As they prepared for a tilt against the butchers known as the Indiana Pacers, the normally downtrodden Sacramento Kings were on a bit of a roll. After winning six of their last ten and riding a three game winning streak, the Kings are slowly building a foundation to begin putting it together.
DeMarcus Cousins is no longer simply seen as a tantrum throwing man-child (though many do seem to hold this not quite nuanced view) that takes bad shots and whines his team out of games. Boogie – as he is affectionately and pejoratively known as – is starting to command the respect of casual fans, opposing coaches, and his peers (unfortunately the refs still seem to hate him) and he has exploded into his destiny seemingly all at once. He’s posting career numbers in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, free throws per game, and hey, if you’re interested in stuff like PER, his is off the charts at 27.1! A flawed statistic in some ways, but as another big man who earned the loathing of NBA officials used to say, “Ball don’t lie.” To post a PER that is just beneath that of LeBron, Durant, Kevin Love, and Chris Paul…well, you are doing something right. Lucky for the Kings, Cousins is currently doing quite a lot of things right.
I’ve been particularly bullish on the Kings before. They have been reliably terrible for so very long it’s easy to forget they’ve had some really intriguing pieces holding things down in Sacramento during this long stretch of sub-mediocrity. Jason Thompson was always better than he seemed. Tyreke Evans had a historic rookie year. Marcus Thornton seemed ready to eclipse Eric Gordon (haha!) as the next premiere shooting guard of the Western Conference. Jimmer Fredette was the Mormon Steph Curry. Thomas Robinson was widely considered to be a steal. Ben McLemore was projected as the first or second player of his draft class. Isaiah Thomas is one of the craftiest and headiest tiny guys that ever dared attack the rim. And of course, rising above them all like a sullen kraken was Cousins, cursed with the dreaded “character issues” curse that allowed four teams to pass over him in the draft.
I’ve made this comparison before, but the Kings have always seemed like the darkest timeline version of the Oklahoma City Thunder. A team is terrible for a few years, is rewarded with high lottery picks, uses them on a host of talented players and yet the Kings never climbed out of hell. A failure of high level synergy, or maybe a string of coaches who had absolutely no idea how to get their guys to play defense, or just the hopelessness that sets in when there’s nothing left to play for over and over again.
The Kings are currently the 14th seed in the Western Conference. To search for silver linings seems somewhat naive. And yet, to anyone who’s actually watched the Kings play this season or followed their trajectory the last few years, the difference is palpable. Who deserves the accolades for this mini renaissance? Vivek Ranadive for pulling the trigger on separate trades for half-bust Derrick Williams and the much maligned Rudy Gay? Mike Malone for injecting some toughness and accountability into a generally torpid squad? Or the aforementioned “maturation” of DeMarcus Cousins? Let’s be realists, and say all of the above, and probably more besides. Despite all “I told you so” type predictions, the trade for Rudy Gay might have been an unqualified success. If you pretend he doesn’t get paid such an enormous amount of money (and who could forget with every human in the know being contractually obligated to reference it!) then you might see that a high-flying fearless scorer is an ideal third banana on a team just starting to coalesce.
Narratives change quickly in the NBA. A year ago Stephen Curry was a gimpy combo guard well down on the superstar pecking order. Now he’s the most exciting player in the league. Zach Randolph went from cancerous laughingstock to best player on a championship contender. Monta Ellis was similarly treated like a joke until he started lighting the world on fire with Dirk. Team success drives how we look at players sometimes. As the Kings continue to get better, NBA outcasts and punchlines and oddities like Cousins, Gay, and Thomas will be better known for the power of their respective games and not the reputations (overpaid, inefficient, and tiny person) they drag around like millstones.
The Kings get up to play for elite competition. Sometimes they win. This is a hallmark for a team in flux. Consistency will be the next step. Mike Malone has already installed a healthy sense of accountability that Paul Westphal and Keith Smart for whatever reason just never seemed able to implement. The Kings seemed like the wild wild west on the hardwood. Perhaps that was because they had owners that seemed to actively despise or at least not care whatsoever about the quality of their product and brand. Ownership that actually cares (and I use the word “cares” not as a call to sentimentality but just basic due diligence) must seem like a revelation to a young team that has been bandied about like a ping-pong ball for various municipalities across the country to bid on. There’s less chaos surrounding this team now.Less chaos, and more work to be done.
A lot of things have to go right for a bad team to make the leap. This process can seem impossible sometimes in the Western Conference. But for once, the impossibility seems to sloughed off. Rudy Gay has become the player we remember in Memphis, not the ludicrously bad chucker from Toronto. Mike Malone is putting his mark on the team with his uncompromising snarl. The Kings can continue to count on the decibel breaking support of their home crowd. Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins haven’t yet reached their peaks. For the first time since Rick Adelman manned the helm, the Kings actually seem like they have a future, not just another year of more of the same. And in some twisted world of low expectations and grading on the curve, that is absolutely something worth celebrating.