By the time the Kings return home from their six-game trip, much will be revealed. They will either be exposed for what they appear to be – a rush job assembled to coincide with the opening of the Golden 1 Center – or emerge as a team capable of overcoming its flaws, forging a collective identity and becoming this season’s surprise.
Right now? Sixteen games in?
The Kings (6-10) often resemble 13 men in a boat, all pulling their oars in different directions and at varying speeds. Multiple issues are at play here, starting with the owner’s directive to his front office executives to pursue a quick fix – and a highly improbable playoff berth in the Western Conference – while tabling long-term concerns until after the season.
These, then, are your Kings. Free agents Matt Barnes, Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Garrett Temple and Anthony Tolliver were added to improve overall depth and experience. OK, all can play. But their presence crowds the roster and crunches the minutes, costing playing time that could be used to evaluate and develop Willie Cauley-Stein, Ben McLemore and the three rookies, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Malachi Richardson.
Can we at least get a peek? Can the invisible Cauley-Stein work his way into the rotation? Was Big George a bust? Can any of the rookies play? These are questions that need to be addressed sooner rather than later, particularly if the Kings stumble during a less-then-formidable trip. Among other things, a bad stretch would prompt more conversation about trading Rudy Gay, invite inquiries about the status of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and renew the debate about a roster makeover.
Gay still wants out. He says little, but he has not wavered. Cousins wants to stay and retains strong backing from principal owner Vivek Ranadive. And while Cousins again is among the league leaders in technicals and appears to be gaining weight, so far there have been no locker room outbursts directed at teammates or his head coach.
Stats-wise, the seventh-year veteran is averaging career bests in points (27.8) and 3-point percentage (37.0), shooting 46.7 percent from the field and contributing 9.8 rebounds – a drop from 11.5 last year.
The test for coach Dave Joerger, of course, is to experiment and cobble together starting and reserve units that are cohesive and consistent, which is no easy task given the offseason overhaul. But Joerger knew Sacramento was not Memphis when he signed on. For the previous seven years – the last three with Joerger as head coach – the Grizzlies of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen presented a symphony of stability.
Joerger instead inherits an odd assortment of pieces that don’t seem to fit. Cousins and Gay have never meshed on the court. Afflalo, another post-up player, is thrust into the lineup because of McLemore’s inconsistency. Darren Collison is still working his way into game condition. When the starters are on the floor, the only glimpse of the extra pass (aka the hockey pass) occurs when highlights from the Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber era are shown on the overhead videoboard. And in terms of tempo and entertainment, the popular baby races beat the Kings’ starters by double digits.
If there was any consolation after Friday’s loss to the Houston Rockets, it was the infusion of energy and enthusiasm from reserves Lawson, Omri Casspi, Temple and Koufos.
“We’re starting to find a little bit of a rhythm,” Joerger said, noting his club has won two of three. “We’ve got a six-game road trip, and we’ve got to set a goal. Is it going to be 3-3? Is it going to be 4-2? We started out the last trip too slow and then tried to go like heck at the end of the trip.”
The Kings certainly have their chances. With the possible exception of the Boston Celtics, who are slumping, none of their upcoming opponents are contenders. Victories in Brooklyn, Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas are there to be poached.
If they do, trade chatter ceases, temporarily.
If they don’t? That offseason plan to add older veterans in hopes of a playoff push would be nothing more than a misguided vision for transitioning into a new building and into the future.