Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Are the Kings for real? Four-game trip will be revealing

Several league executives and longtime observers say that Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, playing against Golden State last month, has been the league’s best big man during the opening weeks.
Several league executives and longtime observers say that Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, playing against Golden State last month, has been the league’s best big man during the opening weeks. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The cry wasn’t exactly a wail, but more of a plaintive, pinch-me plea from a fan seated behind the visitors bench Wednesday night.

Are the Kings for real, or is this early surge another mirage, a cruel trick-or-treat leftover from Halloween?

The numbers are what they are. The 4-1 record is the team’s best start since 2001-02, coincidentally the same year the region’s local celebrities took their throne on the road and became international icons. Vlade Divac, Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Hedo Turkoglu, Scot Pollard, Gerald Wallace.

How many years? More than a decade? It was one of the league’s most talented and dynamic teams and with a non-call here, a made free throw there, they would be flashing championship rings.

But this is the time to cease with the comparisons. These Kings aren’t those Kings. This team is tantalizing, intriguing given the small sample size. Center DeMarcus Cousins is dominating and performing at an All-Star level. Forward Rudy Gay is efficient, effective and making his own bid for an All-Star berth. Newcomer Darren Collison has reintroduced the role of the point guard, both by containing opposing ballhandlers and directing a solid, unselfish floor game.

Yet as Cousins, 24, cautioned the other night, “It’s only five games. It can flip in a hurry.”

A four-game trip that starts tonight in Phoenix figures to reveal much about coach Michael Malone’s team, as well Malone’s commitment to a faster-paced offense that results in easy baskets and better ball and body movement and reduces the number of isolation and one-on-one plays so common – and so often fatal – to NBA teams in recent years.

Remember the Alamo, or better yet, don’t forget the defending NBA champions who earn their living in the Alamo city. The Spurs continue to set the standard. On Wednesday, the Cavaliers had just six assists in their loss at Utah, with point guard Kyrie Irving scoring 34 points without even one assist. On the same night, the Spurs assisted on 25 of their 31 field goals and defeated Atlanta.

So how much have the Kings absorbed from an offseason study of the Spurs? Not enough, it seems. In their 131-109 rout of the woeful Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, the Kings assisted on 21 of 42 field goals and had only 19 fast-break points, which hints at stagnation and evidence they are still laboring too hard for their points.

“I think our defense is helping our offense,” Cousins said. “Playing defense the way we are helps build chemistry. And guys are trusting each other and starting to accept their roles. As long as we stay like that, we should keep getting better. But we have to keep moving the ball and can’t be caught standing around.”

Cousins can talk all he wants these days. Several league executives and longtime observers – some grudgingly – say the fifth-year pro has been the league’s best big man during the opening weeks. And the muscular, though trimmer, center is right when he talks about the importance of teammates recognizing and accepting roles, particularly while youngsters Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas are struggling.

A healthy Carl Landry grabs offensive boards and scores from the low post, particularly when Cousins is out of the game. Omri Casspi might be the biggest surprise. He is a much improved player than the erratic, out-of-control small forward who was drafted 23rd in 2009 by the Kings and traded two years later to the Cavaliers.

Back with the Kings after a season with the Houston Rockets, the feisty, 6-foot-9 Casspi embodies much of what the team needs from their complementary players. He knows who he is and accepts what he is not, and he has learned to appreciate the value of spacing, of running the floor, making plays for teammates, collecting rebounds, flashing into the lane and making himself a target.

“I couldn’t wait to get back here,” said Casspi, who signed as a free agent. “I never should have left. I told my father (Shimon) I wanted to build a trust with coach Malone. The same way we build a building, you start with the foundation. Last year, with coach (Kevin) McHale, he helped me learn to play the right way, helped me develop. Now I’m confident in what I need to do and how I can be successful and help my team be successful.”

Besides missing the ease and warmth of the Sacramento lifestyle, he remained intrigued by Cousins, his turbulent rookie season notwithstanding.

“Cuz is a monster,” Casspi said, “and he is so much better than he was, maturity-wise, and as a player. To play with a guy like DeMarcus is truly a privilege. If I make a cut, he finds me. He sees things, sees people, wants to pass and make the right play. And his defense has been terrific. I read in The Bee that he wants to be a shot-blocker, and I played with Dwight (Howard) last year, so I know what that means. Dwight changed the game defensively. DeMarcus, he has such a long wingspan, and he puts that big body on people. He has taken his game to a whole new level. There is no limit to what he can do.”

And the Kings? Their ceiling is yet to be determined, their style not yet fully defined, their identity still in the formation stages. But the 4-1 start certainly trumps the alternative, trumps the familiar.

A decent showing on the four-game trip will surely wake up anyone who has been napping away from Sleep Train Arena. The next home game is against the defending champion Spurs, and by then we will know a lot more about these Kings, about who they are, about who they might grow up to become.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

TODAY’S GAME

KINGS AT PHOENIX

▪ Time: 6 p.m.

▪ TV: CSNCA

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