The season is over, and there isn’t a sense of disappointment from the Kings’ players or coaching staff.
The 2016-17 campaign ended with a 115-95 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night at Staples Center. The Clippers move on to host the Utah Jazz as the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs Saturday.
The Kings move on to continue the seemingly never-ending process of rebuilding – a process restarted when All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins was traded to New Orleans in February – knowing there is still a lot of work but hopeful they’re moving in the right direction.
The Kings finished 32-50, one win fewer than last season. That the team would not surpass last season’s win total and miss the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season was all but guaranteed when Cousins was dealt.
When the deal went down, the Kings were just 1 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot with a favorable schedule ahead that included three games against Denver, the team that held the eighth spot at the time.
The Kings were 8-8 in 16 games leading into the All-Star break. They were 8-17 after.
This Kings cast, one considerably younger than the group that began the season, believes the philosophy is in place to become a playoff team. Still, there’s a lot to be done before the postseason can become a possibility.
“We want to be known as a bunch of hard-nosed guys that care about each other and compete every night, and I think we’ve laid that down,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “Still some cement to lay down. We’ll be a very young group next year. I don’t know exactly what we’ll look like and how it comes out, but we’re going to be young.”
The Kings will expect growth from Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, George Papagiannis and Malachi Richardson, whose rookie seasons ended Wednesday. Center Willie Cauley-Stein will be in his third season and the Kings could have up to four more rookies after the draft and if Serbian guard Bogdan Bodjanovic joins the team.
We want to be known as a bunch of hard-nosed guys that care about each other and compete every night, and I think we’ve laid that down.
Kings coach Dave Joerger
So while the front office might see promise in the young nucleus, NBA teams with this much youth usually lose a lot more than they win.
The team’s top two point guards, Darren Collison and Ty Lawson, will be free agents. Forward Rudy Gay, out since January with an Achilles’ injury, can also become a free agent if he opts out of the final year of his contract.
All those factors and uncertainty are the ingredients for a 12th consecutive losing season, so patience will be a must.
“There’s going to be a period of laying some foundation work and heavy lifting,” Joerger said. “And it’s very important our veterans are quality people and good players to take some of the hits for those guys and yet be patient with those guys as they grow and make some mistakes.”
The Kings hoped to end the season by upsetting the Clippers and forcing them to the fifth seed, but Los Angeles (51-31) was motivated and played a strong second half to put the Kings away.
Cauley-Stein led the Kings with 19 points and 14 rebounds. DeAndre Jordan had 18 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks for the Clippers.
The Kings had only seven men available due to injuries and players held out for rest. They’ll wait for next month’s NBA draft lottery, where they’ll have two picks as long as the lottery doesn’t knock the Kings from eighth to 11th, which would cost them a pick that’s top-10 protected.
The Kings will also have New Orleans’ pick, which is slated to be 10th but could change in the lottery.
For now, the Kings will reflect on how the last 25 games of this season might be a step in the right direction.
“The identity has changed, the culture’s changed,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’re all on the same page of how we want to play, how we want to take it, being selfless, being team-first all that other rah-rah stuff you can say about that. At the end of the day it’s got to be a unit and we’ve all got to be working together on a unit to make it flourish.”