In September, Vivek Ranadive set the tone and expectations for the Kings’ 2014-15 season: It’s about wins and losses.
If that’s the case, the first 41 games of the season have fallen short of that goal. To call it a disaster might be a bit of hyperbole, but teams that are about wins and losses shouldn’t be nine games under .500 at the midway point with 20 defeats in their past 27 games.
During the past month, the Kings again have fallen closer to the draft lottery instead of climbing toward their first playoff berth since 2006. With a 16-25 record, they are in 12th place in the Western Conference, eight games behind the Phoenix Suns for the eighth and final playoff spot.
There are multiple reasons for the Kings’ first-half struggles:
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▪ They won just two games when DeMarcus Cousins missed 12 games because of illness and injury.
▪ The firing of coach Michael Malone on Dec. 14 sent the players into a psychological tailspin they’ve only recently begun to show signs of escaping.
▪ The defense, which showed signs of improvement to start the season under Malone, regressed to the form played by Kings teams of recent years.
▪ The offense turned the ball over excessively and still lacked consistent perimeter shooting. There were still too many times when the ball and players didn’t move enough.
So what can the Kings hope to accomplish in the second half of the season?
Instead of wins and losses, the focus will be on building for the future. Most observers expected that to be the goal this season before Ranadive boldly declared the franchise’s culture had changed.
So it’s back to basics . The Kings must develop the on-court habits playoff teams display with the hope 2015-16 will be the season when they can be judged by wins and losses, not the intangibles and cultural changes needed to be a winner.
Malone’s firing and the reaction to it proved the locker room was not as strong as ownership might have thought and the culture of winning needed to be developed more fully.
The players weren’t ready to shake off the news that the coach they trusted, one who guided the franchise to its best start (5-1) in years, had been fired. This experience could make the Kings mentally tougher, but that has yet to translate consistently on the court.
The Kings still are on pace to win 32 games, which would be a four-game improvement from 2013-14.
They can make sure this season isn’t a complete loss by working on areas that re-establish the building blocks for success the team seemed to be grasping back in November.
Efficient offense – The Kings’ strength is their top two players, Cousins and Rudy Gay, who are considered among the best one-on-one players in the league. But that doesn’t mean the Kings can rely on them alone. The ball must move around the court and involve all players to create better opportunities for everyone. The Kings are last in the league in assists (19.6 per game) and average the fourth-most turnovers (16.4). Regardless of what pace the Kings play, simply handing the ball to Cousins or Gay and waiting for them to make something happen is not good enough.
Player development – The Kings seem committed to use Ray McCallum as their backup point guard. In the season’s second half, they must make sure he gains the experience needed to contribute from Day One next season. Rookie Nik Stauskas has struggled and appears to be falling out of the rotation. There are no plans to send him to the NBA Development League, where he could play more and gain confidence. But much like the Kings did with Ben McLemore last season, Stauskas needs game time to play through mistakes and improve.
The right pieces – So the Kings want to play at a faster pace? That’s fine if that will be the philosophy going forward. But it means assembling a roster capable of playing that way. General manager Pete D’Alessandro and his staff must determine which players best fit this style entering next season. Point guard Darren Collison is having a career year, but the Kings need to add more versatile players to complement him, Cousins and Gay. The Kings need more ballhandlers, ball movers and shooters if the plan to mimic the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors will work. The Atlanta Hawks have figured out how to play this way and lead the Eastern Conference.
Defense, please – The Kings are giving up 103.8 points per game while scoring just 101.7. Their field-goal percentage allowed (.448) remains respectable, even though in the 17 games since Malone’s dismissal, opponents shot 46 percent – the league’s seventh-highest mark in that span. The Kings gave up 107.2 points per game over that span, and only the Minnesota Timberwolves (107.4) yielded more points. The Kings forced only 12.9 turnovers per game in that stretch, tied for sixth fewest. The defense must revert to its form earlier in the season, when the Kings made it tougher for opponents to score. Otherwise, they’ll play a lot of high-scoring games and end up feeling empty because the losses will pile up.
Re-establish culture change – Things aren’t as bad as they were during the 2012-13 season, when strife and drama ruled before the change in ownership. But the moment adversity hit (Malone’s firing), the players looked like a group seeking leadership, and they were stymied because they had questions about the franchise’s direction. Once players know who their coach will be beyond this season, the process of the team establishing its identity can truly begin. But as the players have reiterated, they control what happens on the court, so they must perform with the urgency, energy and grit needed to prove they won’t end the season as the same old Kings.