The Kings finished 29-53, a one-game improvement from last season. But no one is calling this season any better than the previous eight in which the team missed the playoffs.
Sacramento appeared to be on the upswing to start this season. But the Kings are back at square one, making 2014-15 a wasted 82 games that not even the hiring of George Karl for the final 30 can erase.
Players were confused and, consequently, played as if their effort didn’t matter. That’s the message many players took when general manager Pete D’Alessandro said the team’s 5-1 start or 9-6 record before DeMarcus Cousins contracted viral meningitis didn’t matter because the concern was the style of play.
It was a stinging message to a locker room with many players who had not been part of a winning team. A general distrust of the front office resulted because it seemed winning was not the ultimate goal. Instead, the aim appeared to be an entertaining style, even if the roster was not built for it.
Karl inherited a disenchanted bunch. By the end of the season, he was saying the Kings needed another wing defender, more shooting and more facilitators – exactly what Malone wanted.
But that wasn’t the message before the season, when Ranadive said this campaign would be about “wins and losses” and not changing the culture, which he boldly declared in September had been changed after a 28-54 season under Malone.
The way the rest of the season went proved Ranadive, D’Alessandro and former adviser Chris Mullin underestimated Malone’s influence on the locker room. It also showed much needs to be done before calling the culture revamped. And some nights, the players looked as if they couldn’t take the turmoil anymore.
“I can’t deny when they play poorly they kinda have a reason to,” Karl said. “I say to myself they’ve been through a lot of basketball hell, maybe I should let it go. But in the same sense, no one is feeling sorry for us.”
A better record was supposed to come in the form of improved play, which the Kings got from Cousins, Rudy Gay and free agent Darren Collison. The trio averaged career highs in points, but all three missed time because of injuries and/or illness, and their statistics weren’t enough.
Too much was expected of young players like rookie Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore. A roster management said had been upgraded lacked depth.
And a team that could not afford to lose talent without compensation did just that.
The Kings did not retain Isaiah Thomas and received from Phoenix only a trade exception and a player who wasn’t even in training camp. The Suns traded Thomas to Boston, and he helped the Celtics reach the playoffs. Phoenix secured a first-round pick in the deal.
Additionally, Ramon Sessions didn’t pan out as Collison’s backup at point guard and was traded to Washington for Andre Miller.
So even though payroll increased from the end of the Maloof era and Cousins made the All-Star team, the roster had too many holes that were exposed over the course of the season.
The Kings played hard for Malone and were indifferent under Tyrone Corbin until it became known the front office was negotiating with Karl. The team looked energized at times under Karl, but the injuries and mental fatigue were evident as the season wore on.
“Not too many people have had three coaches in one season – three different strategies, three different defensive schemes – so it gets tough,” forward Derrick Williams said. “I don’t think people realize that. It’s a lot of work put into it, and I think we all want to get to next season already and start fresh.”