The craziest thing about this Kings season? Because the Western Conference is a shell of its former self with seven weeks remaining, they are still in playoff contention. They reside in the 10th spot, four games behind the eighth-place Utah Jazz entering Thursday night, and within a scrum that includes Portland, Dallas and Houston.
But you know what that means?
It all sounds great but is less than filling.
Teams make the playoffs, and the Kings are not a team. For all the offseason talent upgrade and a lineup that features DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo, the roster is an assemblage of solo artists who tune each other out on too many nights.
It’s as if self-help bibles are tucked into every nook and cranny of the locker room. The ailment Pat Riley once referred to as “the disease of me” has become a terminal virus. The Kings feel better and play together for a few games, infusing the arena with fleeting moments of optimism and enthusiasm, then start coughing and spreading germs all over the place.
At this point, with the trade deadline passed and 26 games left, only one option remains: Turn on the imitation game.
“Pollyanna.” “Cinderella.” “Sleeping Beauty.” “Frozen.” The Kings should read all the fairy tales and listen to a little Bob Marley. The only way they redeem themselves in these final weeks of Sleep Train Arena is to pretend they like each other enough to sacrifice for the collective good, winning is more important than individual stats and contract situations, and the memories from Wednesday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs have been expunged.
“It’s tough to defend them because they don’t have a one-man ego personality,” George Karl said bluntly after his Kings’ fourth-quarter meltdown against the Spurs. “The team is a team. The script when you play San Antonio is you’re playing the Spurs. You’re not playing any one person. They played 48 minutes of movement – smart, solid, good basketball.”
These were not even the Spurs at their most poetic. Manu Ginobili is sidelined by groin injury. Tim Duncan runs as if he needs a cane. Yet before the Kings could turn their heads, the Spurs frustrated and forced a fatigued Cousins away from the basket, blocked shots and bolted downcourt, set screens, moved without the ball, passed to open shooters … converted open jumpers … passed to open shooters … converted open jumpers.
“Obviously there is a lesson to learn by the loss,” Gay said. “Watching them, (you see) how you should play basketball, how the ball should move. They help each other.”
The Spurs once again exposed all the Kings’ flaws. For all of their issues defensively, beginning with the guards’ inability to stop penetration and Cousins’ struggles protecting the rim, the Kings’ offensive limitations are equally troubling. If they can’t run, they can’t win.
Rondo amasses assists with outlets and lobs that lead to dunks or assorted field goals by the bruising, often unstoppable Cousins, but he holds the ball too long and too infrequently sets up his teammates. The elegant, immensely talented Gay refuses to play to his abilities, succumbing instead to the two-man dominance of his center and point guard. The overdribbling and one-on-one play is maddening.
The Spurs once again exposed all the Kings’ flaws.
But the most glaring weakness is the hole at shooting guard. Ben McLemore is good for a few spirited plays per game, but he doesn’t consistently make the open shot. Marco Belinelli, signed to a three-year deal in the offseason, is having a nightmare season. The former Spurs veteran is forcing shots, shooting a career-worst 29.8 percent from three-point range and 38.1 percent from the field, and is a major defensive liability.
“There is no secret that we have to improve this offseason,” general manager Vlade Divac said. “Right now we rely too much on our stars. But talent-wise, we are a much better team than we showed (against Spurs). We have letdowns. We make turnovers, miss layups, don’t pass the ball. But right now we need to take advantage of our situation. After this next road trip, our schedule becomes very favorable. We’ll see what kind of character we have.”
So back to pretending, for just a few more weeks. Karl is free to bench his Big Three when they fail to perform, give Seth Curry the minutes (and shots) that have been going to Belinelli, roll with reserves Omri Casspi, Quincy Acy and Kosta Koufos, among others, and ride with impressive rookie Willie Cauley-Stein when the selfish, sluggish side of the Kings emerges.
Next season and the new arena open in the fall. But this it is for Sleep Train, and unless the Kings morph into something more closely resembling a team, hold their nose and somehow assume another identity, this will be an unpleasant, hugely disappointing finale. It’s their choice, their house.