One of the greatest American sports rivalries of the last decade, which caught the attention of even the most casual of sports fans, and saw diehard followers of both teams spew hatred at each other up and down the Gold Coast, has a chance to be renewed in the not too distant future.
There was, and still is, genuine hatred between these two franchises, which is rare in the NBA today.
From the more than 17,000 cowbells piercing the ears of the Laker contingent every time they ventured north, to Shaq famously referring to the Kings as the ‘Sacramento Queens”, and a boxing session between Rick Fox and Doug Christie which carried over into the tunnels of the Staples Center, during a preseason game nonetheless, there clearly isn’t any love lost between these two teams.
In one of the worst officiated series in NBA history, the Lakers beat the Kings in overtime of game seven, of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. With conspiracy talk adding more fuel to the fire, and even with the Kings having had their hearts ripped from their chests, Sacramento felt primed to make another run as an NBA title contender in 2002-2003 campaign.
Chris Webbers knee injury against Dallas that year effectively ended any championship aspirations, as well as any chance at redemption against the Lakers in what would have been a second consecutive meeting in the Western Conference Finals.
It has been a tumultuous seven years for Kings fans since that point in time. The team has long since been dismembered, with the majority of that team now enjoying retirement. The Lakers however, having recovered from the Kobe vs. Shaq fiasco, have a chance this season to pull off their third consecutive championship, and cement both Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson as two of the greatest talents this league has ever seen, as player and coach respectively.
These are two franchises at two different points in their development.
The Lakers are on top of the world, and are the favorites to make it back to the Promised Land. The Kings meanwhile, are stockpiling young talent, and are a darkhorse to contend for a playoff spot going into this coming season.
Let’s take a look at five things which need to happen for the rivalry to kick into gear again, and add to the hatred which still exists between these two franchises.
The first key to the Kings actually being competitive against the Lakers is the maturation of small forward Donte Greene. Donte needs to become a more consistent performer, period.
At 6’11”, and 230 lbs, Donte has the size and athleticism to cause matchup problems at the small forward position on a nightly basis. He improved his three point shooting from 26 percent during his rookie season, to almost 34 percent last season.
He has the ability to handle the ball, create for himself off the dribble with either a step-back jumper or attacking the rim outright, and make life difficult for opposing small forwards due to his combination of height, speed, and athleticism.
He can also be a tough defensive matchup, and is making strides in that part of his game. But until the flashes we see from Donte become a nightly occurrence, he will effectively be handicapping the Kings team.
More than likely, against the Lakers, Donte will match up against Ron Artest and Lamar Odom. Both matchups will prove to be challenging for Donte, but he is one of a handful of young small forwards with the potential to match up with either, using his physicality against Artest, and his height and quickness against Odom.
An interesting side note is that Donte was acquired in the trade which sent Artest to Houston, and will try to prove Sacramento made the right decision in trading for the talent young wing.
Acquiring Landry at the trade deadline last February was a godsend for the Kings faithful. Out with soft, one-dimensional Kevin Martin, and in with the physical, multi-talented Carl Landry.
This trade helped solidify Sacramento’s transition to a more physical basketball team. Landry is one of the toughest players in all of basketball, and as such, is a much welcomed addition to the Kings frontcourt.
Carl adds a dimension to the Kings frontline they haven’t had since Chris Webber last suited up for the purple and black, a post presence.
Carl not only has the ability to take his man outside, and either hit the jumper or take him off the dribble, but he also has the ability to score inside. Combined with the fact he is one of the top offensive rebounders in the league, Landry will be a formidable piece of the Kings frontline for years to come.
Against the Lakers, Landry will spend most of his time matched up against Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. While Landry matches up well with Odom, and is quick enough to guard him on the perimeter, Pau is a nightmare for the majority of power forwards in the league. Carl has the ability to pull Gasol away from the basket, and beat him with his quickness, but the length of Pau will cause problems, as he is virtually unstoppable in the post.
This is where it gets interesting. The Kings have an unproven rookie who is constantly questioned about his maturity, and at the same time is one of the most talented and offensively gifted centers to come into the NBA in the last decade. Questions about his maturity aside, there is no mistaking the talent level and potential of this 20 year old center.
