SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Meanwhile, back in reality, they’re still the same Kings on the court, a team that not only can’t stay in games but already can’t be bothered to deign maximum effort in such a rapid descent that even the greatest of skeptics couldn’t see it coming. (Hello, Seattle.)
Growing pains for an operation with a rookie owner, a rookie GM and a rookie coach is one thing, but this is a roster filled with veterans that needed about a week to start looking like it’s the fourth game in five nights in April and the U-Haul is packed and idling in the driveway. Fans, sold on the promise of a new day but still getting the old one, lasted until the third home contest to boo the effort. Michael Malone, the new coach who promised accountability, has followed through by calling out players and making three lineup changes.
This would be the start to another bad season except that this was never supposed to be just another season. This was the start of the revival after the league voted to turn back the Seattle threat and keep the team in Sacramento, the sunshine coming through after years of ownership in quicksand, the first steps in the recovery. There was a love affair again. New majority owner Vivek Ranadive won over the city because his name was not Maloof. Hiring Malone as coach and Pete D’Alessandro as general manager was a risk by Ranadive in having two first-timers in the jobs, but otherwise sound additions of smart, experienced basketball men with bright futures. Trying to trade up in the draft to get Ben McLemore and then having McLemore fall to the Kings at their original No. 7 surely had to be a sign of how much their world was changing.
If only they didn’t have to, ya know, play.
The Kings opened with a victory over the Nuggets that followed the script – a celebration at Sleep Train Arena of the team still being in town, curtain calls at mid-court for mayor Kevin Johnson, commissioner David Stern and Ranadive, an energy-filled win. The feel-good moments got a little sparse from there.
When the Denver win was followed by falling behind the Clippers by 15 points before losing by nine and then trailing the Warriors by 27 before losing by 11, Malone knew he had a problem. Atlanta: a 19-point deficit. Portland: 14. Portland again: 22.
Six games into the season, and the Kings were already having issues with effort.
“I didn’t see it in training camp, didn’t see it in most of our – I think, really, any – of our preseason games,” Malone said heading into the next game, against Brooklyn. “And then all of the sudden Golden State, that first back-to-back, is when I first saw it. That was, ‘OK, this is the first time I’ve seen that. I hope this is not who we are.’ I’ve just been seeing it too often since then. It’s there and we’ve addressed it. We’re not trying to ignore it. That’s why we’re changing lineups and putting new guys out there, finding guys that will go out there and play with great energy.”
McLemore for Marcus Thornton at shooting guard, Jason Thompson for Patrick Patterson at power forward, with the obligatory disclaimer from Malone that he wasn’t blaming the two benched players for the 1-5 start. (How would anyone ever get that idea?) And then the Kings responded with great energy in beating the Nets by 21, suggesting Malone had a solution.
Or not. Two days after that, the Kings lost at home to the Pistons. Malone followed with another move, Luc Mbah a Moute for John Salmons at small forward, leaving center DeMarcus Cousins and point guard Greivis Vasquez as the only season-long starters, and that didn’t help. Sunday, Sacramento scored 34 points against the Grizzlies in the first half, fell behind by 20 early in the third quarter, Malone made four substitutions en masse with 7:37 left in the period, and the Kings lost 97-86.
“We’e changed the lineup twice now,” Malone said afterward. “The first was Marcus and Patrick, and then tonight we’re starting Luc. When you’re 2-7, I guess sometimes I find myself constantly searching for a group that’ll go out there and play the right way. We made those subs pretty quickly in that third quarter because the group that was out there, as a group, was not playing the way that we need to play, and it’s unacceptable to me.”
The Kings have already lost four games by at least 11 points and been called out by their coach for inadequate energy twice. The season is barely one-tenth old and playing hard for 48 minutes is an accomplishment.This is more of the same, not growing pains.