When a team wins just 28 games, it tends to make an owner want to speed the rebuilding process.
A year ago, before his first season as principal owner of the Kings, Vivek Ranadive preached patience, saying it would take time to change the losing culture after eight consecutive seasons of not making the playoffs.
Then last month, at the team’s media day kicking off training camp, Ranadive made a declaration: the 2014-15 season would not be about changing the culture, it would be about wins and losses.
The feel-good story of the Kings staying in Sacramento has taken a back seat to results.
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But if Kings coach Michael Malone is feeling any extra pressure, he’s not letting on.
“To have an owner like Vivek is great because he’s passionate, he’s competitive and wants it really, really bad,” Malone said. “So when he comes out and says it is about wins and losses, you love that because you have an owner that isn’t taking the five-, six-year plan like other teams in the NBA. He wants to win as fast as possible.
“On one hand, I love that, but on the other hand, when I look at this team, where we are and who we’re playing against, it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m also realistic to the demands of our schedule and the reality of our situation.”
That reality is the Kings play in the Western Conference, where it could take 50 victories to make the playoffs, and the Kings haven’t had a winning season since 2005-06. Plus they’ve overhauled the roster – again – and still could make more moves.
The roster changes – adding point guards Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions, and small forward Omri Casspi, and drafting shooting guard Nik Stauskas – could help the Kings win more games, but they didn’t land a superstar, the quickest proven way to go from a lottery team to the playoffs.
So how will the Kings measure success?
A .500 season would be a 13-victory improvement, but it likely won’t be enough to keep the Kings out of the lottery again.
Expectation vs. reality
Ranadive wouldn’t commit to a specific number of victories for this wins-and-losses-matter season, but another sub-30-victory-season clearly would be considered a failure.
Some Kings have mentioned the playoffs, which inspires memories of NFL coach Jim Mora’s famous rant – “Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs! You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game. Another game!” – but it would take a lot of work to go from 28 wins to the postseason.
“I want to win, I want to be a playoff team, but I’m also realistic to where we’re at right now,” Malone said. “I’m not going to sit here and say we have to make the playoffs this year, that it’s all or nothing. We’re in Year Two, and very rarely in the NBA do you see a team that’s been in the lottery for eight or nine straight years and come out in the very difficult Western Conference.”
The Kings will need more time before playoffs can become more reality than fantasy, with the 2016-17 season looked at as a target for being a competitive playoff team.
By then, DeMarcus Cousins will be in his prime, ideally dominating as the NBA’s best center. Rudy Gay will have been persuaded to re-sign with the Kings beyond this season. And young players such as Ben McLemore will have grown up to become reliable on offense and defense.
Most important, that’s when the downtown arena is expected to open.
“That was talked about a lot early when I got the job, about how in our picture and our vision we want to get better, and by the time we move into that new arena we want to be a competitive playoff team,” Malone said. “Not a team that’s just satisfied with making the playoffs, but a team that’s in the playoffs and is a real threat and a challenge.”
Malone said general manager Pete D’Alessandro and his staff deserve “a ton of credit” for making the roster deeper and more versatile than the one he inherited.
Cousins is on board with the process and understands the Kings won’t become a playoff team overnight.
“I think we have the right pieces, I believe in the team, I believe in the system,” Cousins said. “I really believe we can be a 40-win team. It’s just about us growing up, buying into the system, locking in on our assignments every night, stop having these mental breakdowns every night. When we get to that point, we’ll be a good team. But until then we’ll continue to have these same types of seasons. We’ve got to grow up.”
Precedent for success
A quick turnaround usually takes the addition of an MVP-caliber player or extremely good luck – or both.
That was the case when the Spurs landed Tim Duncan in the draft after David Robinson’s injury sent them tumbling down the standings in the 1996-97 season.
Or when the Suns signed Steve Nash before the 2004-05 season. Or when the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen before the 2007-08 season.
There were a few examples last season, too.
In the Eastern Conference, Charlotte improved from 21 to 43 victories and made the playoffs after adding Al Jefferson in free agency and new coach Steve Clifford and improved play from Kemba Walker.
And Phoenix, 25-57 in 2012-13, won 48 games after hiring Jeff Hornacek as coach and acquiring Eric Bledsoe from the Los Angeles Clippers. Several players also played the best basketball of their careers, led by holdover Goran Dragic, who won the NBA Most Improved Player award and was a third-team All-NBA selection.
But in the Western Conference, even 48 victories weren’t enough to make the playoffs.
“I’m not giving us where our goal is to win a certain number of games,” Malone said. “Obviously we want to be a very competitive team in the Western Conference coming off a year where we only won 28 games. We want to be a better team than we were last year. We want to grow in the areas that gave us problems last year. And we want to play to and exceed our potential every night, and try to get better each and every day. Our No.1 goal is to try to get better every day.”
How soon improvement?
The Kings’ biggest acquisitions of the offseason were Collison and Sessions, point guards the Kings believe will add stability and cohesion, but players hardly expected to dramatically alter the NBA landscape.
Collison will be the starter after signing a three-year, $16 million deal, and Sessions signed last month for $4.2 million for two seasons. The Kings believe they’ll get more for their money from Collison and Sessions than they would have be retaining Isaiah Thomas, who’s now with the Phoenix Suns.
And Stauskas, the first-round pick, has promise, but he won’t be counted on to have a franchise-changing impact, either.
What the Kings are counting on is Cousins and Gay playing at elite levels and helping other players pick up their play.
The team’s biggest concerns are finding stability at power forward and the inexperience at shooting guard.
The rotation off the bench will change, too, with forwards Derrick Williams and Reggie Evans the only other returning players expected to be part of the regular rotation.
“It’s going to take some time,” Collison said. “You just can’t put a team out there that hasn’t played together and expect them to perform. It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take a bump in the road here and there. I think as we learn from that we’re going to come together a lot faster.”
How fast is faster? There’s no way to know. The only certainty is it won’t be a seamless transition.
“There’s going to be some growing pains,” Malone said. “We have a lot of new guys, and we’re trying to do some new things. But I’m hoping we’ll be able to weather the storm early, because we have a difficult schedule early on. As we continue to grow and come together, at some point I know we’re going to gel and have a chance to become a competitive team.”