For the first time in a long time, you can look at the Sacramento Kings and definitively say they're heading in the right direction.
Ownership is starting to invest some money into its product, despite some fans' rightful impatience with them. Along with spending money comes an improved roster in terms of both skill and depth off the bench.
On top of those developments, it looks like Sacramento has found a long-term solution at head coach with Keith Smart.
All in all, it points to brighter days in California's capitol.
Here are seven signs the Sacramento Kings are on the right track.
For the past couple of seasons the knock on the Kings' ownership was that they weren't willing to spend money. Or, as some Kings fans would have put it, the Maloofs (Sacramento's owners) simply didn't have money to spend.
Well, you can no longer make that case. The team spent money this offseason signing point guard Aaron Brooks, re-signing restricted free agent Jason Thompson and trading for James Johnson.
Heading into the season, the Kings have $57.9 million committed in player salaries. That's only about $100,000 under the league's $58.04 million salary cap for 2012-13. That shows ownership is willing to spend the money to field a competitive product.
Even with the owners willing to spend money, the fact of the matter is that a team in Sacramento can't build through free agency. High-profile players just don't want to go to Sacramento as free agents. The Kings need to build through the draft and through trades, which is exactly what they have done.
The team drafted DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth pick in 2010. Cousins has looked excellent his first two years in the NBA. Last season, he averaged 18.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. Needless to say, he's a piece the Kings would like to build around.
Sacramento was also able to draft Tyreke Evans in 2009. Evans won Rookie of the Year in 2009-10 and is still only 22 years old. He's proven to be a versatile player, capable of playing anywhere from point guard to small forward.
On top of drafting Evans and Cousins, the Kings also were able to trade for Marcus Thornton during 2010-11. Thornton averaged 18.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists last season. He's also displayed an ability to perform in crunch time and knock down game-winning shots. Like Evans and Cousins, Thornton is relatively young as he recently turned 25.
Those are three players the Kings can build around and they're all 25 or younger.
Unlike in the past couple of seasons, the Kings actually have a formidable starting lineup. It's a lineup that's got some quality players and one that, at least in terms of talent, should match up well with opponents. Here's how the starting lineup is currently projected:
Point guard: Aaron Brooks
Shooting Guard: Marcus Thornton
Small Forward: Tyreke Evans
Power Forward: Jason Thompson
Center: DeMarcus Cousins
In Cousins, the Kings have one of the top up-and-coming big men in the NBA. At power forward, Jason Thompson took some real steps forward last season, especially rebounding the basketball. While he may be a bit undersized for the 3, Tyreke Evans should have the quickness to pose problems for the opposition.
Marcus Thornton, like Evans, doesn't have the ideal size for his position, but he's got enough range and consistency in his shot to force defenders to play up on him but enough speed and ball-handling ability to blow by them when they crowd him too much.
Point guard could go either way between Aaron Brooks and Isaiah Thomas. But Brooks has the edge in experience, and if he can duplicate what he did for the Rockets a couple seasons ago, his ceiling will be higher than Thomas'.
Along with an improved starting five comes actual depth on the bench. In the past, this team had no depth on its roster, so players who should have been reserves were starting and players who should have been in the D-League were backups. Now there are roles off the bench and players who fit those roles.
Chuck Hayes, from his time in Houston, has shown us that he can be one of the game's best backup centers. He's a good rebounder and a good post defender.
John Salmons and the newly acquired James Johnson can both be lock-down defenders and they can both guard multiple positions. Salmons can guard the 2 or 3, while Johnson can guard the 3 or 4.
The Kings are fortunate to have a point guard of Isaiah Thomas' caliber coming off the bench. Thomas can really command an offense, and he averaged 11.5 points and 4.1 assists as a rookie but only committed 1.6 turnovers per game.
Jimmer Fredette could be the sharpshooter the Kings have desperately needed. However, Jimmer struggled to adjust to the NBA game as a rookie. He'll need to become more aggressive with his shot and quit jumping before he decides what he's going to do with the ball. Those are two things that plagued Jimmer all season, and they're areas he must improve.
Last, but certainly not least, the Kings have an excellent prospect in power forward Thomas Robinson. Robinson was drafted No. 5 overall out of the University of Kansas and has the physical tools to be a real impact player, even as a rookie.
Although Keith Smart may not have a ton of experience or success as a head coach in the NBA, he's someone the team feels comfortable with. That's evident because the Kings signed Smart to an extension recently.
Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie signed off on the deal and thinks that Smart is the guy to lead Sacramento into the future.
"We had talked about it at length somewhat after the season, after the draft," Petrie said. "We just really moved forward on it in the last couple of weeks. It's something I'm really in favor of. He's the right coach at the right time for the group of players."
Whether or not Smart will be a success remains to be seen. But considering that the team has had four different head coaches since the start of the 2008-09 season, now is the time to pick a guy and stick with him for a couple of seasons.
It looks like Smart is that guy.
Sacramento was the worst defensive team in the NBA last season. The Kings allowed the most points per game at 104.44, and had the highest opponent field-goal percentage at 47.6 percent. The defense is something that has to be improved and the team has made some of the necessary steps to do it.
They brought in James Johnson from the Raptors. Johnson is an excellent wing defender, who is also capable of playing in the post against power forwards. Chuck Hayes was plagued with a shoulder injury for much of last season, but if Hayes can stay healthy, he's a good defender.
On top of that, the Kings have two capable backcourt defenders in Francisco Garcia and John Salmons. While both have certainly been disappointments in comparison to their salaries, they both still have the ability to be above-average defenders.
Plus, now that Keith Smart is here to stay for a while, Sacramento should be running the same defensive system as last season. Only now, the team has the added bonus of working on it during training camp (which it was not able to do in 2011-12 because Paul Westphal was head coach at the start of the year).
On July 27, Jason Jones, the Kings beat writer for the Sacramento Bee wrote an article titled, "Cohesion Key to Kings Improvement."
Well, Jones hit the nail right on the head with that one. If the Kings want to make some drastic improvements this year, they'll have to play as a team.
Granted, the Kings aren't the most talented team in the NBA, but they need to play at a level that reflects their talent.
Sacramento is 88-224 over its last four seasons. That's a win percentage of .282. There's absolutely no excuse for the team to only win 28 percent of its games this season. Not even close. It needs to be at least 40 percent, if not higher, in order to reflect the talent on the roster.
But the only way the Kings are going to get there is if they play as a team.
One encouraging sign is that a majority of the players are already in Sacramento working out together voluntarily.
"There were 10 players in town last week working out voluntarily, on their own dime, at the Kings facility. That's ... sulia.com/c/basketball/f…"
Jason Jones. August 6, 2012. 2:16 p.m.
In order to play to their capabilities, the Kings need to play as a team. By getting as much time on the court together as possible, it shows the Kings are on their way to doing that.
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