Just when you think fate might finally be smiling on the Sacramento Kings, they fall victim to games like Wednesday night's disaster in Houston.
That the Kings lost to the Rockets, 119-98, was hardly the worst news of the evening. Instead, that (dis)honor goes to the pair of injuries suffered to franchise pillars DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay.
Gay, who was coming off a career-high 41-point performance on Tuesday night in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, was injured midway through the first quarter. According to James Ham of the Kings website Cowbell Kingdom, Gay was diagnosed with a left Achilles strain. The injury is not considered serious.
Cousins, Sacramento's up-and-coming young star center, rolled his ankle while being fouled by Houston's Patrick Beverley in the second quarter. Per Ham, he was diagnosed with a moderate ankle sprain and is listed as day-to-day.
We got out butts kicked tonight, and we're a no-excuse team. Whether Rudy and DeMarcus plays, the fact that we guarded no one tonight has nothing to do with them not being able to play in the second half.
That is a nice sentiment, but the truth is that the Kings don't have much of a shot to beat anyone without two of their best players.
If the early reports are true, and Gay and Cousins won't miss significant time, then the Kings probably won't be affected much, one way or the other. But this is a critical moment for a team like Sacramento, a team at a crossroads.
An organization will react to player injuries in one of two ways. A team competing for a playoff spot will do its best to get its players back on the court as soon as possible, particularly when the players in question are valuable, 20-point-per-game players, like Gay and Cousins. But then there are the teams on the other end of the spectrum—the teams that seemingly have more to gain by losing than by winning.
In 2013-14—otherwise known as "The Year of the Tank"—several teams seem to be doing everything in their power to avoid victory, to improve their chances of landing a top pick in what promises to be a stacked 2014 draft. These teams are more interested in racking up ping-pong balls than wins. And the 15-26, 14th-place Kings should fall squarely into that latter category.
The long-suffering Sacramento fans deserve to get Cousins and Gay back in the lineup as soon as possible. The Kings were finally playing some good basketball, winning five of their last eight games coming into Wednesday, despite a tough schedule that has seen them play Portland, at Indiana, at red-hot Memphis and at Oklahoma City. Since Gay's first game, on Dec. 13, the Kings have defeated the likes of Miami, Portland and Houston (twice).
Basketball of this quality has been hard to come by in Sacramento over the past few years. The Kings haven't had a winning season since 2005-06. The team has compiled a 187-371 record in its past seven full seasons—good for a 33.5 overall winning percentage. Malone is the franchise's seventh head coach in the past eight seasons.
High draft picks are nice and all, but the Kings have had plenty of them over the years. What they have at the moment—in Cousins, Gay and point guard Isaiah Thomas—is a legitimate core of quality players. For the first time in quite a while, the Kings have something to build on. And that building can happen right now.
Will This Injury Halt Rudy Gay's Momentum?
The Raptors canvassed damn near the entire league in their quest to become the second team in two seasons to dump Rudy Gay well in advance of the trade deadline, according to sources across the NBA.
Everyone said no, and they did so abruptly. This is how far Gay’s value has declined league-wide over the last 18 months. I know GMs who say they wouldn’t touch him now in free agency for the midlevel exception. Only one team was left: the Kings.
Sacramento took a leap of faith in acquiring Gay, who had become something of a national punching line following a disastrous few seasons, first in Memphis, then in Toronto. Even casual observers couldn't help but notice that both the Grizzlies and the Raptors seemed to get better after dumping Gay.
But then the strangest thing happened: Gay remembered how to shoot. In Sacramento, Gay has recaptured the offensive efficiency that made him an excellent scorer for the Grizzlies once upon a time.
The difference between Gay's shooting numbers and player efficiency rating in Toronto and Sacramento is remarkable.
Gay looks like a different player at the moment, but he has only played in Sacramento for six weeks...and before that he had been an offensive black hole since 2012. Both Gay and the Kings need him on the court to continue developing the rapport he has found with his new teammates.
As far as Cousins is concerned, there is far less uncertainty. Before Wednesday's game, he was officially added to the player pool for Team USA, according to ESPN's Marc Stein and Dave McMenamin.
That is a tremendous honor, and it is richly deserved. Coming into Wednesday, Cousins was ranked fifth in the league in player efficiency rating, per Basketball Reference. Even if he misses a few games, Cousins will not stop his climb of the ranks of elite NBA centers.
Cousins is the Kings' present and their future. Sacramento still doesn't have the depth or the defensive ability to climb the ranks of the tough Western Conference. The losses will still come, and Sacramento will still get that high lottery pick. But it shouldn't be afraid to push the current core of players to succeed. It could pay off big down the road.