The Kings have experienced the wrath of the basketball gods several times these past few weeks, occasions when jumpers miss the rim, an opponent converts from beyond the arc at the buzzer, or the perimeter defense goes on an extended sabbatical.
But if these Kings get a grip?
The Western Conference would welcome them back to the NBA playoffs, perhaps even offer choice seating (seeding). This region of hoops country is far from what it used to be. Two weeks into the new year, the roller coaster Kings are still very much in the game despite a 15-21 record, the usual suspensions and ejections, and their erratic, at times maddening, play.
The standings are their best buddies right now. In an almost unrecognizable, no longer dominant conference, they were a half-game out of a potential postseason berth Saturday when the defending champion Golden State Warriors arrived for their regular-season farewell to Sleep Train Arena.
The crowds. The noise. The rivalry. So many California connections. Before the Warriors continued their mastery over the Kings with a 128-116 victory, coach Luke Walton reminisced about winning the CIF Division III title here with San Diego’s University High in 1998. Klay Thompson not only captured a high school championship in the old barn, he set records with seven three-pointers. Warriors president Rick Welts commutes to the Bay Area from his family home in Carmichael. On and on it goes ...
The allure of a possible Warriors-Kings opening round matchup is almost irresistible. Or maybe not. For Kings veteran Rajon Rondo, absolutely not.
“I never say anything about the eighth (spot),” Rondo cautioned. “I’m thinking about the fifth or sixth spot. I don’t want to set the bar so low that you just want to get in. Who wants to play Golden State in the first round? Or San Antonio? Neither one. I’m trying to get in a little deeper.”
The Warriors and Spurs, of course, are the class of the conference, in a league of their own when it comes to passing, moving, cutting, screening, defending, conditioning. And need we mention drafting acumen and front-office smarts? Their workplace is the NBA anomaly, an assembly line that produces a creative, charismatic product that ranks among the leaders in most of the significant metrics.
The second tier consists of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams quietly reasserting themselves in the “don’t forget about me” category.
But then there is everyone else: The proud, stubborn, but aging Dallas Mavericks; the proud, aging, offensively challenged Memphis Grizzlies; the James Harden Houston Rockets, whose center (Dwight Howard) appears increasingly mortal and no longer rushes out of phone booths; the injury-depleted Utah Jazz; the talent-stripped Portland Trail Blazers; the ailing Denver Nuggets; Minnesota Timberwolves; Phoenix Suns; etc., etc., etc.
Somewhere in this scrum sit the Kings, a franchise with flaws but not without talent or experience, though still confounded by the notion of a consistent collaborative effort. Those five men defending on a string? Thinking and moving like one? No sign of that yet.
“They’re trying to figure out their identity,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said the other night. “What kind of culture, what kind of organization, what does your organization stand for? We had that for years. San Antonio has had that for decades.”
So back to the Kings-Warriors. While the Kings have progressed lately, they are still searching for an identity. They want to run but do so only in spurts, too often stroll downcourt or don’t rebound and force turnovers. They want to move the ball in the halfcourt, but the offense routinely becomes stagnant, with the execution hampered by casual screens, careless passes and too many hurried, ill-advised jumpers. They want to win – they all say they want to win – but still struggle to make the big plays or do the little things that dictate the outcome of games.
“I can’t say we know who we are yet,” Rondo added. “We’re getting there. When we get stops and get out and run, we’re one of the best teams in the league because we have so many weapons. But we have to sustain it for 48 minutes.”
That other element worthy of note? As the Kings again are tested by the best? DeMarcus Cousins is inching toward his All-Star form, which is essential for the Kings to entertain any thoughts about a playoff push and another crack at the champs.
In other words, as Boogie’s mood swings, so go his Kings.