On Apr. 3, 2011, I sat next to then-Sacramento Kings head coach Paul Westphal for one of our many pre-game conversations. The Kings were about to take on an embattled Utah Jazz team that was riding a seven-game losing streak and had one of the worst six-week stretches anyone could imagine.
Gone was long-time head coach Jerry Sloan, who had exited stage left following an early February tiff with Jazz management. Gone was All-Star point guard Deron Williams, who had been shipped to New Jersey in a trade for prospects and picks. The playoff run was over for the Jazz. GM Kevin O’Connor had blown up the team and left Tyrone Corbin, a rookie head coach, to clean up the mess.
I asked Westphal if he felt bad for Corbin, who was missing 60-percent of his starting line-up and many of his reserves. Taken aback, all Westphal could do was look at his own side of the court and sigh.
The Kings finished the 2010-11 NBA season with a 24-58 record, some 15 games worse than the 39-43 Jazz. If there was someone who deserved pity, it was Westphal.
While Corbin may have had a rough 28-game stint (8-20) drowning in the Hall of Fame shoes left by Sloan, Westphal had made it through his second season as Kings coach with the likes of Pooh Jeter, Luther Head, Jermaine Taylor, Antoine Wright, Hassan Whiteside, Donté Greene and the NBA’s youngest roster.
Westphal takes a beating in certain circles, but what would Jerry Sloan have done with that roster? Be honest.
The Kings have been subtly remaking themselves since the end of the 2011 season. The rebuild may have begun a little early with the drafting of DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, but those two got a taste of what it’s like to play with a group of players, many of which have never been heard from again at the NBA level.
Last offseason, Marcus Thornton was re-signed to a four-year deal, Chuck Hayes signed on as a free agent, Travis Outlaw was claimed off waivers, the Kings added Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette through the draft and John Salmons came aboard through trade.
While none of those individual deals lit the world on fire with Kings fans, the re-signing of Jason Thompson this summer, along with the free agent acquisition of Aaron Brooks, trade for James Johnson and the drafting of Thomas Robinson, has left the Kings with a deeper and more athletic team.
What is left of the 2010-11 Sacramento Kings? Evans, Cousins, Thompson, Thornton and veteran reserve Francisco Garcia. Five holdovers from a 24-58 team are all that remain.
Geoff Petrie and his staff will have to wait to see how this makeover works out before they can take credit. What’s evident is that the Kings are deeper in talent than they have been for a long time.
“I think the versatility of our team is we have all guys – none of them are the same,” Keith Smart said following last Monday’s win against Portland. “We can’t find one or two guys that are close to the same.”
The Kings took heavy heat for bringing Salmons back in the fold a year ago. The talking heads around the league were right, matching Evans and Salmons was like mixing oil and oil. You get a little too much oil.
Salmons has been an afterthought this pre-season. The veteran wing has missed the last three games with personal matters, but he has yet to establish himself in the Kings’ rotation.
Instead, Smart has the 6-foot-9 Johnson to go along with Evans, Garcia and even a rejuvenated Outlaw to play the small forward position. All are very different and very unique in what they bring to the table. An athlete, a driver and a shooter – something coach Westphal could only have dreamed.
Evans will play plenty of shooting guard and even some point guard, where he will match up with four other guards that each bring something different.
Brooks can stretch the floor, but his first step is lightning quick. Thomas can score, pass and at this point, he is probably the Kings best backcourt defender not named Evans. Jimmer is settling into a role as a gunner and part-time distributor, while Thornton is coming off a season where he led the Kings in scoring.
“I think that’s one of our biggest assets this year is our ability to be versatile,” assistant coach Jim Eyen told us on this week’s Cowbell Kingdom Podcast. “We can play small. We can play big. We can play fast. And we can play more of a half-court game. We can throw a lineup in there that can press full court and extend defenses and trap, so I think we have a lot of different combinations we can use.”
Those combinations will be anchored by legitimate NBA starters and backed by legitimate NBA talent.
The Kings can guard elite small forwards for the first time since Ron Artest was dealt to Houston before the 2008-09 NBA season. The Kings have both Johnson and Outlaw to play against stretch fours.
Thomas can defend the NBA’s smaller point guards, while Evans can take on the Westbrooks and Roses of the world.
When teams double-team a budding star in Cousins, Johnson and Robinson will cut to the hoop, while Brooks, Fredette and Thornton bomb from the outside.
For the first time in a long time, the Kings can and will challenge every team, every night. And if they don’t, they have the pieces to adjust.
This team needs a little time to stew in the pot, but gone are days of watching players take the court that don’t pass the sniff test. For the first time in a long time, the Kings go 12 deep with NBA talent. For the first time in a long time, the Kings have a chance to compete all 82 nights of the regular season.