The message was made clear nearly a year ago when Michael Malone was hired as coach.
This Kings season would not be judged simply on wins and losses. There was rebuilding to do, a losing culture to eradicate and a roster in need of an overhaul.
Based on the Kings’ record, this season wasn’t much different than the previous seven that ended with the team missing the playoffs. Sacramento lost 104-99 to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night at Sleep Train Arena to finish 28-54, matching last season’s mark.
The roster is drastically different. Only four players who were with the Kings last season are still with the team.
But as the team’s record indicates, there’s still a lot of work to do.
“Our hope is on 28 wins we can make an improvement on that,” Malone said. “This year we always said was not about wins and losses. After this season, we can’t say that anymore, and I fully get that. Are we a playoff team next year? Well, again we have to wait to see what happens to our roster after this season.”
Even with the roster changes, some of the Kings’ problems are familiar. They remain a team that can score a lot, but the points don’t come easy. The Kings are still one of the league’s worst shooting teams and at the bottom of the league in assists. The defense improved as the season progressed, but the Kings were still hampered by breakdowns and struggled to defend three-point shots.
“We’re not a great shooting team across the board,” Malone said. “We’re an improved defensive team, but we need some guys that go to sleep thinking about defense. We don’t have many guys like that right now.”
The Kings hitched their hopes this season to DeMarcus Cousins, believing the fourth-year center was on the verge of becoming an All-Star. He averaged 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds and shot 49.6 percent, all career highs.
But Cousins still has work to do in becoming more poised on the court. He didn’t play Wednesday because of an NBA suspension for picking up his 16th technical foul. It was his second league suspension of the season.
The Kings also need Cousins to continue to foster better relationships with his teammates. Those relationships, while not as volatile and frequent as they’ve been in the past, can still be prickly.
“The reality is we need him to be even better,” Malone said. “And next year’s challenge is don’t be content being a good player, be a great player. And he’s got to work that much harder come this summer to be a better player, a better teammate, a better citizen, and I really believe he will because he shown so much positive change throughout the season.”
The growth in Isaiah Thomas’ game and the addition of Rudy Gay gave the Kings three top-tier scoring threats. But being the only team with three players averaging 20 points or more didn’t translate into a surge up the standings. That could be attributed to a need to jell. Others will point to the ever-evolving supporting cast around the trio.
But as this season showed, a big improvement over one season is possible.
The Suns were supposed to be at the bottom of the Western Conference and almost made the playoffs, going 48-34.
Dallas, Portland, Charlotte and Washington are other teams that rode key additions and player maturity to improvements and postseason berths.
The Kings could look very different, too. Gay can opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Thomas will become a restricted free agent once the Kings make him a qualifying offer.
“I have to talk to (general manager) Pete (D’Alessandro) and coach Malone and see how we can elevate this team for the future,” Gay said. “What can we do, what moves we can make and stuff like that. At this point in my career, I want to win.”
D’Alessandro again will be aggressive pursuing trades and free agents.
“We’re going to attack this summer,” Malone said. “Whether that’s getting Carl Landry healthy and back in shape. Or whether it’s helping Ben McLemore with his jump shot and his ballhandling. Whether that’s helping DeMarcus get in better condition and in shape and develop a left hand. Whatever it is, we’ve identified it, and when we meet with our players (today), we’ll go over our goals with them for the summer because the reality is this: You’re either getting better or getting worse.”