First, a little perspective: The Kings are in Sacramento, not Anaheim or Los Angeles. The downtown arena that already has altered the landscape opens in October. The games and the concerts and the circus play on.
But the team is in a funk.
Offense, defense, camaraderie, desire. The Kings are about as appealing as week-old turkey. Their 2015-16 version of “Star Wars” has been anything but a hit. Those were boos directed at the Sleep Train Arena floor during Wednesday’s loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. And while simple math reveals a lot – starting with the Kings’ 12-20 record and all those awful defensive stats – the organization’s predicament is significantly more complicated.
Changing hearts and minds takes more than a few months. Assembling a roster of skilled, complementary professionals takes even longer. General manager Vlade Divac came back to a tough job, though as he likes to say, he is just getting started.
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The roster flaws are increasingly evident, and some are inherited. The absence of a legitimate starting two-guard and elite wing defender are factors, and while injured Willie Cauley-Stein was inconsistent, as are most rookies, his length and athleticism help slow penetration and protect the rim. Fortunately, the lanky 7-footer is expected to return for the upcoming trip to Oklahoma City and Dallas.
But a team – any team – is only as good as its best players, and DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay are about as compatible these days as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And not nearly as engaged. Gay is a prototypical stretch four who envisions himself as a small forward and, despite the presence of his friend and playmaking point guard Rajon Rondo, appears to have completely lost his confidence and his way.
His biggest problem is that he is out of shape. ... DeMarcus needs to figure out (at what weight) he needs to be, and then get there. Otherwise, he’s never going to be healthy.
Charles Barkley, Hall of Famer and TNT analyst
Cousins is another matter, a larger concern, a conundrum of epic proportions. The league is trending faster, and he is reluctant to run. Opposing coaches urge their players to bust downcourt because the Kings’ sixth-year veteran strolls from offense to defense. He has the freedom to pull up and shoot three-pointers in rhythm but is expected to do so selectively; instead, he frequently launches deep jumpers out of fatigue and too seldom attacks the basket on quick hits and screen-rolls.
The underlying issue to this Cousins-George Karl tango – the issue that must be resolved for the Kings to earn a mention in any playoff chase – is the center’s poor physical conditioning.
“His biggest problem is that he is out of shape,” Charles Barkley said during his recent visit. When it was noted that the Round Man was never an Adonis, the Hall of Fame forward and TNT analyst laughed but added: “I learned during my career. Moses Malone told me to lose weight in 10-pound (increments). I started at 292, then got down to 282. Then down to 272. Then to 262. When I got below 250, we realized that was too light. So I was always best around 252. DeMarcus needs to figure out where he needs to be, and then get there. Otherwise, he’s never going to be healthy.”
The Kings closely guard the 6-foot-11 center’s weight and body fat percentage. Clearly, he’s not the player who labored during the Las Vegas Summer League before his rookie season. But his condition fluctuates wildly, and for large chunks of the past two seasons, he has been ill, slowed by nagging injuries and perhaps most noticeably gimpy and unable to gain any lift in the low post.
His numbers reflect the confounding nature of his talent. He is averaging 24.1 points and 10.3 rebounds but is shooting a career-low 41.8 percent. The drop in his production and his philosophical differences with Karl continue to generate conversation within the league. Unless the two figure out a two-step, eventually one or both will be gone. That’s how the league operates. For Cousins, who is 25 and approaching his prime, who battles his temperament as well as his weight, an All-Star and Olympics berth also are at stake.
41.8 DeMarcus Cousin’s career-low shooting percentage
So what are the odds? For either squad?
“We’re monitoring everything,” USA Basketball executive director (and new 76ers executive) Jerry Colangelo said Wednesday. “I’m not going to get into any names or talk about candidates, but we want to see how they play this season, what kind of shape they’re in, look at their relationships on and off the court.”
Well, it’s a new day, a new year. The Kings need Cousins to jump through a few hoops and, mostly, to jump a few ropes.