DeMarcus arguable had the best showing of anyone at the Las Vegas summer league, taking home Rookie of the Month honors for the month of July, while showing off his versatile, well-rounded game.
DeMarcus has a much better jumpshot than scouts have given him credit for, and has the ability to score away from the basket, off the dribble, in the post with either hand using a various array of post moves, and should be able to run the high-post offense with his underrated passing ability.
While he will be only a rookie this coming season, I expect DeMarcus to be a consensus top ten center by season’s end.
Splitting time with Cousins at the center position will be the newly acquired Samuel Dalembert. Dalembert’s reputation as one of the NBA’s best shot blockers and defensive rebounders speaks for itself. He will provide veteran experience and leadership, as well as much needed depth at the center position.
How well these two mesh is yet to be determined, but they have the potential to be one of a handful of NBA frontlines to match up well with the twin tower tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Sacramento will have the ability to put two seven footers on the floor at the same time. Both can play defense, rebound, block shots, and prefer a more physical style of ball. Bynum and Gasol should expect life in the paint to be much tougher this season when facing Sacramento’s own twin tower pairing, in Cousins and Dalembert.
Exactly how competitive the Kings will be against L.A. this coming season will be determined in large part by the guy they call “Reke Havoc”.
Tyreke is already a top ten point guard, and depending on his off season improvements, could push himself into the discussion of being a top five point guard by season’s end. 20/5/5 was his introduction to the NBA as a 19 year old rookie, and Tyreke will continue to build on the potential a 20/5/5 rookie season suggests he has.
Tyreke can get to the rim at will, against single, double, or triple coverage. His ability to penetrate sets up open shots for teammates. His versatility on defense allows him to guard point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. He is an excellent rebounder for the point guard position, and often will grab the defensive rebound and start the fastbreak, either finishing himself or creating for a teammate.
Tyreke’s jumper needs work, a lot of work. We will see how much his stroke has improved in a few months time. If Tyreke can hit his jumper with any kind of consistency, he will be virtually un-guardable.
The Lakers have one of the most gifted players to ever grace a basketball court in Kobe Bryant, the superstar of superstars. There is only one player in the league capable of elevating Lebrons game, and that is exactly what Kobe did during his time with Team USA leading up to the Olympic games in Beijing.
Sacramento feels they have one of the game’s next superstars in Evans.
In order to be competitive against the Lakers, your team needs a star caliber player. You need a player that can get his shot when no one else can, and can create opportunities when they seemingly aren’t there. L.A. is the best defensive team in basketball, and when they clamp down you need a star talent to have a fighting chance. Tyreke is that star talent, and gives the Kings that fighting chance.
The depth of talent on the bench is a key to every team’s success. When this rivalry was at its peak, the Kings had the “bench mob”, led by Bobby Jackson, Jon Barry, Scott Pollard and Hedo Turkoglu. They provided instant energy, toughness, and hustle coming off the bench.
The present day Kings bench doesn’t offer the same level of talent, but it’s definitely a level or two above what Sacramento fans have witnessed the past few seasons.
The Kings projected opening day lineup will consist of Tyreke Evans, a healthy Francisco Garcia, Donte Greene, Carl Landry, and DeMarcus Cousins, leaving a number of talented players to fill a role off the bench.
Samuel Dalembert, Jason Thompson, Omri Casspi, and Beno Udrih will provide a surplus in bench talent the Kings haven’t had in years, with Hassan Whiteside expected to receive spot minutes as a rookie. Dalembert will help protect the paint, while Casspi and Udrih should provide an instant spark off the bench, with Beno coming off his best season as a professional.
The Sacramento bench is deeper and more talented than the Laker bench, and it will be interesting to see what impact the Kings bench will have when Kobe and Gasol are on the bench.
In closing, no, I do not expect the Kings to upset the Lakers in the playoffs this year, or next. However, I do expect the Kings to challenge for a playoff berth, and the games between these two franchises to be much more competitive than they have been in recent years.
Hands down, the Lakers are the favorite to repeat. But this rivalry, which has been dormant for years, will start to re-kindle itself and begin to show life once again.
It’s just the beginning, and this rivalry will pick up momentum. Kings fans and Lakers fans, lets enjoy the journey back to cowbells, constant trash talk, and the battle between Northern and Southern California.