The Kings’ elder statesmen held a meeting halfway through the season after they learned they would no longer be regulars in the rotation.
Vince Carter, George Hill, Zach Randolph, Garrett Temple and Kosta Koufos talked about how they would handle the situation, knowing two of them would be sitting every night while their younger teammates got a longer look.
“All five of us got together one day, I think it was OKC (Jan. 15), and we talked about our roles and things like that and the direction that the organization wants to go,” Hill said. “We said, ‘Control what we can control, no matter if we’re in the game or not in the game, playing 10 minutes or playing 30 minutes, try to do the best to teach these guys and help develop them but make an impact.’ ”
As injuries piled up over a six-game trip, the veterans were freed from their prescribed rest and stepped in to fill the void, helping the Kings win three of their last four games, including Tuesday’s 114-103 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center.
Randolph had 26 points and 12 rebounds. Koufos had a season-high 17 points, a career-high 17 rebounds and took the burden of defending New Orleans All-Star Anthony Davis, who led the Pelicans (27-23) with 23 points and 13 rebounds but shot just 6 of 16.
Temple had 15 points and led the Kings (16-34) with six assists, and Hill had 14 points. Carter chipped in five points and five rebounds as all five veterans played, something that would not have happened if the team was healthy.
The veterans have not complained about their changing roles, even though they’re confident they can still contribute and would rather not sit out games. They’ve embraced their role as mentors, but Tuesday they showed sometimes it’s best to lead by example on the court.
“We’ve all shown we can play in this league for a long time,” Koufos said. “For us though, right now when we get an opportunity, we’re playing hard and I give credit to all the vets. They’re being very professional with the situation. And the young guys, they’re getting healthy and working hard so it’s our responsibility, whenever we get time, help the team win.”
Kings assistant coach Elston Turner praised Koufos for how he took the challenge of defending Davis.
“He had good lateral movement, he rebounded, he made some shots,” said Turner, who is filling as head coach after Dave Joerger exited Sunday’s game in San Antonio feeling lightheaded. Joerger was cleared for return next week. “We don’t normally go to (Koufos), but we wanted to make AD work. So whoever he (Davis) was guarding, we wanted to use them and make him work. So hopefully that took a little bit of stamina out of what he was trying to do offensively. But not only Kosta, but everybody. Everybody on this team came together and willed out a big-time win.”
Koufos isn’t one to praise his own play and that didn’t change after his career night. He knows that he’s been in the NBA for nine seasons due largely to his ability to affect the game defensively, not as the primary focus of the offense.
“Whether it’s 17 rebounds or two rebounds, we won tonight,” Koufos said. “It feels good to win, especially on this long plane (ride) back. We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks.”
The Kings began the trip on a six-game losing streak that extended to eight before they won at Orlando on Jan. 23, when Temple scored a career-high 34 points.
The veterans’ planned rest games will continue to be in flux while Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Frank Mason and Malachi Richardson work their way back into the lineup. But the vets continue to show they can help the team win.
“One night it’s Garrett, one night it’s me, one night’s Vince,” Hill said. “Tonight it’s Kosta.”
And though the focus is developing the young players, it’s still important they learn how to win, not just gain experience by getting blown out nightly.
That’s why nights like Tuesday are important.
“It’s definitely good for the young guys, especially the winning,” Koufos said. “Winning brings about a lot of good things; it’s momentum going into the next couple of games.”
Temple said the level of competition to close the trip was tougher than to start, but the team showed poise to play better.
“To win three out of the last four, and the last three were playoff teams,” Temple said. “So to win the way who we won against, and to actually play hard against San Antonio and have a shot, that has to give us a lot of confidence and give the young guys a lot of confidence.”