A year ago, the Sacramento Kings lacked an identity and were wandering aimlessly through Western Conference purgatory.
But after trading DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans, replenishing their young talent pool and signing a few seasoned veterans to team-friendly deals, the Kings are in position to take a step forward—albeit a small one—during the 2017-18 season.
And now that their schedule has dropped, it's time to look ahead and profile the games and players that could come to define what figures to be a prosperous developmental campaign.
Season Opener: Oct. 18 vs. Houston, 10 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: 500-1 (via OddsShark)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
New Orleans Pelicans: Thursday, Oct. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET
If there's one date Kings fans should circle, it's Oct. 26, when DeMarcus Cousins will make his return to Golden 1 Center and take the floor in front of the Sacramento faithful for the first time since he was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in February.
Now, to be clear, the meeting won't be the first since Cousins was dealt to the Big Easy. That showdown came on March 31, when the Pelicans thumped the Kings 117-89 at Smoothie King Center.
However, it will be fascinating to see how Cousins is received when he's reintroduced against the team he spent the first six-and-a-half seasons of his career with.
On the floor, a Kings-Pelicans clash should be a good—and wholly daunting—test for Sacramento's young bigs as they try to navigate matchups against Cousins and Anthony Davis.
But with Zach Randolph in tow ready to show Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Harry Giles the ropes,a tilt with the Pelicans should be a good proving ground for the Kings' frontcourt talents of the future to show what they bring to the table against the league's elite. That is, unless Randolph is handed a lengthy suspension after he was arrested and charged with drug possession with the intent to sell earlier this month.
Los Angeles Lakers: Nov. 22, Jan. 9, Feb. 24, April 1
The Kings and Los Angeles Lakers likely won't be competing for playoff spots this season.
However, every meeting between the Pacific Division foes should be must-see TV for one big reason: The budding rivalry between Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox.
Fox and Ball first met twice on the college hardwood during the 2016-17 campaign, and it was the former Kentucky speedster who bested his UCLA in a big spot on the national stage.
In the first meeting, Fox racked up 20 points and nine assists, while Ball managed 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds and six turnovers.
The second showdown came in the NCAA tournament's South Regional semifinal.
In an 86-75 Kentucky win, Fox went off for a game-high 39 points, four assists and just one turnover. Ball, meanwhile, sputtered his way to 10 points, eight dimes and four turnovers.
Months after his eruption, Fox told Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp his primary motivation was to "shut LaVar Ball up."
Now slated to see Lonzo four times during the regular season, Fox will have opportunities galore to achieve that goal in the Association as the Kings and Lakers embark on what could be a contentious new chapter in their rivalry.
In a crowded Western Conference, it would be unfair to expect the Kings—who are currently in the throes of a rebuild—to emerge as anything close to a playoff contender.
However, they do have the personnel necessary to make a modest leap in the win column a year after they finished 32-50.
And even though Sacramento lacks a true superstar in the mold of Cousins, a roster dotted with young studs (Fox, Labissiere, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson) and quality veterans (Randolph, George Hill, Vince Carter) should give the Kings the blend of stability and upside necessary to be competitive on a nightly basis.
The Kings' seasoned arrivals will also be tasked with accelerating the developmental process for Fox and Co. as they attempt to establish a positive culture for a franchise that has been mired in on- and off-court controversy throughout the decade.
"Compete and mentor," head coach Dave Joerger said of the vets' roles, per the Sacramento Bee's Ailene Voisin. "They've got positive voices and they're not so old that the players don't remember them playing. Sometimes that happens, young guys come into the league and they're like, 'You're who and you're trying to tell me what? I've never even heard of you.' But these guys have that relevance."
There will assuredly be growing pains along the way, but the new-look Kings have the balance necessary to avoid a tumble into the Western Conference cellar.