There were hugs aplenty, and photos were taken all around.
But as the Kings welcomed their offseason signees Monday, the most intriguing image was a brief exchange between coach George Karl and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who have been at odds for months.
When Karl approached Cousins for a handshake, it was the first public interaction between the two since the end of the season. An unsmiling Cousins put down his popcorn to shake Karl’s hand and exited courtside to chat with principal owner Vivek Ranadive.
In terms of affection, Karl’s handshake couldn’t match the embrace between Cousins and former Kings coach Michael Malone on Sunday, when Karl and Cousins walked past each other without acknowledgment before a summer league game.
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But the interaction might signify a new start, something emphasized by the Kings’ six free-agent signees who appeared during Sacramento’s 90-71 win over the Golden State Warriors.
Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Caron Butler, Luc Mbah a Moute and Kosta Koufos were joined by Omri Casspi, the only free agent the Kings re-signed in their makeover as they try to end a nine-year playoff drought.
Ending that slump, however, hinges on whether Karl and Cousins can collaborate.
“We have a lot of time to get back on the same page,” Karl said. “Summer talk and summer drama I’ve always thought is hype, and so much of it is untrue. I’m not going to get into it. But Cuz and I, we have to work together to get that together, and I think we will.”
Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball and franchise operations, believes the Kings have built a team that can give Cousins his first winning season in the NBA. Divac thinks the roster’s talent, bolstered by his offseason moves, will help defuse issues between Karl and Cousins.
“All our guys, the new ones and old ones, are winners, and they want to win,” Divac said. “The tension and everything that happened, the drama last year came from not winning the games. When we start winning, everything’s going to be right.”
The Kings largely have been inactive during free agency in recent years, but Divac received the freedom to remake the roster and did. Only six players from last season remain on the team.
The key newcomer is Rondo, a four-time All-Star point guard who signed his one-year, $9.5 million deal Monday.
Rondo, who is good friends with Rudy Gay and knows Cousins, spoke with both before agreeing to join the Kings. Still, many wonder if Rondo’s strong personality will clash with the strong personalities of Cousins and Karl.
“I’m excited that everybody is doubting us,” Rondo said. “All the negative energy that’s going toward Sacramento as far as me coming and playing with Cousins and the George Karl thing, I think that’s pretty much blown out of proportion. But there’s a lot of naysayers, a lot of doubters, my whole entire career, even with the day I got drafted. I just love proving people wrong.”
Karl said he’s excited about coaching Rondo, who has a high basketball IQ and figures to have plenty of input on how the Kings operate on the floor.
“He’s going to challenge us as coaches because I think he knows the game, and he might have some opinions and we’re probably going to have some give and take on,” Karl said. “But the kid is an All-Star player.
“He likes to lead teams. He leads teams with his spirit; there’s a toughness to it. My feeling is he’s a pass-first point guard, which I think is important.”
Rondo said as long as he and Karl communicate daily, there should be no problem carrying out the coach’s wishes. And for a locker room that has been starved for leaders for years, Rondo believes he’s part of the solution.
“They’re going to get a great leader on and off the court and in the locker room,” Rondo said of what he brings. “I’m still learning myself, but I think if we surround ourselves with positive people, guys like Vlade, Bobby Jackson coming around, Peja Stojakovic, former players. With the great owner that we have now, I think the sky’s the limit.”