Expectations for the Sacramento Kings are finally starting to become more positive. After missing the playoffs for years, fans are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And believe me, it's been a very long and a very dark tunnel.
But despite expectations being raised, there's still uncertainty surrounding this team. So, until we actually see it on the court, it's difficult to gauge how much progress has been made. How are players developing? What type of influence will the coaching staff have? How will the new players mesh with the ones already here? Those are all questions for the Kings entering the season.
As we head into the 2012-13 season, here are six reasons to be confident or worried about the Sacramento Kings.
The Kings simply have more depth on this roster than they have in recent memory. They have a capable starting five and they have actual reserves that didn't just come off a scrap heap.
The nice thing about the way the roster's been comprised this season is there are options for Keith Smart to work with. If he feels like the defense is lagging, then he could go with a defensive lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, James Johnson and DeMarcus Cousins, or any number of options.
If the team is trailing by a bucket late and needs a score, Smart has options there. He could stick with Aaron Brooks, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins.
If the team is facing a more athletic opponent, the Kings could go with IT, Thornton, Evans, Thomas Robinson and Cousins.
He could go with small, but quick lineups; he could also go with a big lineup. No matter the scenario, Smart has different players he can plug in. That's because of the added depth on the team.
While the Kings certainly have more depth than in recent years, they're short on experience. That could make performing up to their potential a difficult task.
Despite their 22-44 record last season, the Kings were competitive in a lot of their games. That's more than you could say from other recent Sacramento teams. The problem, however, was that the team simply lost a lot of close games.
A telling stat, which I pointed out in my season predictions, is that the Kings were 16-23 in games decided by 10 points or less. It illustrates the point perfectly. Out of 66 games, Sacramento was within 10 points of its opponents in 39 of them, so being competitive wasn't the problem. The problem was that they only won 16 of those 39 contests.
Because of their experience in close games last season, the Kings should have more success closing out their opponents this season. But it's unrealistic to expect them to completely turn it around in this area.
Learning how to win games is a difficult thing. It's even more difficult when you don't have many experienced veterans to serve as mentors.
With an inexperienced team like the Kings, continuity is key. That's why it's important that head coach Keith Smart is returning this season.
Having Smart return allows the players to keep things as simple as possible. They know his personality, they know his expectations, they know what system he runs. Instead of thinking about what they should do next, they can simply react.
The same can be said from a coach's perspective. Smart knows his players' strengths, he knows their weaknesses, he knows their personalities and what motivates each one of them. It's a two-way street that will benefit both Smart and the players.
It's also fair to point out that DeMarcus Cousins really seemed to take to Smart once he took over for Paul Westphal. Cousins matured under Smart and he's willing to listen to him. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that DeMarcus and Westphal clashed, so to have a coach that meshes well with the team's best player is certainly a positive development.
Qualifying for the playoffs would be a tall order for the Kings in 2012-13. But this team is more than capable of making some serious strides. The fear, however, is that it gets beat down by an incredibly deep Western Conference.
Just looking at the playoff picture in the conference last season, every team that qualified for the postseason had a winning percentage of at least .545. That isn't likely to change much this season.
In fact, when looking at the playoff teams from a year ago, none of them really took a step back. They should all still be in the race. And the non-playoff teams also took a step forward during the offseason, with the possible exceptions of Portland and Phoenix.
So, even if the Kings have a better team, which it looks like they do, there's no guarantee that it will translate into substantially more wins with such a difficult conference schedule.
What you don't want if you're the Kings, is a situation where your improvements aren't reflected in the standings. That's a recipe for disaster because then there's the possibility of the coaching staff losing the locker room. Now, that's not likely to happen, it's merely a worst-case scenario, but it's a possibility nonetheless.
To compete in the NBA, you pretty much need a star player or two (or three in some cases). There are exceptions to the rule, but even then, those teams rarely make noise in the postseason. The Kings have their star player in DeMarcus Cousins.
Granted, Cousins has yet to make an All-Star team, so you could make a solid argument that he's technically not a star. Semantics aside, anybody that watched Cousins play last season can see his potential. And it's not just that "p-word" (potential), like he's some raw rookie years away from putting it all together. DeMarcus has a legitimate shot at being recognized as a star this season.
Don't kid yourself, if DeMarcus played in L.A., New York, Boston or Chicago, he'd already get credit for the player he's become. If a 21-year-old center (he was 21 last season) averaged 18.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks in a big market, we'd hear about him so often we'd be nauseous at the mere mention of him.
But recognition aside, because that will come with time, Cousins is the type of player the Kings have been yearning for. He's young, he's incredibly competitive, he's dedicated to improving, he plays well on both sides of the ball and he plays a premium position.
Plus, he figures to only keep maturing as a person now that Keith Smart is returning as head coach. After all, nobody questioned Cousins' talent entering the draft. The real concerns were with his character. If he's got a coach that he trusts in Smart, then the sky's the limit.
I don't expect the Kings to leave after this season, and I certainly don't want them to leave. But the fear is definitely there in the back of my head.
The Maloofs (the owners) say all of the right things. They say they're dedicated to Sacramento. But until a new arena is approved and being built, there's always the possibility they could leave.
Let's not forget, they were halfway out the door to Anaheim not too long ago. And it's not like the stadium situation is any better now than it was then.
My biggest fear all along was that the team would finally get good again, then just as it was about to have an extended period of success, it would end up moving to another city. That's exactly what happened to the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder.
What do you know? The Kings look to finally be on the verge of turning things around and there's still speculation that they'll leave Sacramento.
Again, I'm not saying it's going to happen. But stranger things have occurred. So, until this team is locked into a lease in Sacramento for the next 20 years, the possibility of relocation will always weigh on my mind.
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