SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With oodles of changes this summer — from moving on to another new coach to moving into a new arena — most teams would be bursting with optimism or, at the very least, hope. Not the Sacramento Kings, who’ve traded optimism for realism as they head into the regular season.
They’ve had enough blind hope in the past, and maybe now they just know better. The Kings have been a mess for a decade. Bad draft picks, free agent signings and trades have created a jumbled roster. An ever-rotating coaching carousel has stagnated progress and further irritated the best player.
Hiring Dave Joerger seems like a step in the right direction. It wasn’t a hire viewed as a quick-fix-or-bust move as the George Karl hire was. This is more in line with the Michael Malone hire, suggesting that maybe owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac can learn from their past mistakes.
The Kings went 3-3 in the preseason, but rather than look for reasons to be excited, the team is publicly turning the wrench and looking for things to improve on.
“Every game is like a microcosm of the season,” Joerger said after their loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in their final game of the preseason. “Where you could just go away if you want to and make it easy, or we can be known as that team that’s hard to play against every night. That takes a lot of mental fortitude to do that possession after possession, to guard, to run back every possession, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Speaking with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Joerger was even more blunt:
“I’m not saying we’re trying to lose, I’m saying the wins and losses don’t matter as much as how we are, and how we play, and how we practice going forward. We’re laying down the foundation here. I know that is a lot of coach speak, but that really is what’s going on here.”
It’s not going to be easy, or even steady. The Kings averaged a league-high 21.5 turnovers per game in the preseason, including 22 in the final game against the Clippers. You could call them growing pains.
“I think we took a step back tonight, but I think we’re on the right path and that’s a positive thing,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “We’re gonna be as good as we decide to be, and it’s going to be a very important week, this upcoming week, for us, because after this everything counts.”
There were some positives to take from the preseason. The ball movement has improved, with the Kings ranking sixth in assist percentage and also boasting the highest true shooting percentage in the preseason. Small sample size, sure, but progress is measured in small steps.
Inside the locker room, there’s a lot of talk about getting used to Joerger’s scheme. Going from Karl’s helter-skelter, fast-paced offense to Joerger’s ball-control offense and emphasis on defense has been a work in progress.
“We’re finding an identity earlier than usual. We know what kind of team we want to be, we know what kind of playing style we want to play,” Cousins said.
When asked what kind of team that was, he responded curtly: “Defensive-minded team.”
Joerger is looking for tandems that play well together. He wants more two-man play between Cousins and Rudy Gay to take advantage of their size. He’s experimented with different duos in the backcourt, mixing and matching a group of Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, Garrett Temple, Arron Afflalo and Ben McLemore. He’s also looking for the right center to play with Cousins, whether it be Kosta Koufos or Willie Cauley-Stein.
Cousins figures to be the biggest part of Sacramento’s success, now and later, and Joerger is working to get the versatile center into different positions on the court. He’s embraced Cousins’ ability to convert from three-point range and facilitate. Whether Cousins is at the 4 or 5, he’s often got the ball in his hands on the perimeter, creating shots for himself or for his teammates.
Cousins’ talent is overwhelming, and while the team searches for answers everywhere else, he’ll continue to fill in the blanks where he can.
That’s going to be a tough place for Cousins to be in. At 26 years old, he’s entering the prime of his career. He’s yet to play in the postseason, and when he looks around that locker room he doesn’t see anyone remotely on his level.
“Patience would be very important. Especially for me,” Cousins laughs. “It’s going to be a process, it’s a new system, it’s a new group of guys. It’s tough for me, I’m gonna be honest, it’s tough for me. So, um, it’s going to be a process.”
Cousins is giving this newest regime a chance, and everyone around understands there isn’t time for wishing or hoping. There are too many questions facing the Kings and no quick fix. It’s about progress, and the people in charge have their heads down, just trying to put one foot in front of the other.