There's actually light at the end of the tunnel for the Sacramento Kings.
Those who have followed the team for years felt things were heading in the right direction. Between a committed ownership, a new coaching staff, a reinvigorated fanbase and talented individual players, the ingredients for success were there.
Lately, the Kings have been turning those ingredients into improved results. While the team's 15-26 record is nothing to write home about, the .366 winning percentage is better than anything it has posted since 2007-08. It's even more encouraging when you consider Sacramento is 9-12 since trading for Rudy Gay.
Beyond team success, individual players are also making strides. DeMarcus Cousins is establishing himself as one of the league's elite centers. Point guard Isaiah Thomas went from borderline starter to potential star. Small forward Rudy Gay has been much more efficient since coming to Sacramento. They provide a nucleus worth building around.
The Kings still aren't where they want to be. But the big picture is now coming into focus, largely due to these seven things we learned about Sacramento during the first half of the season.
Unless indicated otherwise, stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
Team management has been quick to improve the team.
Everyone in the team's front office has the same goal: improving the team. It's not improving the team by sacrificing the present for the future. It's not improving the team as long as it doesn't cost too much money. It's simply making the Kings better.
Now, that's not to say there's no long-term vision. There is. But the hastiness with which the front office executed trades indicates it wasn't OK with the lackluster product out on the court. The Kings have already made two significant trades, and it seems they're constantly being rumored in on others as well.
To turn a franchise around, you need everyone pulling in the same direction. In the past, you couldn't necessarily say that about the Kings. The Maloofs were concerned with the payroll, and moves were made within that scope.
That's no longer the case. Everyone is pulling in the same direction and with the same idea in mind: getting the Kings back into the postseason and back toward the top of the NBA.
Mike Malone doesn't mess around.
The jury's still out on whether head coach Mike Malone is the long-term answer for the Kings. Things are certainly looking up, but it's still too early to unequivocally make that determination. What is clear, however, is that the coach is not messing around.
Watching any of his postgame press conferences after losses, you can tell losing really wears on him. He's not the type of guy who will ever get used to it either. It's simply not in his nature.
Malone got a lot of publicity for his comments following the team's Dec. 23 loss to the New Orleans Hornets. I was on hand for that one, and the whole thing had a surreal feel to it. You knew you were witnessing something special, but not in a good way. He had said negative things about the team before that night, but that's the one that gained notoriety for some reason.
The coach has been more reserved of late, but that also coincides with the team playing better. If the Kings suddenly go back into another funk, Malone will be there telling it like it is. After so many years of complacency, that's the attitude Sacramento needs from its coach.
DeMarcus Cousins has really taken off.
If you watched DeMarcus Cousins at all during his first three years in the league, you saw flashes of what he was capable of. Now, instead of seeing only flashes, we're seeing that Cousins is one of the league's elite centers.
Depending on whom you ask, DMC is rated somewhere in the top three centers in the NBA. If you reference Bleacher Report's own Adam Fromal and his long-running rankings of players at each position, you'll see he has Cousins at No. 1 among centers.
Regardless of position, Cousins is currently the only player averaging at least 23 points, 11 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He's also leading all centers in scoring and player efficiency rating, and he's fourth among centers in total rebound percentage.
Whether Cousins makes the All-Star team—recognition he's undoubtedly earned—remains to be seen. Don't fool yourself, though. Cousins is a star in this league whether or not he gets the official title that goes along with it.
Kings fans are back in full force.
Technically, this isn't about the on-court product, but it's encouraging nonetheless.
For years, Sacramento was known throughout the sports world for its rabid fans. Even before the team got good in the late '90s and early 2000s, the Kings were the hottest ticket in town. But in the lean years toward the end of the Maloofs' tenure as owners, the fan support started to wane.
Just last season, the Maloofs' final one as owners, the team was last in total attendance. Considering Sleep Train Arena is one of the league's smaller venues, the percentage of tickets sold is a better barometer. Even then, the team was 28th, selling 79.4 percent of its tickets to home games.
Just one year later, the fans are already coming back, and that's without a considerable improvement in the team or the economic climate. The Kings have sold 92.5 percent of their tickets so far, which is 16th in the league.
It's clear that Kings fans didn't go anywhere—they just didn't want to support an ownership group that wasn't committed to the on-court product or Sacramento.
Isaiah Thomas is showing himself as a long-term solution at point guard.
Ever since he came into the NBA three years ago, Isaiah Thomas has surprised with his level of play. But coming into this season, I didn't know how much more improvement the point guard could make. Needless to say, he's found another level to his game, and there are no longer questions about his long-term role with the Kings.
Thomas has made improvements in virtually every aspect of his game. He's posting career highs in scoring (19.5 points per game), field-goal percentage (.454), win shares per 48 minutes (.168) and player efficiency rating (21.6).
Perhaps most encouraging is his improvement as a distributor, which is one of his main roles as a point guard. IT is averaging 6.3 assists and has an assist percentage of 32.8 percent, both of which are career highs. He's also doing it with only a small increase in his turnovers.
His abilities as a pass-first point guard are still a work in progress. Truth be told, that wasn't the strength of his game coming into the year. But he's constantly progressing in this area. Couple that with his scoring ability, and there aren't too many point guards out there who'd be an upgrade over Thomas.
Malone has done his best to get the defense going in the right direction, but it's still a work in progress.
Since the Kings are trending upward, I've tried to stay away from pointing out too much negativity. However, if there's one eyesore worth mentioning, it's the team's defense. It's an area that still needs a lot of work.
Sacramento is currently 28th in defensive rating, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. The team is also 30th in opponent effective field-goal percentage and 28th in opponent points per game.
We've seen stretches of inspired defense from the team at times. Those need to occur with more frequency. There's also the simple fact that the Kings could use some better individual defenders. Having a good defensive system implemented by Malone helps, but nothing can replace naturally gifted defenders.
Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins provide a nucleus worth building around.
In recent years, the Kings haven't played up to their talent level. That much is clear. However, just because they were underperforming based on talent doesn't mean they were brimming with star-caliber players. With the current group of players, that's no longer the case.
To argue that the Kings have one of the most talented rosters in the league would be stupid, so I won't make that argument. The team could use more depth and more defensive stoppers, but now there's actually a nucleus worth building around.
DeMarcus Cousins is clearly the centerpiece of the operation, but Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas are no slouches. When the three of them get on a roll, this team is hard to stick with, a point that an Eastern Conference scout recently pointed out to ESPN's Marc Stein:
The Kings are relevant again. That’s why this was a good trade. Now they’ve got a point guard, small forward and center that can score 20 every night. This team still has to develop a defensive identity, but they’ve become very tough to beat on their home court and that hasn’t been the case for quite a while. They’ve taken the first step toward legitimacy. ... I’m telling you: When Sacramento’s top three guys are on, you’re not going to be able to keep up with them.
As the scout went on to mention, the team needs to be patient with the process. The Kings aren't going to go from the outhouse to the penthouse overnight. But there's actually an infrastructure here to build around. There's no sense in rebuilding, because in order to do so Sacramento would have to jettison players who are part of the long-term solution.
That hasn't been the case for a while.
Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso.