These next four games will do it. By the time the Kings return home to play the Cleveland Cavaliers, the season effectively will have ended or they will have made a spirited comeback and revived their Western Conference playoff prospects.
But don’t run to the casinos and bet the latter.
Out of the mouth of Omri Casspi, the most upbeat of Kings, came this discouraging utterance late Monday: “We are not a playoff team. We’re not worthy of it. We’re not worthy of the playoffs right now, I think.”
The lower tier of the playoff bracket is wide open, but the Kings can’t find the door. As they left Tuesday for a four-game road swing to Memphis, Dallas, San Antonio and New Orleans, they were a downtrodden bunch, humbled by home losses to the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The tone of the defeats was far more troubling than the final scores. Forget the video craze generated by DeMarcus Cousins and his faux punch against the Thunder’s Steven Adams or Rajon Rondo’s bizarre refusal to accept the ball from a referee. The Kings proved eminently capable of competing against three of the league’s better teams before proving they are totally incapable of overcoming the first hint of adversity.
Smack them once, down they go. Smack them again, a game becomes a rout.
“I think we’re all frustrated,” coach George Karl said. “We seem like we’re doing good some good things and then all of a sudden we hit a black hole or they (opponents) get a momentum swing. There’s no question when we get the black hole, or the emotional breakdown, or the physical breakdown, we give in a little bit.”
The Kings perform like a team that craves victories but can’t stand success. After coming out of the All-Star break with back-to-back victories over the Denver Nuggets, hinting at the possibility of a late-season playoff chase, their offense has been reduced to a showcase for overdribbling and one-on-one play. Worse yet, they allowed 108 points against the Spurs, 117 against the Clippers and 131 against the Thunder.
There simply is no defending that. The Kings guard opponents as if getting too close or too physical ensures they’ll catch a virus. They rotate to three-point shooters as if fearful of breaking a sweat. They don’t believe in the schemes and/or refuse to execute them, and consequently, they rank last in the league in points allowed.
Karl has to figure something out – and quickly.
Meantime, Casspi is right. The Kings are not “worthy” of the postseason, which is what makes these next four games so important. While the organization’s systemic issues will not disappear overnight – Vlade Divac still needs an experienced general manager, his front office remains too thin, his roster looks good on paper but lacks cohesion and basketball gravitas – the NBA is a constantly changing season. Teams have climbed out of holes when least expected.
And of all seasons, in the final year at Sleep Train Arena, this would be the time to awaken from the latest nightmare.
The schedule eases after the four-game trip, but that’s only relevant if the Kings do well on this trek. The Grizzlies have lost Marc Gasol for the season. The Mavericks are experiencing their own internal discord between coach Rick Carlisle and Chandler Parsons. The Spurs are ridiculous, amazing, incredible, etc., but then it’s on to New Orleans, where the injured Pelicans spend half the season in the emergency room.
Elaborating on his team’s struggles late Monday, Casspi praised the Thunder and sounded like someone hoping for a lightning strike.
“There’s a chip on their shoulders,” he said. “We don’t have that right now. We lost a few games in a row and we’re not bringing the same mentality. They have it. They did it. They’re proving it. The good teams bring it.”